He was one of the most important French architects of the twentieth century. A true visionnary, he invents both a new lifestyle and a new architectural order. As far as European urbanists are concerned, the reconstruction of Le Havre is “the” outstanding success of the post-war era, a true symbol. The reconstructed city is, in a way, the “masterpiece” of Perret and a showcase of the theories he propounded.
Master Builder Auguste Perret (1874 – 1954)
Son of a stone-cutter exiled to Belgium after taking part in the Commune uprising in Paris (March –May 1871), Auguste Perret was born in 1874 in a suburb of Brussels. He first learnt about building methods within the family business, before studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. With his brothers Gustave and Claude as associates, he was one of the first to build using reinforced concrete, meeting at first with strong conservatism from the profession. In the spring of 1945, the Ministry of Reconstruction and Urbanism appointed him Architect in chief of the reconstruction project for Le Havre.
“Perret is not a revolutionary at all, he keeps the tradition going. His personality as a whole resides in his continuation of the great, noble and elegant truths of French architecture.” Le Corbusier
Daring to build in concrete
Auguste Perret was the first to dare use concrete, until then the reserved domain of engineers, to construct buildings. He did so because beautiful architecture, as in the time of building cathedrals, shows off structure and does not hide it; because he was persuaded he should use the materials of his time, particularly for reasons of economy; and last because concrete seemed the only material which would allow him to make his dreams as an architect come real.
Concrete, which must be “reinforced”, he will decorate, colour, treat, dress, thanks to several techniques such as bush-hammering, chipping, polishing or washing. He also varies the mix of components, using different proportions of sand, cement and gravel, thus greatly varying the colours of the facades. At that time, Le Havre was one of the most modern cities in France.
Jacques Tournant, architect and Perret’s right-hand man used to say of Perret: “Give him plans, money, a site and he would create a work of art for you. We all used to call him Master, which truly held respect, as not all architects deserved such a title…. Perret was ever happy on building sites, he was not much interested in nature”.
“Architecture takes up space, gives it limits, encloses it and shuts it in. It has the privilege of making magical places real, all of them creations of your mind”. Auguste Perret
A subject of controversy
Perret’s works were not always considered in a positive fashion and it has been necessary to wait fifty years, that is two generations, for the view over this unique modern heritage to improve.
Auguste Perret and his team created very many public buildings in France (the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, the church Notre-Dame-du-Raincy, Orly Airport, the Centre for Atomic Energy at Saclay) and abroad (particularly in Britain, Algeria and Tunisia). He will play an outstanding part in the reconstruction of cities destroyed in the Second World War. “The Master” died aged 80, he was buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.