Monday, 20 July 2009

Le Havre rebuilt

I've spoken before about Le Havre when I discovered a piece of its history, which I should have known but didn't, about the bombing it endured - 132 air raids during World War II. The necessity of liberating the area for the allies combined with the destruction of the port by the Germans before they left meant that the centre of the town stretching for 2 kilometres was completely destroyed along with virtually all of the port's quays. "We could see all the way to the sea"

35,000 people were left homeless. In 1945 plans were started for the rebuilding, plans to be developed by Auguste Perret, one of the outstanding architects of the day, "a poet in concrete". It took 20 years to rebuild and, sadly, Perret who was 71 at the start of the project died before it was completed.

When you approach Le Havre by road from the south or the east, you pass by what feels like mile after mile of chemical works and oil refineries. It's a rather dpressing sight. Even on the way to the docks, there is little inspiring about the place, so I was amazed when I first heard that it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was determined, this last time we crossed the channel, that i would see it. A worthy antidote to the riches of Versailles.

The tower of St Joseph's church, seen above the trees and shops

The tower of St Joseph's church, the icon for Perret's redevelopment, dominates the skyline from almost everywhere.

St Joseph's church.

Although the church is impressive when you're there, the area seems jaded and neglected. It's a little to one side of the rest of the town centre, which seems better loved, for want of a way to describe it.

The shopping area and St. Joseph's tower again

A glimpse of the Town Hall tower

The Town Hall seen across the square

The Town Hall, the Hotel de Ville, is another well-known landmark, situated by a very attractive square filled with greenery and modern fountains.

After Perret's death in 1954 his collaborator finished this civic centre with the seventeen-story tall tower. Though built of reinforced concrete, the building is classical and symmetrical. It was extended in 1987, but has maintained the style of Perret's architecture.

Part of the Town hall square

More fountains in the square!

There seemed to be easily as many fountains in the square per square metre as there were in Versailles, but the style somewhat different!

View of Le Havre from the cross-channel ferry port

The cathedral was previously a parish church dating from the 16th and 17th century.  It is the oldest and one of very few buildings that did survive the war. It became a cathedral in 1974.

Some quotes from an unofficial World Heritage Site made me think about the reason for including Le Havre on the list, or indeed anywhere.

"As a World Heritage sight it did not rate at all, I can see the argument of celebrating and retaining a type of architecture may be but the overview of the city is dull and nothing stunning."

"Sad, grey, severe, and angular, and the materials looked shoddy. Now, I wasn't expecting a tourist venue oozing quaintness. But I wasn't prepared for this. The whole town seemed to weep."

"I didn’t really feel that I was viewing something exceptional."

The official reason given for including Le Havre:
"Le Havre is an outstanding post-war example of urban planning and architecture based on the unity of methodology and system of prefabrication, the systematic use of a modular grid and the innovative exploitation of the potential of concrete"

is just one of a number of criteria that can be used. The one most people seem to have in mind is the first: "a masterpiece of human creative genius".

I wonder if everything has to look great, be stunningly impressive, to be deserving of preservation.  My own view is that Le Havre is well worthy of inclusion even though it is probably not be the first choice for a postcard subject. And I would further point out that it's not the only such site. It may not be in the same category of beauty as many of the other places on the list, but I believe there is a place for protecting alternative aspects of human endeavour. It seems I am very much in the minority.

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  1. I think you would have to compare this to photos right after the war to truly appreciate what has transpired. It deserves to be on the list. A Phoenix rising from the ashes of it's previous life. It is beautiful in its own way.

  2. Coventry or Dresdon -on- Sea!


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