Le Havre, World Heritage Site

Guillaume Gillet's Footbridge over Commerce Dock.

The footbridge over commerce Dock

In 1887, a metallic footbridge had been built at the time of the International Maritime Exhibition. It was replaced in 1899 by a footbridge with a steel deck. On 5th December 1950, shopkeepers and residents asked for Commerce Dock to be filled up in order to link up the different districts of the city separated by its length. However, it was decided to keep it as it gave the city its maritime identity.

The old bridge had survived the bombings but become dangerous; it was destroyed in 1963 despite the dissatisfaction of a group of residents of Saint-François’ district; they saw it as a further attack on the memory of the nineteenth century destroyed city. But the City Council wished to strengthen the new image given Commerce Dock which was at the time becoming a yachting harbour.

In 1965, the President of the Saint-François district Committee asked the mayor, André Duroméa, to speed up the process and demanded to see the preliminary sketches. In July of the same year, the Port Authorities gave Jean Balladur, then Architect and building Advisor, details for an architectural study. The programme established that the footbridge, reserved for pedestrians only, would arise in the form of an arc across the dock, high enough for small boats to sail under it. In 1966 another study was put in the hands of the Port Authorities. On 30th September 1966, a temporary footbridge of the Bailey type was open.

In December 1966, architect Guillaume Gillet received a letter from the Service Ordinaire des Ponts et Chaussées de la Seine-Maritime(The Bridge and Road Bureau of the French Ministry of Equipment for the Seine-Maritime area), informing him of the launching of a competition for the building of a footbridge at Le Havre. Jean Balladur, as member of the competition Jury, encouraged him to submit a project. Gillet was already at work on another project for the same site: the development of Gambetta Square, at the end of Commerce Dock, with the design for a Theatre-Casino cum Maison de la Culture and more shops. He was therefore already working on the central needs of the city. However, Oscar Niemeyer was the one chosen a few years later to realize this large building scheme.

During the summer of 1968, a model on a 1/200th scale was made (by M. Guiol, engineer with the direction Départementale de l’Equipement, and M. Roulland, working for the SFTR works) and exhibited for all to see in the shop window of the American Express local branch, then situated on George the Fifth quay.

Building was supervised by the local branch of the direction Départementaale de l’Equipement, with the help of the Port Authorities technical services.

In the shape of an asymmetrical cable-stayed bridge, 100m long and 5,50m wide; with a main lane 2,50m wide and two 1,50m wide pavements. The architect used the foundation of the southern pile of the old bridge as a base for an A shaped metallic pylon, 39 m in height bearing the weight of the bridge. Two metallic beams, 31 and 73 m wide, are suspended from this off centre mast, using four groups of two cables spread out in a fan (the slanted cables hold the bridge deck, that is the horizontal part where pedestrians walk).

The slope of the ramp is quite steep, an average of 16%, but allows a six metre margin even at the highest tide, allowing room underneath for small yachts. The flooring slabs are non-slip and a heating system for the bridge deck prevents the forming of black ice.

The guardrails allow total visibility and give an impression of lightness. The footbridge is painted white.

Every firm he asked gave Guillaume Gillet a report of calculations he studied before deciding on the steel structure on concrete paneling. The chosen solution of double beam allows a slimming effect of the footbridge, as does the use of prefabricated one-piece beams and reducing to a maximum the on-site assembly of the structure.

The cable stayed bridge system, different from the road bridge system, follows the ship mast principle of distribution of forces. It distributes weights in order to remain stable and, theoretically, no force can pressurize its outmost support points. It can bear weight of 450kg/m2.

After sanding the surfaces down, the paints applied are: one layer of zinc chromate paint and two layers of glycerophtalic, oil-based paint. The guardrails are of stainless steel and contain electrical lighting apparatus inside a folded steel sheet protection.

When he started designing the footbridge, Gillet meant to give it an architectural, even sculptural aspect. The footbridge is high and light and thus in accord with its urban environment and the buildings around it. Its lines are in perfect agreement with those of the Niemeyer centre. Its white colour, asymmetrical dynamics and curves echo the characteristics of the Brasilian architect’s Volcano. It adds rhythm to the vast perspective over Commerce Dock.

The footbridge holds all the aesthetic qualities of a proper bridge: global visual balance (cable stayed bridges are usually more beautiful than suspension bridges), harmony in its general proportions, order in the disposition of lines and edges of volumes making up the construction (symmetry, repetitions), quality of facing (texture, colour), perfection in details. The footbridge does not reach directly onto the quayside but on a small height with a stairway/ramp leading to it; this increases the impression of lightness. The lighting is linear, for fear lampposts would destroy the general harmony of the footbridge.