Le Havre, World Heritage Site

Southern Sea Front

The Southern Sea Front

The construction of the Southern Sea Front was financed by war damages and supervised by the François 1er Cooperative Society for the Reconstruction. Architect Pierre-Edouard Lambert studied and finalized the overall plan of the city as well as the plans of this vast project, a construction which he oversaw. On 23rd December 1952, a ministerial decree of Eugène Claudius-Petit allowed the project to go under way without planning permission, “due to its experimental character”.

Description of the project

The new urban plan defined by Auguste Perret for the city centre of Le Havre kept within the frame of the pre-war triangle, marked at its angles by monumental groups of buildings: the Southern Sea Front, the Porte Océane to the west and Town Hall Square to the north. This plan holds two regular orthogonal grids, one following the axis of Rue de Paris, the other following that of Boulevard François 1er.

The Southern Sea Front, built along the quay of the entry channel to the port docks, could therefore be built perpendicular to either of those streets. The chosen disposition follows the quayside, as it used to do previously; it is perpendicular to the Boulevard François 1er and at a 45° angle to the Rue de Paris. As a result, blocks might have been triangular or pentagonal, but the creation of a small rectangular square, cut across on a diagonal by the south end of Rue de Paris, allowed the junction of the two grids and access to the quayside.

The Southern Sea Front is a spectacular architectural scheme spreading over 600 metres. Three large recessed groups are made up of four low storey buildings, punctuated by two eleven storey towers, interspersed with low linking blocks or covered passages. They are set on both sides of the small square at the end of Rue de Paris, running all the way to the end of the Bassin du Roy (King’s Dock). The Southern Sea Front acts as a protection belt from the winds, and the recessed buildings are punctuated by higher volumes.

The inner courtyards follow a Greek geometrical motif disposition where the distance between buildings allows maximum exposition to natural sunlight and where most flats face two different orientations.

In order to lessen cost and construction time, a repetitive, greatly standardized, mass prefabricated structure was adopted. The Southern Sea Front was uniformly built using a reinforced concrete structure based on a square 6,24m structural module, reinforced concrete floorings and one-piece, post to post, in-filling façade panels. The buildings are two modules wide; bathrooms, together with ventilation shafts, are placed in the centre of the flats; thus, not using windows for bathrooms as condoned by the Ministry of Public Health, gained space for one extra room every 200 metres.

In 1954, Pierre-Edouard Lambert explained his architectural choices: “Standardization, used in the extreme as it was, could have created great monotony in the façades, a monotony which the contrast of volumes could not have completely atoned for, at least when seen from street level, or even from ship level. We therefore added, to the basic architecture displaying posts within the structural module, an alternative design of smaller prefabricated posts, rising from floor to floor and creating, as they were placed on the horizontal levels, a comb like effect. The small posts, acting as counterpoints to the main ones, can hold window frames or in-fill panels. Ground floors present different elements depending on the importance of their position: the centre of the scheme and the small square to the west, were marked with round columns or square pilasters as a contra order sustaining the mezzanine, whereas the shops area to the east, which needed a maximum of space, was doubled up, along the façade, by twinned pillars, copying the contra order and forming arcades”.

The unifying architectural element is the ground floor with mezzanine on top, a flexible combination which can be used for shops or lodgings. Using two different structures, various in-fills and colors creates variety. The arcade ceilings, balcony surfaces, and ledges are left straight from the formwork; the exposed structure, the window frames parallel to the façades, the glass block vaults and the horizontal beams were all smoothed with cement. The façades on the small square were bush-hammered, the covered passages vaults are made of glass blockss letting sunlight through.

Except for the towers, there are no galleries underneath the front flats on the first floor, they were built under the terrace of lived-in mezzanines. The whole building front being placed above the shop fronts, galleries are only as high as the ground floor. Therefore the façades of the horizontal buildings are about three meters further back from the tower façades, placed over the colonnades. Each block has a main entrance, car access and private access to the inner courtyards cum gardens.

Technical aspects

The Southern Sea Front is one of the first building sites to use industrialised construction means. If the structural module of 6,24m, chosen by Auguste perret, offers many advantages, it does not allow easy manufacturing of standardized elements. Therefore Pierre-Edouard Lambert had to adapt the structural module when erecting the long façades of low buildings, he based the structure on two systems: a basic grid pattern with posts following the 6,24 m structural module, a second one of smaller prefabricated posts, contrapuntal to the other system.

Within the 6,24m system, the façade wall is made up of one-piece elements with one, two or three windows borne by small posts. These in-fill panels are a type 5 of the “Procédés Agglogiro”, with a Government Patent and agreement from the M.R.L. (Ministry of Reconstruction and Housing)and the Centre Scientifique et Technique du Batiment (Centre for Scientific and Technical Building). They are made of a veined slab of non-reinforced concrete, 6 cm thick with a finish of brushed gravel on the outside; of a prefabricated hollow pozzolan concrete body 5cm thick, assembled and stuck to the slab along the slightly reinforced veins it shows, on the inside, thus forming an internal plaster facing; of a second hollow body, identical with the first one, but with a prefabricated facing of plaster, in the middle. The two hollow bodies are kept apart by concrete clinker wedges which determine the amount of air captured in between, creating sound insulation. This is a money-saving device since a 13,50m2 panel with 3 windows requires only 1 m3 of concrete and nine kilos of wire netting; this because of the size of the window frames, 41 cm all around (sides, lintels and sills). Each panel is poured into a patented rigid metallic frame, lying on the rough flooring, just next to its final slot; later it is simply raised and put into place. The molding of the frames is done using patented material allowing easy and quick form removal before concrete sets, which makes surface treatment possible. The frames, prefabricated in vibrated reinforced concrete, are sealed when they are molded.

Floorings are made of veined, reinforced concrete slabs. Partitions are made of hollow or full bricks covered with plaster coating. Thermal insulation of the terrace is effected by pouring a layer of cellular concrete over the surface; waterproofing is done with asphalt.

Seen from the sea or even from the quayside, the Southern Sea Front offers a series of view points. Its appearance combines the style of the I.S.A.I. on Town Hall Square and the one adopted for the shopping display on Rue de Paris. The aesthetics of the Southern Sea Front, its rhythm and arrangement all ensue from following the rules of Structural Classicism as defined by Auguste Perret. Pierre-Edouard Lambert chose an architectural vocabulary in accord with standardization and mass production. He designed here a system of passages getting lit through glass fitted vaults identical to the ones he used in the playground of the Lycée de Jeunes Filles (now Collège Raoul Dufy).

A good thirty architects (amongst which Jacques Tournant, Adrien Belet, Raymond Audigier, Jacques Lamy, Charles Fabre and Jean Le Soudier) and three engineering agencies (Alphe, Sogeti and André), as well as the Centre Scientifique et Technique du Bâtiment, worked on this building site (1 127 flats) under the supervision of Pierre-Edouard Lambert.