Le Havre, World Heritage Site

The Sea Front.

Exceptional Universal Value

What makes it unique? The reconstructed city certainly did not get a World Heritage Listing for no reason. It is unique in the world, one only of its kind, and got international recognition thanks to the Listing. Its history, the innovative concept in question, are part of the reasons for placing this urban project on par with the greatest cultural sites in the world. Protecting, managing, keeping the site whole and authentic are also important factors.

In order to be granted a World Heritage listing, 1 000 sites strong out of which 41 are in France, a site must meet at least one of ten selection criteria set up by Unesco, asserting its exceptional universal value.

This value is a double selection filter (universal and exceptional). As for Le Havre it complied with two of the criteria.

Historical and artistic levels

The exceptional universal value of the Reconstructed City appears both on the historical level, as a reminder of this phase of intense modernization of towns and urban networks; and on the artistic level as a major architectural and urban twentieth century achievement. The World Heritage List did not use to comprise any reconstructed site (understood as modern creation and not as re-creating an identical copy of the destroyed site).

Le Havre holds several masterpieces representative of the Order of Reinforce concrete Perret invented (Saint Joseph’s Church and theTown Hall), an innovative Fine Arts Museum (the Malraux Museum or Muma). All of them show the original way in which light and the maritime landscape were taken into account, in a city where Impressionism was born and marked with a tradition for first-class painting.

The Maison de la Culture (Espace Oscar Niemeyer or the Volcano), is also emblematic of the plastic art studies pursued by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Very many of the reinforced concrete buildings and their exposed structure (housing blocks and public buildings) show remarkable architectural maestria.

The chosen criteria      

Criterion (2):

The reconstruction plan for post-war Le Havre was an exceptional example and a major step in integrating urban planning traditions into a pioneering project also including modern changes in the development of architecture, technology and urban planning.

Criterion (4):

Le Havre is an example of exceptional post-war urban planning and architecture, based on unity of method and a prefabrication system, the systematic use of a structural module and the innovative overall use of the high potential concrete offered.

A comparative analysis of Le Havre with other cities which underwent reconstruction in the wake of WWII confirmed the exceptional universal value of this cultural site.

Remarkable unity

Among the many reconstructed towns, Le Havre is exceptional because of its unity and integrity, associating as it does the lay-out of the old city with new concepts in matters of urban planning and building technology.

On another plane, the reconstructed city meets the criterion of authenticity Unesco demands, as no major building suffered irreversible damage.

Authentic city centre

The reconstructed city centre in Le Havre has retained its authenticity and integrity, not only at the level of the original town planning the Perret Studio organized, which has, on the whole, been respected, but also, considering individual buildings, at the level of appearance and state of materials. Thanks to moderate urban growth, the fabric of the reconstruction has been kept whole, whereas this has not been the case in many other European towns.

Newer constructions do blend in

New elements have been added without upsetting the global quality of the urban space. The footbridge over Commerce Dock (built in 1969 by architect Guillaume Gillet) and the Volcano (built from 1978 to 1982 by Oscar Niemeyer) blend very well with the urban landscape created by the Perret Studio. Although miles away from the aesthetic values of Structural Classicism and from the construction rules edicted after the war, the work of Oscar Niemeyer presents a real semantic dialectic in relation to the Perret School of architecture. It has added maritime metaphors to the landscape around the Commerce dock.

The Résidence de France, however, introduced an abrupt change. Its twelve storeys of flats brought a visual obstacle which hampers the vista the Perret team had created. Its architecture owns its own historic value, because it was made by Georges Candilis (who represents, on an international basis, the new post war architectural trends), but also as a successful example of the “proliferating” architecture of the 1960s.

Guarantees to preserve the site

The reconstructed city centre of Le Havre has so far been preserved thanks to the Zone de Protection du Patrimoine Architectural Urbain et Paysager (ZPPAUP) since 1995, organization protecting local heritage, and soon to become Aire de Mise en Valeur du Patrimoine (AVAP), Area for Development of Local Heritage. The total area concerned by the Listing: the actual reconstructed city centre and the transition area to the old city, is now covered by the ZPPAUP. The whole city centre is considered as a true architectural and urban work of art.

The Zone organization has imposed a legal framework to all renovations. Painting over concrete works is definitely forbidden, and painted surfaces are just now being stripped to uncover the original concrete. From 1999 onwards, the ZPPAUP has formalized in a realistic fashion practical ways of protecting the structures which had already existed for ten years.

Defining rules about how to renovate buildings has led lodgers, owners and shopkeepers to view their property as real-estate assets. The rules mean to emphasize the architectural characteristics of the reconstructed buildings: the arrangement of facades, the exposed load-bearing structure, the variety of concrete treatment and architectonic details, etc…

The City Council now uses architecturally based arguments when dealing with inhabitants and professionals. “Clerks for heritage development” have been employed by the city since 1999, trying to raise public awareness, (shopkeepers, firms and co-owners), about the need for architectural protection of the buildings

For further research

Unesco Application File - le Havre - Joseph Abram Download