Le Havre like many port cities and towns is often only registered by those arriving by sea and even then, it’s only to disembark and drive straight out of it. But leaving Le Havre without seeing it’s architecture is a big miss. After reading Owen Hatherley’s Trans-Europe Express book and its chapter on Le Havre I made it my mission to follow in his footsteps to see what the city had to offer.
The city of your childhood imagination
Arriving in Le Harve you immediately realise how open the city centre is to the sea and port. In many port cities, the acres of car parks, lorry storage, and half-empty terminal buildings means the city is kept at a distance — almost cut off. But in Le Havre, the ferry docks next to architecture ranked by UNESCO as a world heritage site. If you asked a child to draw an imaginary city it would look like Le Havre nestled between a beach and a working dock and surrounded by hills.
In 1944 the allies bombed Le Havre significantly as they moved across Normandy following the D-day landings. Following the end of the conflict, the city was transformed by the architect Auguste Perret who realized a city-wide master plan of concrete modernity. He personally designed two buildings that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in East Berlin (for those of you who’ve walked down Stalinalle). The town hall and the Catholic Cathedral are marvelous in their ambition and design.
A cathedral made of concrete, dancing in light.
From far away it resembles a lighthouse, especially at night when lit up and visible for miles out to sea. At the street level where you catch a glimpse of its bulk between side streets, it looks like a Soviet rocket that’s ready for takeoff.
The inside is enough to take your breath away. The vaulted space seemingly stretches to the sky looking like a sci-fi power generator or laserbeam. All across its concrete surfaces are freckles of light directed by thousands of multicoloured stained glass squares, diamonds, and rectangles. As clouds past overhead, the lights dimmed and the freckles disappeared only to appear somewhere else when the sun again broke through.
I’ve rarely felt spiritual but the cathedral and its use of concrete and light made me sit down and contemplate. A demonstration of architecture achieving its purpose.
A town hall owning it’s space
From the ferry, you could see the tower and the clock resting on its face with the French tricolour flying briskly in the wind. The large building sits in a wide-open space with small fountains, flower beds, and a newly built tram line. The town hall shows what beauty can be created with concrete. The tower is the most striking with the top floors sunk back into the building and encased in concrete pillars. The number of windows offers amazing vistas over the channel and the surrounding landscape. As the tram passed nearby, I imagined this is what a city with civic pride looks like.
A volcano or a billowing sail
Other famous architects have put their mark on the city. The famous Oscar Niemeyer, who built Brasilia, gave the city the ‘Volcano’ known more formally as the House of Culture. On passing a side street, I noticed its brilliant white side like a sail billowing in the wind. There’s so much running through your mind when you see this sculptural building from Logan’s Run to a Bond villain’s lair.
The building fitted the space between the apartment and office blocks beautifully and unlike many modern additions to a city didn’t feel overpowering or lost.
The rest of my time in Le Havre was spent visiting the modern art gallery, an art structure made of shipping containers and a sculpture sitting on the beach. On returning to the ferry, I came across a bit of old Le Havre nestled against a more modern structure totally devoid of the motifs and Athenian columns of its neighbour.
Le Havre shows a very different side of France. One where after the war years, architects set out to build a city with generous living space and civic grandeur all with that ages most modern material concrete.
I was sad to leave Le Havre, but happy in knowing it won’t be my last trip. If heading that way take time out in the concrete masterpiece by the sea.