A bit of history...
The city suffered great damages under the bombings; razed down in September 1944, it was one of the most stricken city in Europe: over 5 .000 people died and 12.500 buildings were destroyed over an area of 150 hectares. The city and its port, essential to the country, had to rise from their ashes while they were still hot.
The French State entrusted Auguste Perret, one of the greatest architects of his time, with the reconstruction of Le Havre. Perret was contemporary with Le Corbusier and was also his master, this humanistic architect turned concrete into a noble material, a material that he used in the same way as stone.
A reconstruction both revolutionary and humanistic
Perret fulfilled the dream of all urbanists by expressing his personal style over an area of 133 hectares. He supervised the reconstruction works of the city centre until his death in 1954 and he left a masterpiece behind him. The innovative architect created “the city in tempo, like a musical harmony”: the wide avenues and the rigorous layout of the streets give to Le Havre a monumental and poetic dimension thanks to the wide openings on to the sky and the sea.
No city knows such a symbiosis with its environment: the sea, the Baie de Seine and the coast of chalky cliffs act as a natural nest for an architecture designed to absorb the amazing lights of the estuary. Few of the cities rebuilt after WW2 hold that many urbanistic and technical innovations simultaneously while still offering a sheer architectural quality influenced by French Classicism. Officially completed in 1964 with the unveiling of the dazzling Saint-Joseph Church, the reconstruction of Le Havre was one of the largest urban reconstruction work in Europe after the war and turned Le Havre into the most modern city in the old world.
An exception on an urbanistic, architectural and social level, the reconstruction conducted by Auguste Perret earned Le Havre its place among the very rare contemporary urban centres to be listed as World Heritage sites by the UNESCO.
An air of Manhattan
The unveiling of Saint-Joseph Church in 1964 puts an end to reconstruction. A church? It is so impressive that it could be a cathedral. Visible from far away, its caracteristic outline evokes a skyscraper of the new world.
On top of its 110 metres, Saint-Joseph Church is one of the best achievements of Perret in Le Havre. Bearing the powerful symbol of renaissance for the whole city, the church is a commemoration dedicated to the victims of the war as well as a figurehead building of reconstruction in Europe. Faithful to the maritime and transatlantic calling of Le Havre, the religious monument holds a profane meaning since it has become de facto the first building of Le Havre to be seen from the sea: since the 1960’s, Saint-Joseph shines like a monumental lighthouse for the liners coming from the United States and evokes the skyline of New York, the last thing passengers saw when they left America.
The Champs Élysées by the seaside
The Avenue Foch and the “Porte Océane” put in practice Auguste Perret’s urbanistic ambition: he wanted to provide the inhabitants of Le Havre, who had just lost all their former landmarks, with a spacedout, aerial and mostly an ambitious living environment. Like in a theatre, the architect stages the relationship between the sea and the city thanks to a prestigious layout evoking the perspective of the Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe on the Place de l’Etoile.
80 metres wide, because Auguste Perret wanted to refer to the most famous avenue in the world, avenue Foch is a great place to go for a walk and it links the city centre to the sea. The residential area resulting from this avenue and the Porte Océane is a perfect example of the architectural movement embodied by the Perret School: Structural Classicism. Polygonal columns and bas-relief decorate the high standard buildings of the residential street.
Porte Océane, an imaginary pier meant for cruise ships passengers, is the strongest possible symbol for the maritime calling of Le Havre. It inevitably draws the passer by towards the horizon and the sea, indicating the junction between the city, the “boulevard maritime” and the beach promenade...
City Hall, the most monumental building of the French reconstruction, articulates its horizontal body with its elegant slender columns and a 74 metres high belfry tower. Providing an amazing panorama over the centre rebuilt by Perret but also over the whole city, the estuary and the modern port, the tower increases the monumental quality of the square it is overlooking. At its feet and at its top, the viewer gets a full panorama over the ambition that Perret put into practice in Le Havre: the layout in a straight line of the buildings and the harmonious organization of empty and solid spaces, wide streets, low buildings and towers can only generate a sentiment of perfection that only a sheer architectural vision can arise.