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Owen Hatherley's Eurovisionaries: Le Havre

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This industrial port town in northern France, reconstructed after the war by Auguste Perret, has many similarites with its English twin town of Southampton

When I was growing up in Southampton I was fascinated by the knowledge that my town had a ‘twin’ somewhere in France, as if there was an exotic branch of the family I hadn’t met. We had a tower block named after Le Havre, and they had a Quay named after us. While the process of creating twin towns might not always be exact (how much is Sheffield like Donetsk?), these two are close relatives. Both are industrial entrepôts favoured for their proximity to the capital, were bombed to smithereens and rebuilt as ‘concrete jungles’, and are usually passed through by car en route to somewhere else. Both boast working container ports and large empty spaces to redevelop. So it would be interesting to set these two against each other, like a UEFA Cup version of Ian Nairn’s Football Towns. Who comes out better in terms of town planning, architecture and public space of these two closely comparable, wealthy, historically linked northern European cities? How different is the same town when in northern France to that in southern England?

At times you might wonder what side of the Iron Curtain you’re on, but for the very un-Soviet quality of workmanship

The first contest, the railway station, is easily won by Le Havre. Southampton Central is an unattractive bolting together of a poky streamline Moderne pavilion of the 1930s and a dull 60s office block. Le Havre’s station combines a 19th-century iron and glass hall with a clear, Neoclassical concourse featuring glass bricks set into the roof, and cute maps of the city and port set into the walls. Outside Southampton Central you have a bombsite, one of the best Brutalist housing complexes in Britain, huge exurban sheds, and awful speculative architecture of various eras, with no clear path to the centre. Outside Gare du Havre, you find a well-integrated new tram system, a decent new hotel and a straight line to the centre, clearly signposted. The first part of that, the Boulevard de Strasbourg, is fairly normal Empire style pomp with shabby red brick tenements behind. There’s a diverting variety of minor civic buildings, some with new tenants – ‘CHINA SHIPPING’, reads the cap above the curved bays of one interwar edifice. Then you come to something different. A strongly rectilinear block of flats, with lower street-facing tenements enclosing a tall tower, with shops on the ground floor. Everthing is hewn from reinforced concrete, treated in a variety of textures; smooth and stubbly, almost golden in colour. The repeated window module is strongly vertical, as in a Georgian terrace. A lot rests on your opinion of this module, as nearly the entire city centre is built out of it.

Perret high rises 2

Perret high rises 2

High rise buildings by Auguste Perret

The reconstruction of Southampton as – in Pevsner and David Lloyd’s words – ‘a Mid-West city with planning control and Portland Stone’ provides the most unflattering contrast to Le Havre’s remarkable decision to rebuild itself as a rationalised ferroconcrete Manhattan. After the centre of Normandy’s largest city was almost totally destroyed by the Allies in 1944, the reconstruction was entrusted to Auguste Perret, who designed the major civic buildings and developed, with his disciples Jacques Tournant, Jacques Poirrier, Pierre-Édouard Lambert, et al, the principles – and concrete modules – that would govern the city until the late 1950s. They define it to this day.

The Boulevard de Strasbourg leads to the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, which is unlike almost anything else in western Europe of its date. Claimed at the time to be the largest square in Europe, it is a geometric puzzle of extreme regularity and rigidity. From the stairs of the town hall, the gardens step down to precisely arranged ponds of brown, stagnant water, from where you can see the identical high-rises that define this part of the city centre, in parade-ground lockstep. The town hall itself is, like the rest of the centre, in a unique style that was at the time extremely unfashionable – monumental, modular, and made out of the loveliest, most carefully tended concrete, as subtle and warm as the best ashlar. The street furniture of benches, lamps and pavements, remarkably all still in place, is similarly strong; the new tram lines fade into the background, something Mancunians might want to take note of.

Hotel de Ville edit

Hotel de Ville edit

Hôtel de Ville

This reconstructed centre is on the UNESCO World Heritage List – justly, given the exceptionally high quality and thoroughness of execution. But in the 1950s, architectural critics would have expected that accolade to be awarded to open, free Coventry or Rotterdam, not to Le Havre’s retardataire beton Beaux-Arts. Even then, however, it compared well to Southampton. From here, that main street becomes Avenue Foch, and the axiality – terminating in twin towers, flanked symmetrically by squares of shops and cafés – can make you ask exactly what side of the Iron Curtain you’re on, but for the very un-Soviet quality of the workmanship (the brothers Perret always signed their work ‘Constructeurs’, not ‘Architectes’). It’s pissing with rain, and the concrete, organised into an articulated grid through courses and balustrades, looks impeccable; a lesson lost on most post-war Modernists, bar Perret students such as Erno Goldfinger. Today this is as fashionable as can be, an inadvertent precursor for Sergison Bates or Valerio Olgiati.

It is all a little chilly, but in the most bracing, cold-water-in-face fashion. Yet step past those towers, and you realise they lead to a very ordinary, shabby little beach, and the grand axis is diminished to one small part of a longer, more eclectic promenade, as if it were all a dream. At least, unlike in Southampton, you can get to the water easily enough. Along here is the Résidence de France, the only major housing scheme not under Perret’s influence, designed along Team 10 lines by Georges Candilis. It’s a series of asymmetrical, interlinked blocks sprawling along green space, a smaller cousin to Park Hill or Amsterdam’s Bijlmer. It looks wealthy, with travertine entrance lobbies, amazingly open to the public, and it’s funny that the Modernist hardcore used a smoother, machine-made aesthetic of marble, steel and glass rather than the proudly displayed beton of the Perret school (or indeed, the shuttered concrete of Wyndham Court, Southampton’s far more vigorous Brutalist housing complex).

Residence de France

Residence de France Le Havre

Résidence de France

Just behind this is the symbol of the reconstruction, and of the abundant promotional literature and souvenirs for sale: Perret’s Church of St Joseph, organised around one central, polygonal column lit by stained glass, looking from a distance like a hollowed-out interwar skyscraper. Inside, the first effect is elation and astonishment, as heavy concrete bracing hauls up the open tower, with its sparkling, abstract stained glass. The first impression may be awe-inspiring and head-spinning, but linger a little and you see how rational even this is, with the coloured glass precisely set as if according to an algorithm, and the concrete details hard and unrelenting. No Coventry Cathedral pathos here. Opposite is the bleakest part of the city centre: mean, hunched little concrete flats. Rather more warmth and passion is provided at Perret disciple Henri Colboc’s St Michel, behind the town hall, which combines the teacher’s mastery of concrete with a more expressive, Brutalist approach to form.

Church of St Joseph interior

Church of St Joseph interior

Auguste Perret’s Church of St Joseph

Returning to Perret’s axis, the points meet at the Bassin de Commerce. In one direction the generous concrete colonnades of Rue de Paris lead to the deeply surreal incongruity of the original Le Havre Cathedral, where the Perret school’s high-windowed modules frame, but seem to look disapprovingly at, a proliferation of uncouth Baroque and Gothic details; and past that, the sea and the Musée Malraux, a clear glass gallery with neat Jean Prouvé details and a good 19th and 20th century art collection, albeit not as diverse as that of Southampton.

Around the Bassin itself, a three-sided square opens out to the water, and leads down to Le Volcan, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, a social condenser with library, performance space and much else, properly used even in the dreadful weather. It is an unlikely meeting. Niemeyer’s multi-level buildings consist of two intersecting curved, almost windowless shapes, coated in white render, organic yet abstract, evoking both cooling towers and the veteran lecher’s favoured female body parts. It couldn’t be more different in form and ethos from Perret – concrete as a textured grid with rigid laws, versus concrete as a shell of plaster, which the architect can mould into whatever they like. Amazingly, it works, and they offset each other perfectly, a delightful union of opposites. In that juxtaposition, Le Havre’s only British rival is the South Bank of the Thames, never mind Southampton.

Volcan 2 edit

Volcan 2 edit

Le Volcan, by Oscar Niemeyer

On the other side of the Bassin is a large, uninteresting office block – red tile and glass, parody James Stirling – and beyond that, the redeveloped docks. Here, the bar is set low. Though both cities have both redeveloped dockland and a working port, Southampton’s Ocean Village is a sad, car-centred effort. Le Havre just about  manages to score this open goal – but compared to Rotterdam or Hamburg, rather than Southampton or Liverpool, it’s poor. After passing a subtopian arterial road, you get to the expanse of the Bassin Vauban; big, bland pseudomodern buildings on either side, and, converted to a mall, the incredibly long original dock buildings. The continuous iron and glass space is converted inside quite intelligently into a rather daringly un-air-conditioned shopping arcade, flanked by a crude car park and a lumpen multiplex not vastly better than those of Ocean Village, though admittedly nicer than WestQuay, Southampton’s disastrous late-90s megamall. Opposite is the contribution from ‘iconic’ architect Jean Nouvel, Les Bains de Docks. Inside, it’s a fascinating Suprematist structure of overlapping cubic swimming pools, but outside it’s a featureless shed, marked only by little square openings, through which you can see sudden flashes of pools and bodies. Interesting architecture; disastrous urbanism – a mute slab sucking life out of the area before it even began to repopulate.

Les Bains des Docks edit

Les Bains des Docks edit

Les Bains des Docks, by Jean Nouvel

Surface car parks, introverted planning and mostly indifferent new apartments give you little clue that just behind this is a mostly complete 19th-century district. It’s dilapidated and rough, reminding me more of Newport than Southampton. It leads uneasily to the third and most interesting Bassin, the Docks Dombasles. Here the landscaping and the architecture is deliberately unsentimental and industrial, from Hamonic + Masson’s pitched-roofed, modular flats picking up the rhythm of the sheds, to the hard, ruin-chic landscaping, revealing views of the cranes, silos and chimneys of the working dock.

Given this is so close to Britain’s sorry record of waterside regeneration – a few interesting structures by fancy architects badly linked to a working-class enclave and filled in with bland flats – the elegance, and crucially, maintenance, of the Perret-planned centre is all the more surprising. It’s an exceptional achievement, albeit a relentless one. I find that concrete module very elegant, but if you find it overbearing or staid, you’ll find Le Havre hard work. Everything interlocks, with each balustrade calculated alongside that of the building behind it. You’ll miss the wittier, friendlier aesthetic of a Coventry, with its mosaics, murals and changes in level and style. UNESCO ought to have space for both in its listings.

Yet one aspect that makes the Perret plan work so well is that the zoning is loose, so unlike British post-war centres (before the rushed, somewhat desperate efforts of the ‘Urban Renaissance’); it doesn’t die at 6pm, and isn’t so easily abused by the short-term interests of mall developers. It emerged out of very French circumstances, paid for by a Gaullist government and executed by a Communist municipality – dirigistes both. What is unexpected, given how different the history of urban planning is in these two cities, is that their rather careless contemporary spaces resemble each other.

Docks Dombasles

Docks Dombasles

Docks Dombasles, modular flats by Hamonic + Masson

I took the ferry back home. It leaves from the Quai de Southampton, marked by two of the Perret school’s rationalist skyscrapers, and I felt more than a pinch of jealously as I looked out from the deck. This working dock is all barbed wire, lorries, containers, the interchangeable, ruthless space of a 21st-century port. This, at any rate, is the same in the French’s city’s non-identical twin. Yet the boat goes to Portsmouth.

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