Le Havre, City of Concrete

A narrative exploration of Le Havre, a popular city in Normandy and master of concrete architecture.

February 2021. A rainy night. The train from Paris arrives at Le Havre station a few minutes late. A man in a long black coat descends. The 6 PM curfew has well passed. He’s going to have to travel across town, no hanging about. In this large empty hall, the man thinks of Zola, and the words come to him: “Platforms stretched forward, deserted, in this drowsy awakening of the station.” This time, though, the silent station will not wake up. Rather, it will remain asleep after he passes through.

It is already night. Two or three onlookers emerge from the imposing building, which has little to do with the one described by the author of La Bête humaine (The Beast Within). The city was bombarded during World War II, then rebuilt in concrete by Auguste Perret and his atelier of 70 architects. The man thinks of something a designer friend told him about Perret: this virtuoso of concrete, to whom we also owe the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and the Mobilier National, was selected at the time because 90 percent of Le Havre had to be rebuilt quickly. Concrete cost less and allowed standardized construction.

The man in the black coat has barely arrived, but he already feels very lonely in this city under lockdown. The assailing rainfall makes him melancholic. He jumps into a tram heading toward the beach, two stops. A few minutes later, he gets off, alone but for the presence of the automated voice of Le Havre transport. A large, almost Soviet-like concrete building is reflected on the rainy ground. The French flag flies in the wind – it’s the Town Hall, the home of Édouard Philippe, France’s former prime minister. “Our future president of the Republic,” the man in the black coat thinks to himself, amused by his own thoughts. He remembers reading in a guidebook that the 18-story, 236-foot-high Town Hall tower caused a great stir at the time of its construction in 1950. The city council at the time did not want Le Havre to look like New York, with its skyscrapers. It should be said that, prior to its destruction, Le Havre was a copy of Paris.

Le Havre’s Town Hall caused an outcry when it was built in 1950.

At night, a single office with large bay windows is illuminated. Perhaps it’s Édouard’s… Before becoming mayor, he was the deputy mayor in charge of urbanism. Apparently, his grandparents themselves lived in a Perret building. To Philippe, concrete may be a bit like Proust’s madeleine.

The rain, increasingly heavy, brings the man in the black coat back to reality. He no longer remembers which fool told him that the weather is often nice here: “Good weather at least once a day, thanks to the tides. Three hundred more hours of sun per year than in Rouen…” Blah blah blah. Hard to believe that, standing here, soaked. Oscar Hôtel, where a purist advised him to stay, is not far away. Facing the Vulcan, the cultural center designed by Niemeyer, the man in the black coat cannot help pulling out his smartphone to immortalize this sublime architecture, with its white concrete, and post his photo on Instagram (#niemeyer #concretearchitecture). The Vulcan, or “Yogurt Pot,” as the people of Le Havre call it. Each to his own. All curves, it contrasts with the rigor of Perret’s buildings, his rows of concrete blocks, which the man in black is fast learning to love. He’s like the many Parisians who have started to invest here after the first lockdown, bored with Paris and its perpetual movement, attracted by this strange city, modern before its time. Real estate agents went into a panic; demand surpassed supply.

The Vulcan cultural center, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, aka “The Yogurt Pot.”

Tomorrow morning, at 10 AM, the man in the black coat has a meeting with a “greeter,” who is sure to share his love for the city with him. The concept was born in New York 20 years earlier. The principle is simple: residents volunteer to give tours of their own city with a local and more human touch. For now, the man has hung his black coat to dry in his room, a 1950s-decorated cocoon. A while later, he understands the name of his hotel: Oscar, for Oscar Niemeyer, of course! From his bed, he sees the Vulcan up close through the window. He can sleep peacefully. The rain has stopped.

The next day, 8 AM. He wakes up with a mad desire: to see the sea. He’s heard so much about this changing light, this pebble beach with its shades of gray, and big trawlers loaded with containers that pass in the distance. He knows very well that it’s not the right season; he will not see the rows of beach cabins, typical of Normandy. They used to be white, until an artist whose name he has forgotten colored them with tangy stripes of blue, green and pink during Un Été au Havre (A Summer in Le Havre), the city’s fashionable annual event. Oh, yes, the artist’s name is coming back to him: Karel Martens. He even worked with a team of coders to develop an algorithm that ensured the cabins’ color combinations were applied according to a decree issued by King Francis I in 1517, at the foundation of Le Havre. The man in the black coat saw the photos of the cabins in every color, under a bright orange setting sun. It was magical. Le Havre, not so gray: he will have to return in good weather to see it.

St. Joseph’s Church, designed by Auguste Perret.

The sea is there, in front of the man in the black coat. And this view creates so much happiness. The air in his lungs and the clouds above his head… The promenade, designed by the architect Alexandre Chemetoff, is deserted but for a few joggers, two or three strollers. He imagines the seafront on weekends, with families out for a walk, all social classes combined. The skatepark, one of the largest in France, is covered with graffiti. The colors appear to be printed on gray concrete. He will be back with his son; he and his scooter will love the place. Like professionals, a young couple perch a phone on a mini tripod, taking a time lapse of the changing horizon over the sea. Kevin and Morgane are natives of Le Havre, they explain. They left the city for a few years for Paris, then came back. “We were happy to leave here after our studies,” they say. “Nothing happened, every- thing was frozen. Today, it’s different. Le Havre has changed a lot. I remember a sunset on the beach – Martin Solveig was playing to mark the city’s 500th anniversary. There were people everywhere. It was festive, happy… That’s when we said to ourselves, ‘Ah yeah, we are home!’”

The man in the black coat starts running. He has lost track of time, and someone awaits him in the city center. He arrives three minutes late. The sun pierces the clouds. Perhaps the fool who told him about the weather in Le Havre was right after all. The greeter is called Olivier. “Very nice,” thinks the man in the black coat, based on their initial encounter. “The principle of greeters is all the more relevant in Le Havre, as the city is not easy to discover alone. We don’t have the classic landmarks of a historic center, with its cathedral in the middle, its pedestrian streets around…” It’s silly to say, but the fact that the city was destroyed and then rebuilt surely makes it more interesting than if it had remained in its pre-war state. “I always meet here, at Place Auguste Perret,” the greeter says. “It’s symbolic. For Perret, Le Havre was the work of his life. It’s difficult to imagine that you’d one day be given an entire city to rebuild! It’s why the city was classified as a Unesco World Heritage site – because it is one of the most coherent sites of the 20th century in terms of architecture.”

One of Auguste Perret’s reinforced concrete towers in Le Havre.

The man in the black coat wants to understand how and why Le Havre became trendy. “The Unesco World Heritage recognition in 2005 changed the way people look at the city. It all started at that point. For the people of Le Havre, it was an achievement. We finally had the right to love it since Unesco told us it was great!” The greeter, Olivier, is very knowledgeable on the issue. “Later there was real work around city planning,” he says. “Then the 500-year anniversary, the appointment of Édouard Philippe as prime minister and, finally, Un Été au Havre.” The man in the black coat remembers taking an interest in the city because of this event, which saw international artists creating works that echoed its identity. Suddenly, Le Havre had “hype.” This information was passed undercover, between trendy friends, Instagrammers, journalists, designers… It always starts like that.

The greeter’s visit is as complete as a Breton crepe. It seems, moreover, that a third of the population of Le Havre is of Breton origin. For two hours, he takes the man in the black coat everywhere there is concrete. The Church of Saint-Joseph, an architectural masterpiece with its impressive interior, its gigantic bell tower. Never before was a church so concrete and yet so imbued with spirituality. There’s the concrete of Les Halles, of the middle school Collège Raoul Dufy, of the Saint- François district with its slate roofs. The greeter and the man in black meet an 86-year-old man, dressed as a sailor, who has turned his barbershop into a museum: “You’re writing an article about concrete? You are at the right place! It’s beautiful, right, the architecture? Before, this place was rabbit cages,” he says, gesturing. “This didn’t exist before in France!”

The concrete tour continues: the concrete of the fish market, opposite the Bistrot du P’tit Port, which serves fresh oysters, and right next to Chez Lili, a trendy new place with its outdoor concerts. Pete Doherty, based in nearby Étretat and a fan of Le Havre, will surely come and perform here, discreetly, as he did last year at Bistrot, another musical bar. There’s the concrete of the old market that, with its terraces, will soon become a space for dining and culture. The concrete of the Quai de Southampton, once devastated, now so alive. That of the Rue de Paris, revitalized by Vincent Ganivet’s famous arch of colorful containers. The arcades, the pillars, all measuring 6.24 meters (20.47 feet), a rule Perret imposed throughout the city. The concrete of the André Malraux Museum, with its bay windows and always well-chosen exhibitions. The man in the black coat remembers Pierre et Gilles, Le Havre artists of international stature. A building at the Docks, black on the outside and white inside, is an aquatic center designed by Jean Nouvel. Concrete everywhere, but always different.

Perret worked the city like stone, roughened it, gave it shades and colors. The man in the black coat’s Le Havre is less and less gray. On a bank, he discovers a sticker with a surprising logo: Conkrete, spelled with a K. His mission: find out who’s hiding behind this title. On Instagram, he finds a clue. It is a young parkour association, a sport that consists of climbing urban obstacles – further proof that the city is keeping up with the times. He wants to see them at work, to meet them.

The greeter asks him if he’s happy with his visit. Without hesitation, the positive response bursts out. The man better understands why the people of Le Havre, and many others, fall under the spell of “the city of concrete,” as it is reductively called.

In the afternoon, before taking his train back to Paris, the man makes an appointment with one of the members of the parkour association. All of them come from Le Havre, from different backgrounds: videographers, cinema students, stunt school trainees, graphic design students, Web developers. In addition to practicing, they teach regularly. It may interest his son, open horizons for him. On the first Wednesday of each month, when the clock strikes noon, Conkrete posts a video on YouTube to highlight its relationship with architecture: “We take ownership of both the city and our body. Concrete, we touch it, test it, we rub against it, we confront it. It is a direct, frontal relationship. And in Le Havre, we are in paradise!”

It’s time to leave. If someone had once told the man in the black coat that being in Le Havre would give him a little taste of paradise, he wouldn’t have believed it. The train starts, and he thinks about all those encounters, about this city of today. A city of tomorrow. He would like to live there, too. I know something about it. The man in the black coat – it’s me.

This feature was originally published in Mastermind 09 – buy all issues here.

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