Le Havre, World Heritage Site

The Volcano, Oscar Niemeyer's Cultural Centre.

The Niemeyer Cultural Centre

The Cultural Centre sits as an extension behind Commerce Dock, one of the essentials landscapes of the city centre; it occupies a 120 metres side square, surrounded to the south, north and west by Perret buildings on their orthogonal grid. Niemeyer did not wish to design buildings whose shape would contradict the surrounding architecture. As an architect conscious of the urban import of his work, he exploited contrasts in scale, masses and levels.

Volumes and potential of concrete

From the first, instead of planning a unique solid building, Oscar Niemeyer suggests a concrete based forum design placed downwards from street level, with shops all around protected by concrete canopies, and two large round buildings (a theatre and a multi-purpose hall) including a reception area, exhibitions, restaurants, a day nursery and information office. 3,70 metres below the main square, pedestrian traffic is protected by a large undulating concrete awning. This cantilever awning extends the city ground level in such a way that the two white constructions seem to rise from below ground. The fact that the top of the left hand building tapers slightly towards the top amplifies this dynamic movement. Niemeyer lowered the site in order to create an unusal architecture which takes into account local climate (winds and sea) and the immediate environment (the harmony of the surrounding buildings). This site multiplies architectural view points: passers-by do not have a sole vision of the elements but can also see the site from above. Niemeyer means to hide what can be hidden and let the floor surface as airy as possible.

Below the forum, two lower levels, used as car parks, are outside the influence of the buildings.

The elements of the project are spread over two separate buildings: one is high and massive, the other more discreet and open. Niemeyer greatly enjoyed this kind of separation: splitting up volumes meant for different uses without any overt contact between them, as amongst others at the French communist Party headquarters or the Bobigny Work Exchange. “Where there are two buildings, the space between them also exists, it is part of the architecture”, he used to say. The multi-purpose hall and its façade of regularly spaced arrow loops answers the blind, asymmetric surface of the theatre. Spare openings bring in a little natural light in the halls, the foyer and bar and offices. The lighting is artificial and always indirect.

The formworks were made of sanded wooden planks, which gave, when taken off, a rough facing on the inside as well as the outside of the two buildings.  White colour Revcoat was used to lighten the façades.

The forum can be accessed by three pedestrian ramps: two wide gentle gradient ones and a winding one. This last was to hold up in the air without support but a pillar had to be added. This shape belongs to Niemeyer’s special architectural vocabulary (see the ramps of the Hall of Honour of the Itamaraty Palace or that of the State Hall of the Planalto Palace, Brasilia).

The public entrance, from the forum, used to open onto a large reception hall which the cinema used to share. Two staircases give access to the theatre foyer. This can also be accessed directly from automatic doors at the street level, opening on the façade of the large Volcano. The first sketch presented a new concept for the theatre, where a revolving stage could vary the audience’s position in the course of the same show. Niemeyer was tempted by this idea s a way of contributing to theatrical research. But this system was rejected in favor of a classical disposition (a 27,50 metres wide stage, 8,50 metres high). The hall is a shell shaped amphitheatre. The stage and hall occupy the whole volume under the dome and the concrete of the walls was left rough. On the other hand, the multi-purpose hall is shaped in part as a semi-circle, and part trapezoidal, showing a free, modular circular surface (spectators can be seated on both sides of the stage, opposite only or all around it).

Niemeyer equally tried to create an atmosphere inside the building: seats in two different colours used to add variety to the stalls, and smoked mirrors would reflect light in a mysterious way. The fountain-sculpture on the side of the Large Volcano was made from a cast of Niemeyer’s hand. The inscribed sentence is a hand written quote the architect wrote on a sketch of this new Maison de la Culture.

This building is the result of technical performances. Volumes were created thanks to the possibilities concrete offers (40 000 m3 were used). Ground water and sea water led to raise a cofferdam, over a one hectare surface, closed off by cast walls 22 metres high. 115 000m3 of earth were moved in order to create a hollow mold of the future shapes. The building sits on 239 foundation piles which ensure its stability.

Niemeyer uses double curve surfaces, as he had done for the chapel of the Palace of Dawn (1958-1960) and the metropolitan Cathedral at Brasilia (1959-1970). The two volumes of the superstructures have a concrete casing in the shape of a hyperbolic paraboloid shell.

The Small Volcano is a solid of revolution: a hyperboloide. It is a shell made of thin sloping layers of concrete, laid over successive supports. Its volume is symmetrical but the walls’curve varies. A system of metallic formworks adapted to the pace and non-repetitivness of the structures was set up.

The large Volcano is the volume of a hyperbolic paraboloïd: the main line of the construction is a hyperbole fitting inside a vertical plane, which that of the volume’s symmetry, generated by horizontal circles of varying diameter, whose centres sit on the hyperbole. Its core is made of tubular scaffolding set into the interior structure of the lower parts. This scaffolding was covered by an overall sheathing which acted as a base and support for the external casing, made of cladding board panels fixed on a metallic frame of varying scale.

In order to avoid distortion of the building, thermal expansion phenomena were studied. Designs and drawings of the shells were made using a computer programme called “HERCULE”, derived from a calculation module used by NASA (EGI office). All the calculations take wind, temperature and sunlight into account. In the end, the concrete layering varies in thickness, being twice as thick at the base than it is in the upper part. Horizontal forces are dealt with at the lower floor level using a hollowed slab of reinforced concrete 60 cm thick. The shell contains thermal and acoustic isolation, a tar vapour barrier, concrete layering and lastly waterproofing paint. This cutoff wall technique is then a brand new one.

As building progresses, techniques change. This requires detailed preparation for each construction phase and the need to regularly create new working teams. A lot of visits of this groundbreaking building site are organized for architects and French civil engineering technicians.

Niemeyer’s architectural poetry.

Oscar Niemeyer’s work at Le Havre is an exemplary artistic deed. His architecture is not static but a moving one, offering a walk through urban architecture. Perception of volumes and spaces is continually reinvented for whoever is looking at them. The Volcano is a typical illustration of Niemeyer’s aesthetic research, which aims at transforming construction into habitable sculpture. Completely made up of curves, the Maison de la Culture stands in opposition to orthogonal architecture in general and the urban frame of Le Havre in particular. It offers a counterpoint to Perret’s Structural classicism and general characteristics of the reconstruction movement in France. Therefore these architectures offset one another: one being orthogonal and dignified, the other fluid and free. The two masters of reinforced concrete are seen to converse. Next to Gillet’s footbridge, the Volcano creates animation around Commerce Dock by generating an aesthetic shock within the repetitive landscape of the reconstructed city centre. To passers-by, its white volumes are reminders of ocean liners chimneys. Niemeyer describes the Volcano as “not a baroque thing but a very free one”. For the Brasilia architect, new technical skills will open out new paths towards beauty and poetry.


The Volcano, Oscar Niemeyer's Cultural Centre, Aerial View.
The Volcano, Oscar Niemeyer's Cultural Centre.
The Volcano, Oscar Niemeyer's Cultural Centre.
Grand Opening of the Oscar Niemeyer Cultural Centre.