Le Havre, World Heritage Site

End façade of V61 housing block

Revealing details

Regularity and harmony obtained through using the 6,24 m module all over, on the level of urban planning and that of architecture never turn into monotony, as a large range of variations and details mixed with different types of concrete make the architecture much richer.

Composition details

Concrete can be mixed in different textures and to obtain various aspects. It is therefore used to get different results: bush-hammered on the façades of the I.S.A.I., washed on some of in-fill panels, straight from the form-work on some buildings, sanded down on others; concrete adds character to the buildings it creates.

“At Le Havre, concrete acquires a reputation; whether used in simple or very elaborate ways, it shows off the aesthetic qualities of structural classicism. My concrete is more beautiful than stone. I work on it, I chisel it, I turn it into a material more beautiful than the richest ones”. Auguste Perret

Light variations: tools of the modern city

A claustra is a wall allowing the light in, although offering an opaque surface. Claustras are the building components of staircases in some buildings of the city centre, from the Collège Raoul Dufy and the tower of City Hall. This openwork wall is made of moulded concrete elements. Used on some of the façades of the reconstruction, they allow indirect light in. Depending on the kind of building, claustras may change shapes. On the walls of the Collège Raoul Dufy or the N°10 building along Rue de Paris, claustras are V shaped, contrary to those hiding the emergency staircase of City Hall Tower in a St Andrews cross shape.

Another way of letting light inside the buildings of the reconstruction is done by using transparent glass blocks. This element (glass block or glass slab) is used as a building material. It lets light through a wall, often used to brighten staircases in the reconstruction of the town. In some buildings on the southern See Front, as the arcades of the Collège Raoul Dufy, vaults built of glass blocks create wells of light at the entrance of buildings or under the arcades of the school.

A sober architectural design

Architects enjoyed varying shape and decoration of supports a lot. Columns can have embossed or fluted capitals, no capital, or even lotus flower shaped ones as on block n°10 on Rue de Paris. Columns can be seen all over the reconstruction, as they are at the core of structural classicism. As for the buildings, column composition varies whether they support arcades or balconies. For example, block S54 sports polygonal columns at ground floor level, which become rounded on the fifth floor although they rise all the way to the top of the building up through the running balconies. Even inside the flats, similar columns support the bone structure of the building, going through the floor slabs, all the way to the top.

Avenue Foch is the place for a totally different type of decorative details. On the initiative of Georges Priem, and following the order received from the reconstruction cooperative François 1er, several sculptors made bas-reliefs presenting the “Worthies of Le Havre”. As an attempt to link the reconstructed buildings to those of the pre-war city, every building was granted a theme and was to be called “a house”. House of the fighters, writers, scientists, artists or industrialists. Lacking proper references to popular memory, these names were abandoned. Bas-reliefs however remain on the façades and decorate the buildings entrance halls.

High quality materials were used to adorn the buildings, such as galvanized or crude steel for the guardrails, balconies or loggias. Awning and shutters add touches of colour to the landscape of the reconstruction. Showing primary colours (yellow, blue), the structures meant to protect against wind and rain add a touch of fancy to the sober and geometrical structures of the modern architecture.

An underrated heritage brought back under the spotlight

Through lack of understanding and rejection of the Perret architecture, the reconstructed city centre was subjected to a lot of degradations from the 1960S to the 1980s. Concrete, considered as ugly, was painted over. The structure of the buildings, symbolic of structural classicism, hid behind sign boards, progressively covered over by shop windows. Columns were hidden away. The inhabitants did not make the architecture their own and new tricks contrived its disappearance.

During the 1980s, when the maintenance of buildings became current issue, the reconstructed city centre was approached in a more aesthetic fashion. The first refacing works effected were not meant to preserve the historical value of the buildings. Painting the concrete façades was done only for protection. But this protection compromised the original presentation of the material, the way the Perret team wanted it. Hiding concrete, concealing it under a coat of paint, was a real problem in a town where concrete was one of the main elements of architectural expression. When told, in 1986, about a painted façade along Quai Georges V, the City Council decided on a pragmatic policy directed towards co-ownerships (which can be found over most of the reconstructed city centre). It was decided to initiate dialogue with owners, in order to make them aware of their responsibilities; at the same time background cultural knowledge was imparted in order to explain the features of the architecture of Structural classicism. This down to earth approach proved efficient. Many buildings have now undergone the right kind of refacing. A few simple principles have been followed in order to avoid anarchic replacement of oak framed windows and steel guardrails by efficient but coarse materials. Discussing with shop-keepers led to respecting the in-fill panels and following a certain discipline in the hanging of shop signs.

The turning point of 1995: acknowledging the need to protect local heritage

Setting up the ZPPAUP (Zone for Protection of Architectural and Urban Heritage) in 1995 gave a lawful frame to all refacing and restoration projects. Painting over façades was definitely banned, and nowadays painted façades are being stripped to reveal the original features of concrete underneath. The ZPPAUP has set down in writing practices which had been implemented at Le Havre for a good fifteen years. Explaining the architecture to the inhabitants led to growing awareness. The quality of restoration work leads to greater respect of the Perret architecture.

Official protection of the reconstructed city centre has been implemented through the ZPPAUP since 1995. Defining rules defining the proper ways of restoring buildings means that inhabitants, businesses and shopkeepers now find it easier to consider their real estate assets as heritage. Rules aim at enhancing the architectural characteristics of the reconstruction (disposition of façades, clearly showing the load-bearing structure, variation in the texture of concrete, architectonic details, etc …). The City Council has the architecture taught to the inhabitants. A new job : “clerk for the development of heritage” was created in 1999, aims at developing awareness of shopkeepers, businesses and co-owners over architectural protection of the buildings. All projects within the city centre (whatever their size) are checked daily. In case of illegal restoration work, proceedings are initiated by the Architect of French Buildings. Various City hall Departments work at finding technical solutions that provide the right answers to the rules edicted by the ZPPAUP. Contact with building companies, suppliers, consultants and research centres led to promoting techniques (quite often innovative ones) which respect the Perret heritage.

Find below 17 photos showing precise examples of refacing block façades or shops.