Le Havre, World Heritage Site

2015 View of Town Hall Square;

The Town Hall

The Town Hall, together with its public gardens, is situated on its pre-war site and remains a reference for the locals . The Perret Studio issues many sketches. As early as 1949, Auguste Perret suggests a large building with a tower on its western side. Architect Jacques Tournant will put the finishing touches to the building, inaugurated in 1958. Here follow details about its construction.

The Plan

Rebuilding the Town Hall of Le Havre (1954), practically on the same site as the 1859 previous one (with a slight set back on the northern side), was quickly considered. However nobody agreed on the architecture to give the new building. Some suggested erecting a Town Hall in the same style as the previous one, whereas others were mainly keen on re-creating the François 1er garden. Still, after the I.S.A.I. surrounding the square had been built, as early as 1948, it became obvious that the Town Hall could not contrast with the surrounding buildings (contrary to the previous one which did).

The tower was the architectural element which gave rise to the strongest reactions among the City Councillors, persuaded their city would copy New-York sky-scrapers (City Council meeting of March 1950: “Let us leave sky-scrapers to the Americans and build something in a better taste, not too expensive and on par with the atmosphere of the town”). Auguste Perret, having presented about twenty sketches, all of them refused, had even suggested one without a tower. In the end, Jacques Tournant won the day, opting for a vertical tower topped by a loggia;

Dimensions and Conception

The Town Hall is 143 metres wide, the central building being 92 metres wide. The main building has two wings: a theatre on the eastern side, to the west a low building linking it to the tower; It sits above a half-basement situated at square level, thus avoiding costly watertight foundation liners. The actual ground floor and Hall of Honour are situated at the level of Rue de Paris, so the building does not look partly buried.

For the construction of the Town Hall, Perret opted for an order of tall columns rising from the base to support the terraced roof. The massive base of the central horizontal building carries sixteen tapered, fluted, 13 metre high columns made of bush-hammered concrete with flared faceted capitals. These columns, poured on site, double as rainwater downpipes. The main building consists of a major order of columns (set on the base and holding the terraced roof) and, behind it, a secondary order framing the bay windows allowing light into the halls, topped with a last floor, totally plain and with windows all around.

The construction frame is visible to the eye: the reinforced concrete of the construction is exposed, whereas the in-filling panels are made of bush-hammered concrete. Ordinary concrete, left rough, is used for the tower from the first floor upward. It is of a choice mix with a bush-hammer finish for the other buildings. The base is made from a mix of half ordinary cement and half white cement, including gravel from the Orne area of France. Above the base, including the columns, the concrete used was a mix of gravel from Saint-Maximin and marble. The concrete mixes give the façade a finish of an original white colour.

The relative dimensions of the horizontal and vertical planes were decided with reference to the general proportions of the architecture and of the project as a whole. Tournant’s main idea, as to the look of the tower, came from the image it should project when seen from the sea. Vertical lines were essential to introduce variety to the urban landscape of Le Havre. This unusually wide square, 243 x 192 metres from the southern façade of the Town Hall to the first buildings of the Rue de Paris, centre of the new urban composition, called for particular stress. This vertical element holds its place in balancing out the volumes of the building and could not be set in the middle of the composition for reasons of both artistic vision and internal practical distribution. It was hard to articulate the tower with the importance of the horizontal mass, and to conciliate the active functions of the vertical volume with the representative ones of the horizontal volume. A complex operation from the point of view of proportions and constructive expression. The tower, markedly recessed from the main building, is linked to it by a low wing. It has a 19m square base and is 72, 20 metres, 18 storeys high. It holds a staircase and three lifts, as well as an emergency outside projecting staircase, hidden by a wall of cross-shaped claustras.