Vive Le Havre
The French port city’s history began in the Renaissance — and nearly ended in World War II
When Julia Child arrived in Le Havre in 1948, disembarking the oceanliner America for a new life in France, she described the port: “giant cranes, piles of brick, bombed-out empty spaces, and rusting half-sunk hulks left over from the war.”
Nearly 70 years later, my young daughters are riveted to a trottinette (scoooter) competition at the beachfront skate park, swaying to the music that has drawn young and old alike to bask in the spring sunshine on the promenade. Dogs are pulling at their leashes; hand-holding couples gaze at the marina yachts; a retiree plays with his new drone on the beach.
On the occasion of the city’s 500th anniversary, we’re on a spring weekend getaway from our Paris home. Behind us, St. Joseph’s Church lords over the bustling port, the busiest in France for shipping-container traffic. It’s hard to believe that this soaring landmark rose from the city’s near-complete devastation during World War II. As a result of the Allies’ bombardment of Le Havre in September 1944, 80 percent of the city was annihilated.
The church is credited to architect Auguste Perret, who rebuilt the city from nothing. His achievement was recognized
in 2005, when Le Havre’s city center became the 20th century’s first urban complex to be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This year’s 500th anniversary celebration — a jam-packed calendar of events for “Un Été au Havre” (“A Summer in Le Havre”) — builds on that recognition. With a 20-million-euro (about $23 million) program featuring top artistic talent, Le Havre is pulling out all the stops.
“We want to show off the city’s identity; to bring people here, cast aside their prejudices, and invite them to discover the real Le Havre,” said Édouard Philippe, then Le Havre’s mayor and now the French prime minister, at a February news conference in Paris. “Once visitors arrive, it’s easy to seduce them.”
How to quickly rebuild a city and house the war victims who had lost everything? Postwar architect Perret, whose Paris studio was entrusted with the project, turned to a new material: reinforced concrete. It wasn’t just a cheap solution. Perret had grown up with a stonemason father who later had a concrete production facility in Montmartre. Perret saw the beauty and potential of this pragmatic, “man-made stone” as he called it.
Disembarking the Paris train, I couldn’t help but wonder: Can concrete be beautiful?
But on a city walking tour with guide Françoise Prigent, I’m a quick convert. Perret’s urbanplanning principles created an open, breathable city of wide boulevards and 150 harmonious residential blocks of uniform height. You can see the ships in port all the way at the end of the Rue de Paris, a play in perspective that makes it feel almost as if you can reach out and touch them. You never forget that this is a “ville de voyage,” with its city center directly positioned on the sea.
My 4-year-old daughter notices the polished pebbles embedded in the facade of St. Joseph’s Church, placed there by Perret’s builders after they were fished from the Seine. Cecilia loves collecting stones and emptying her pockets of treasures into secret hiding places in her room. At the entrance to the church, she reaches out to touch the beige flint, even trying to pull out the stones. Nearby, College Raoul Dufy, a school, has a rose hue because of a different concrete mix. And the city hall’s cement was mixed with white marble powder.
These colors are radiant in the pearly light of Normandy so appreciated by the Impressionist painters. “My concrete is more beautiful than stone,” Perret said, “I work it, I chisel it.”
Stepping inside St. Joseph’s Church, I’m astounded by the echoing enormity of this modern masterpiece, with its structural skeleton proudly visible — as Perret insisted it be. Built from a whopping 50,000 tons of concrete and 700 tons of steel, the square church rests on a foundation of 71 pilings going 15 meters down into the earth. Concrete pillars ascend to the heavens; a kaleidoscope of rainbow light, from the 12,768 panes of glass created by artist Marguerite Huré, reflects on the austere walls.
Cecilia, 4, and her sister Jane, 6, immediately notice how the congregation is sitting in vintage cinema seats rescued from a partially destroyed movie theater. Like a lighthouse visible at sea, the tall church is dedicated to the 5,000 citizens who lost their lives during the war. Perret told his students, “Make the concrete sing!” Nowhere is it more audible than inside St. Joseph’s.
On the walls near the church entrance, black-and-white photos depict Le Havre after the bombardment. There’s one of white-haired Perret, the visionary architect clad in his signature three-piece suit and bow tie, standing in the rubble. He died in 1954 at 80, four years before the church was completed.
A few blocks away is the emblematic Avenue Foch, a street the children grow to love because of the sleek tramway that glides down a grassy median. For them, it’s endless entertainment, just like the old-fashioned funicular that connects the lower and upper portions of Le Havre.
Designed to be the city’s equivalent of the Champs-Elysees, this elegant avenue is lined with apartment buildings whose forms are rooted in classical architecture. Columns are a reference to the ancient temples of antiquity; the first-floor balconies allude to the noble floor — the level with the highest ceilings and most elegant spaces — in medieval dwellings, below which an arcade of stores draws shoppers. Carved into the facades at ground level are individual basreliefs depicting the “illustrious children of Le Havre” — including writers, maritime workers, painters and even the ancestral Vikings.
As day melts into evening, Perret’s apartment blocks illuminate the fiery sunset, while at night, the apartment windows give off a warm, yellow glow and we fall under the city’s spell. We tuck into sesame-encrusted tuna tataki at Les Enfants Sages — Jane and Cecilia love that the restaurant’s name translates “the well-behaved kids,” which they manage to be thanks to an extra serving of frites. Afterward, we skip through Perret’s nighttime streets to our lovely room at the nautically themed Hotel Vent d’Ouest.
It’s fun to peek inside a model apartment from the 1950s, which the mayor’s office maintains in a classic Perret building to depict what life was like for the postwar tenants. Decked out with midcentury modern furniture and filled with natural light, the apartment exudes comfort and convenience. My first thought: I could live here! Novelties at the time included central heating, built-in closets and an open kitchen filled with modern electrical gadgets — fridge, toaster and washing machine. These American imports were exciting innovations at the time. I make a mental note of another Perret principle, that every window should provide a glimpse of both sky and verdure.
Today, tourists can actually sleep inside a Perret building at the affordable Hotel Oscar, a 1950s-themed hotel that has a terrific location facing another city landmark, Le Volcan. This white, conical “volcano” was designed by famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1982. Inside is a national theater, while next door, the “Petit Volcan” houses the Oscar Niemeyer Library. In contrast with Perret’s linear lines, Niemeyer’s structures are all curves. It’s not a “shh-shh” atmosphere; with a cafe and workshops, the light-filled space feels like a cool community center. I spin around in the drool-worthy designer chairs while Jane and Cecilia flip through comic books and Pierre, my husband, snaps photos of the spectacular spiral staircase.
When we wake up to rain on Sunday, we explore yet another architectural achievement: Les Bains des Docks, a white-onwhite pool complex designed by architect Jean Nouvel. Inspired by ancient Roman baths, the building is covered in 32 million tiny mosaic tiles. The indoor-outdoor space comprises 10 different pools, adults-only hammams, Jacuzzis, solariums and more. We jump in and join les Havrais in their dimanche reveling. We take turns flying down the waterslide, alternating soaks in the family Jacuzzi with a daring dip beneath the outside waterfall.
Watching how happily they embrace their city’s buildings, how infused with life they are, I think back to how Perret described his urban plan in 1945: “The city will exude an impression of rhythm and unity, which will not be a shapeless cluster of disparate dwellings, but an organic and living urban complex.”
Coffee and cotton
Le Havre’s history goes back to François I, the Renaissance king. On Feb. 7, 1517, this larger-thanlife monarch (literally gigantic at nearly 6-foot-7) ordered the foundation of “un havre,” a defensive port, where French ships could set sail to explore and conquer the New World. Vestiges of the ancient city that remain make you empathize with the traumatized, postwar population that was so wistful for the beautiful heritage lost.
Take, for example, the Maison de L’Armateur, the shipowner’s mansion, with a facade sculpted in Louis XVI style, the only surviving building from the 18th century. Now a museum, its rooms are designed around an octagonal light shaft capped with a skylight. A replica of this house has been built on Long Island, curator Élisabeth Leprêtre tells me, possibly inspired by a Tribeca Film Festival screening of a movie (Dana Levy’s “Dead World Order”) filmed at the Maison. Boasting an impressive collection of artifacts, the house is set up to show how the bourgeoisie lived at the time — many of these merchants had grown rich on the notorious “triangular trade” between Africa, the Americas and Europe.
In front of the Maison de L’Armateur once was a quay where tons of merchandise were unloaded — coffee and cotton, chief among them. Today, Le Havre remains one of the world’s top coffee ports, and you can catch a whiff of roasting beans from artisanal coffee roasteries including the excellent Cafe Duchossoy.
“It was here in Le Havre that the Marquis de Lafayette was presented with a medal of honor by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson in 1779,” Leprêtre explains. “This port was crucial for the American Revolution; Beaumarchais transported arms to the American war effort.” Later, Le Havre was the disembarkation point for 3 million immigrants, many of whom were kept in quarantine on docked boats before their departure to the United States.
Transatlantic liners connected New York and Le Havre until the 1970s; this was the European port of entry for many Americans. In fact, for the city’s 500th anniversary, Cunard has organized a special (now sold-out) transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2 in September. As an important cruise port, Le Havre will see a record number of ship calls (142 planned) in 2017. In addition to the Maison de L’Armateur, onshore visitors can see, just a short walk away, another lovely museum overseen by Leprêtre — the Hotel Dubocage de Bleville. Inside the 17th-century mansion of a wealthy corsair captain (who legally pirated for the king), you’ll find a cabinet of curiosities showcasing Le Havre’s maritime history and the navigator’s fascinating voyages. Between museums, we stumble upon the Salon des Navigateurs, a wonderfully kitschy men’s hair salon run by quite-the-character Daniel Lecompte. The 80-plusyear-old coiffeur, decked out in marine attire complete with sailor stripes and the “Bachi” bonnet worn by the French marines, ushers us inside and says, “I’ve been here for 57 years.” His client doesn’t mind at all as Lecompte gregariously shows off his waiting room that doubles as a mini museum of maritime artifacts and antique salon supplies.
We’re also warmly welcomed for lunch at Les Grands Bassins, the city’s oldest restaurant and a neighborhood institution in the newly revived old port area. Shipping containers have been transformed into student housing, and old industrial warehouses have morphed into a sleek shopping mall called the Docks Vauban. But there’s still a deep link to the past, resonant in richly authentic places like Les Grands Bassins, whose owner, Claude Guyon-Busnel, is also the passionate president of the neighborhood association. “I’m not Havraise by birth but I’ve become Havraise in my heart,” she explains.
The dockers — as port workers were called — used to hang out here, crowded at the bar counter between shifts.
“They downed 10 liters of Calvados, before midday, served in these tiny glasses,” she says and gestures to a dainty, shot-sized verre. “Can you imagine the size of the crowd to consume that much?”
Birthplace of Impressionism
Le Havre was where Claude Monet painted the canvas that launched the Impressionism art movement. “Impression, Sunrise” (1872) depicts the industrial port with a vivid, orange sun reflected in the water. Forms disappear in luminous vibrations of color against the gray backdrop. It was a shocking painting at the time: The brushstrokes were too visible, the painter’s hand too evident.
On the train ride back to Paris, drifting into a reverie as we speed by the Seine, I find myself thinking about the importance of train travel for the Impressionist painters. The Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris offered a portal to the Normandy countryside where they experimented with plein-air painting.
Glimpsed from a moving train, the countryside is a sensory patchwork of images, and the artists’ paintings reflected this out-of-focus effect. Impressionists did not shy away from modern subject matter such as rail transport and urban industrialization, as seen in Monet’s painting of Le Havre’s smokestacks.
In a fitting tribute for the city’s half-millennium celebrations, this iconic painting will return to Le Havre for an exhibition at the MuMa — Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art — in September.
Constructed from glass to look like a ship facing the sea, this museum has the second-largest collection of Impressionist art after the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The exhibition will anchor the five-month “A Summer in Le Havre” event.
The legendary Jean Blaise was recruited as artistic director. In France, Blaise is celebrated for his role in the renaissance of Nantes — a formerly industrial city on the Loire — via the arts.
The idea, he explained at a Paris news conference, is “not to exhibit artists’ work in the city. Instead, we want to show off Le Havre as artists interpret it.” Monumental art installations now on view include a giant arch made out of shipping containers by Vincent Ganivet and Chiharu Shiota’s “tornado” of red yarn inside the nave of St. Joseph’s Church. In addition, artist Karl Martens has painted the city’s iconic beach cabanas, traditionally a bright white, in a rainbow of colors.
Weeks after our weekend trip, we’re standing on the banks of the Seine in Paris, watching the river currents flow toward their sea outlet at Le Havre. Cecilia pulls polished flint stones from her pocket, and Jane carries a pearly, flattened oyster shell. “From Le Havre,” they tell me, with a smile.
St. Joseph’s Church, designed by Auguste Perret, towers over the French city he rebuilt. Le Havre is a bustling port today.
TOP: As seen from the Seine, the French port city of Le Havre sparkles in the early evening. MIDDLE: Even at City Hall, in a square adorned with fountains, water is not far away. ABOVE: The Hotel Vent d’Ouest is full of decorations with nautical themes.