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Concrete serenity in Le Havre

Yes, this is the match for the Hotel de Ville, Le Havre
Yes, this is the match for the Hotel de Ville postcard.

Best known by travellers from the south of England as a very useful port, Le Havre is no beauty.   Matching some old postcards we discovered this is not the fault of Le Havre.

To date, these are our most shockingly altered then-and-now pictures.  Why? Back to 1944.

132 bombings by the Allies

The town and it’s inhabitants suffered terribly during WW2.  Le Havre was still occupied some months after D-Day and strategically vital so the Allies agreed to a desperate plan; the unforgiving ‘Operation Astonia’.

This rain of bombs upon Le Havre on 5 & 6 September was so  extensive it became known as the storm of iron and fire.  But just to make sure bombing continued for another three days.

Short film including many panoramas of the devastation at Le Havre 

Le Havre was finally liberated on 12 September, but at an appalling cost.  5000 people had died, 12,500 buildings had been destroyed, the port was devastated (partly by departing Germans) and some 350 wrecks clogged the sea bed.

Brave new world

After the horrors of war, Normandy was ready for a new world.  The rebuilding of Le Havre was put into the confident hands of Belgian born, Paris trained idealist, Auguste Perret and his team of acolytes.

The results are so harsh we were startled to discover the result is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Innovative exploitation and other stories

This view is matched below
This view is matched below

New Le Havre would make a cold war East German architect feel at home.   To quote from the UNESCO website:

‘…an outstanding post-war example of urban planning and architecture based on the unity of methodology and the use of prefabrication, the systematic utilization of a modular grid, and the innovative exploitation of the potential of concrete.’ Quite.

What this means in living terms is that Le Havre is made of concrete blocks. Lots of them.

Rue de Paris, Le Havre
Rue de Paris, Le Havre

Looking closer there is detail, symmetry and architectural drama, but of a powerful unforgiving kind.

Perret’s Eglise St Joseph has a little warmth.  Inside.  The tower is a huge column of geometric coloured glass that warms the stark interior with a strangely serene light (big pic at the bottom of this post).

Admiration if not yet love

More of Perret's Le Havre
More of Perret’s Le Havre

Our UNESCO discovery did make us look harder at Le Havre – rather than just for the blue signs to Pont de Normandie. And respect it a little more.

The town and its inhabitants are undaunted by their modernist surroundings.

They are a proud gateway for France to the world, with an outstanding art heritage, a pretty good football team, vibrant music scene and the sunsets are lovely.

Planning a visit? Gems not to miss in Le Havre…

  • Go back in time to a perfectly designed 1950’s apartment.  Appartement Témoin is the show home for Perret’s new Le Havre. filled with practical, elegant and now iconic post war designed  furniture and textiles.
  • Pop inside the remarkable L’église Saint-Joseph and experience possibly Auguste Perret’s greatest achievement in Le Havre.
  • Modern architecture in Le Havre didn’t stop with Perret. The concert hall and art cinema ‘Le Volcan‘ by Brazilian architect and communist idealist Oscar Niemeyer is intensely urban.  It also hosts an intriguing range of concerts and events, well worth a visit.

Or simply read more about Le Havre the UNESCO world heritage site.

St. Joseph's Church, Le Havre
St. Joseph’s Church, Le Havre

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