Le Havre and Marseille are fascinating cities for lovers of modern architecture.
Mention the word concrete in connection with architecture and it might cause a sneer or, at the very least, a polite dismissal. Yet, since the destruction of World War II, France has championed modernity in all its forms. That modernity has included a passionate embrace of both raw concrete ( béton brut) and tamed, resulting in constructions of austere beauty and enduring functionality.
Thanks to the likes of Auguste Perret, Le Corbusier and generations of other innovators, France has arguably led the charge in concrete architecture. At opposite ends of the country, Le Havre and Marseille offer a satisfying glimpse of some of the brightest jewels in that concrete crown. During the war, the centre of Le Havre – France’s second-largest port after Marseille – was almost entirely destroyed by Allied bombing raids, in advance of the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944.
The task of rebuilding was given to Auguste Perret (1874–1954) – one of the great pioneers of modern architecture, particularly in the use of reinforced concrete as a building material. However, he remains less well-known outside his native France than some other early modernist giants such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (A young Le Corbusier worked as a draughtsman in Perret’s office from 1908-1910, and later said of him: “In France, there is someone who is really developing modern architecture.”)
The reconstruction of Le Havre came at the end of Perret’s illustrious career, and he already perfected his use of reinforced concrete to create a new classical order in works such as the Mobilier National in Paris and the Église Notre-dame du Raincy on the outskirts of the capital.
All the defining characteristics of Perret’s mature building style are apparent in Le Havre’s reinforced concrete architecture: the exposed, uniform, grid-like structural framework, the use of prefabricated concrete blocks, carefully selected and contrasting concrete finishes (bush-hammered, mechanically sanded, gravel-brushed and more), the use of concrete latticework and glass. The concrete architecture of the city centre was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2005.
A good place to start your exploration of Le Havre’s concrete heart is the hôtel de ville (town hall), designed by Perret and built between 1952 and 1958. The imposing building stands on the north side of a vast square, with giant columns in the classical style along its main facade (which cleverly double as rainwater drains), and a 72-metre-high tower offering the public unsurpassed panoramic views from its broad 17th-floor balcony.
The hôtel de ville’s giant columns cleverly double as rainwater drains