Text and pictures by Cassandra Cappelletti
In spite of its young age, Le Havre a northern little city founded in France only five hundred years ago, has a very intense history.
This big French harbour, which has expanded all around the estuary of the river Seine, was founded by King Francis I, who foresaw from what was just a simple swamp a big potential. He was not wrong, Le Havre very early became a very important crossway of all the travellers and the trades directed over the sea. The artistic contribution that Le Havre gave to the world with its colours and its landscapes was fundamental: the changeable lights and shadows of the Norman sky, that inspired painters like Boudin, Monet and Turner among others.
The city was entirely destroyed in 1944 during the Second World War, and gave Auguste Perret (1874-1954), a business man and architect from Belgium, the occasion to rebuild it in a more modern way. What was his religion? Just reinforced concrete. This material was invented by François Hennebique, who in 1982 patented this new building system. Perret’s choice was inspired by the will to redefine the aesthetic concept of ornamentation, where the bearing structure is put in the foreground. An innovative, audacious, rigorous urbanism that was defused by Oscar Niemeyer’s Volcano. Nevertheless, this maritime muse never stops reinventing itself.
At the beginning of the 20th Mr. Auguste Perret, who was also known for been Le Corbusier’s master, founded with his brothers what would become an empire of building trade. This was thanks to the remarkable decrease of the realisation costs. He went through many stages that would have characterised modernism. His ability to design was well reflected in his churches as much as in his hangar and casinos, like the one created for the Breton city of Saint-Malò at the end of the 19th century. It was especially thanks to the Le Havre’s rebuilding that Perret reached a very high success. The monumental city that he had created did get some criticism, they said it was not human-seized, even though the modular and prefabricated houses did reflect his democratic vision of society.
Judgments aside, Perret was one of the first architects to be intuitive and perceive the potential of reinforced concrete, which in that time was considered an inappropriate material for architecture. He used to say: «My concrete is more beautiful than stone. I cant work it, I can chisel it. It is a stone that is born, and the natural stone is a dying stone».
An emblematic example of Perret’s work in Le Havre is the Saint-Joseph’s church, which represents the symbol of the post-war rebirth of the city. Similarly to his others projects, in which a big tower clock was placed on the base, in the Norman city we found an octagonal lantern-tower 107 meters high, placed on a square-shaped nave and supported by four groups of equal number of pillars, a kind of lighthouse, that overlooks the city and that is visible from the sea.
This setting focused towards the center of the nave, in which also the altar is placed, involves a displacement of perspective in the height, as a result, the perspective is focused more towards the sky. It is impressive to observe from the basis the height of the tower-clock, which is highlighted mostly because of the absence of decorations inside the church, feature that is not at all common in our time. The consistency of the concrete leads to a spectacular game of lights and shades, thanks to more than twelve thousand colored glasses, manufactured by the French artist Marguerite Huré (1895-1967), who introduces abstractionism in the religious glassmaking.
The northern and eastern windows have colder shades. However, those on the west and south have warmer and brighter colors, and light up as they reach the top of the bell tower. The sweep vertically, favored by the high windows and the modular rhythm of the prefabricated buildings, it is a common characteristic of Perret’s work, who not by accident affirmed: «The horizontal express rest, death, the life’s position is the vertical». These are the elements that feature also other buildings of the historical center, were Perret’s atelier was also involved.
Perret, who started the construction site of the church in 1951, could never see his work finished; however, he is still considered a symbol of the rebirth of the city in the post-war period, listed sinve 2005 in the World Humanity Heritage by UNESCO.
The townhall and daily life
Built by Perret between 1952 and 1958, Le Havre’s townhall was brought up from the ruins of an older one that existed since the 19th century. Considering it a central element of the urban composition, the building stands out in front of a very large garden, projected too by the architect, where we find a square cut by the tram railway.
The townhall is composed by two separate parts, is order to reconcile funcional needs with representative ones. A massive an relatively low body, with an exterior made by columns that recall a classical style, contrasts with the rationalism of the eighteen-floor tower, from where we can admire a beautiful sight, and overall the sea, of this delightful city.
Perret designed numerous buildings over the years: strolling around in Le Havre’s streets is a unique experience that will take you back to delicate historical moment, in which the expectations had to come to terms with reality.
It is possible to visit one of the standard post-ward rebuilded apartments showed by the Atelier. The choice of a functional and tidy furnishing, beginning of a design inspired by Scandinavia that intends to promote a modern and efficient lifestyle: kitchen and bathroom integrated in the house, double orientation, but also very common objects that are now familiar with our lives, such as a refrigerator or a washing-machine. The use of oakwood, a very economical and versatile material, permitted the Atelier get closer to Frenchs’ families needs: They all gathered in the heart of the house: the living room. The one designed by the French René Gabriel (1899-1950) was, in fact, promoted by Perret for the International Exhibition of Paris in 1947, passing from the Art déco to the industrial design in France.
As we could predict, not only Mr. Perret put his eyes on the Norman city. His successors aked themselves how to face his geometrical strictness and his inflexible structural rhythm. They broke with the tradition, bothe in materials and shapes. They created the Museum of Modern Art.
Il MuMa (Musée d’art moderne André Malraux)
After many hestitations, in 1952 the rebuilding of Le Havre’s new museum started, after the war. Mr. Georgeso Salle, who was the director of the museums in France, and Mr. Reynold Arnould, who was the museum’s curator of the city, decided to bring to life to a new kind of building: «a living organism» so of course, it needed some light and space. The idea was to create a museum that would be placed in front of the harbour and that would welcome inside both collections and new ways to interact with people, such as concerts, conferences and projections. Renouncing to Perret’s reinforced concrete a new flexible and metallic structure made by glass was developed.
In front of the entrance, near the harbour, there is a monumental sculpture by Henri Georges Adam (1904-1967), who was a French sculptor and painter, titled “Le Signal”, created for the museum’s opening in 1961. It is curious how its plastic shape, sometimes, reminds of an eye and sometimes of a shell, changing its features depending of were you observe it from.
Le Havre, indeed, is not only Auguste Perret with his precise and tidy lines, but also asymmetry and softness, like Oscar Niemeyer will remember later on.
According to Paris’ museu of Orsay, the MuMa welcomed an important collection of Impressionists and Fauves, who were a group of French avant-gardists from the beginning of the 20th century, who investigated the use of colors and the light generated by their combination. By visiting the museum it is possibile to literally dive in the Norman settings of the paintings, going from canvas to reality.
Eugène Boudin, who was considered one of the Impressionism fathers, fell so deep in love with Le Havre’s brightness, that he was nicknamed “king of skies”. Even Monet was inspired by his incredible artistical perception. But at the Muma we find also Renoir, Degas, Derain and many others who gave birth to indisputed master pieces that are surely worth a visit.
Il Vulcano di Niemeyer
In competition with Muma for the title of “house of culture”, in 1982 Oscar Niemeyer too became familiar with the city. The Brazilian architect, also Le Corbusier’s pupil, distinguished himself for his building made of baton and wavy plasitc. On the one hand it was inserted into Perret’s reinforced concrete, but on the other hand, the project involves two white buildings, one asymmetrically and hyperbolically shaped, the other one cylindrically and symmetrically shaped breaking with the previous geometrical exactness.
Nicknamed “Volcano”, a perfect insertion is guaranteed by a game made of lights and stairs and steps, in the urban fabric. And in case you feel a bit hungry after visiting Oscar Niemeyer’s library, or after seeing a theater piece, you must go to Colombe Niemeyer. There you can taste the veritable season’s specialties or you can go on Sunday morning for a brunch, in a warm and young atmosphere.
Les Bains Des Docks
Continuing with the big names, in Le Havre there is an unmissable building, opened only since 2008. Signed by the “archistar” Jean Nouvel, it consists of an aquatic center placed in the port area, with the purpose to reconvert this abandoned zone in a lively and more frequented place. Judging by the huge number of people that go to the thermal park, it was a success. Inside the center, there is a heated Olympic swimming pool (it is clear that swimming in an open ocean is not for everybody) and a wellness center, with water falls and colored volumes that make the purity of white stronger. On the upper floor, it is also possible to relax on the terraces. The visitor will find himself in an oasis inspired by a Roman spa, and will be enchanted by the shapes around him.
What else can we say? The reasons to go to Normandy are infinite, especially to Le Havre. A unique city, which like a lighthouse attracts tourists from all over the world with the purpose of admiring its cultural abundance and the beauty of the sea.
It is a must to mention Aki Kaurismäki’s film, titled “Miracle in Le Havre” (Le Havre), dating 2011: an aesthetic and clever use of lights.
Text and pictures by Cassandra Cappelletti