Few cities make you want to stroke their walls, but in Le Havre it’s hard to resist caressing the concrete. All but obliterated by allied bombing in the second world war, France’s second-largest port city was entirely rebuilt according to the meticulous vision of Auguste Perret, supreme master of liquid stone and tutor of Le Corbusier.
It is a place where concrete is treated with the care and attention usually given to fine timber panelling, where joints between columns and beams are expressed with the precision of carpentry, where surfaces are variously polished, bush-hammered, washed and brushed, creating tactile textures that range from gnarled rock face to lustrous velvet. Anyone yet to be convinced that concrete can be beautiful might find a weekend in Le Havre does the trick.
“People have started to see their grey port city with new eyes since it was declared a Unesco world heritage site in 2005,” says guide Lise Legendre, who has become a devout concrete disciple after researching the history of the postwar reconstruction plan, and now leads tours of the city.
An easy overnight ferry ride from Portsmouth, Le Havre has long been a point of entry for Normandy explorations, but most visitors used to get out as fast as they could. Now though, the city’s image is enjoying a reappraisal – from Soviet bloc to concrete chic – and offers plenty of reasons to stick around.
Celebrating its 500th anniversary this year, Le Havre is promoting itself as something of an architectural hotspot, home not only to Perret’s celebrated master plan, but also as home to one of the few European projects by the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in the form of Le Volcan, a swooping white volcano-shaped theatre, nicknamed the “yoghurt pot”. There are a clutch of other recent buildings in the docklands too, including a fun swimming pool and spa, Les Bains des Docks, by Jean Nouvel (only skin-tight trunks or Speedos allowed), a brooding black wedge of a naval college, and some rather grim student flats in shipping containers – the usual mixed bag of waterfront regeneration, which only serves to throw the elegance of the town centre into relief.
As one of the few modern sites to be given Unesco status, the 130-hectare centre of Le Havre stands as a hymn to the mid 20th-century faith in modular construction and prefabrication. It is a serene place of broad avenues lined with slender colonnades of tapering columns, supporting finely proportioned blocks of apartments above, in shades of cream, terracotta and ochre. Look closely and you’ll spot the attention to detail, like the faceted geometric column capitals which vary from street to street, and the careful concrete panelling – echoing skirting boards, dado rails and wainscoting – that lines the buildings’ entrances.
Tours of a restored apartment, organised by the Maison du Patrimoine (€5pp, six tours daily, in English for booked groups) reveal spacious light-flooded flats with the 1950s mod cons of central air heating, refuse chutes and ingenious flatpack furniture by Marcel Gascoin, a precursor to Ikea. (You could even be lucky enough to find an apartment in the Perret quarter on Airbnb.)
Perret planned everything from the room to the street according to a precise 6.24-metre grid, with all buildings designed to follow his strict system to enable ease and speed of construction. Dreaming far ahead of his time, he even proposed to build the entire city raised above a 3.5-metre-high service platform, sweeping utilities and waste removal beneath the street, but it was a futuristic step too far for crippled postwar coffers.
Nonetheless, the resulting urban form exudes a uniform regularity that is evidently the product of the architect’s obsessively mathematical brain – and sometimes feels like a eerie sci-fi film set. Le Corbusier recalled of his time working in his master’s atelier in Paris: “Perret was surprised to notice me loving the museums: ‘If I had time,’ he said, ‘I would practice mathematics; that is what forms the mind.’”
Thankfully, perhaps, Perret didn’t have total control over what went in his city, so there is a fine modern art museum, Muma, a 1960s glass-and-steel box that houses the largest collection of impressionist paintings outside Paris. It is appropriately sited on the waterfront, a stone’s throw from where local lad Claude Monet painted his famous work Impression, Sunrise in 1872, the seminal smeary canvas that would give the movement its name.
The exceptional light here at the mouth of the Seine estuary inspired countless others, from Dufy to Pissarro, Sisley and Boudin, who all depicted the quaint watery prospect of fishermen and their boats in works on display in the museum. The same scene is now populated by an equally mesmerising panorama of shipping cranes, concrete silos and gas tanks, which can be gawped at up close on a boat tour of the harbour.
You sense that Perret might have been inspired by the muscular infrastructure of the port when you walk into his spectacular Église Saint-Joseph, one of the most original structures of its kind, completed after his death in 1957. Brawny pairs of braced concrete columns rise to thrusting angled buttresses that support a soaring octagonal cupola, a 100-metre-high stained-glass steeple that looks ready to suck the congregation (fittingly seated on reclaimed cinema seats) into another dimension. A tight spiral staircase worms its way up through this kaleidoscopic tunnel towards the heavens, adding to the sense of vertigo.
Further spatial drama can be found in Niemeyer’s space-age complex, which erupts from the central square like a pair of cruise ship chimneys rising from a multi-level plaza, their sheer concrete slopes providing an alluring surface for kids to slide down. The smaller of his two craters was recently converted into a library, whose quirky seating pods make a great place to curl up on a rainy afternoon. Stay in the retro Hotel Oscar facing the square for the best views of these strange alien mountains, illuminated in pink and blue at night.
For an architectural experience of a different era, La Maison-Musée de l’Armateur (the shipowner’s house) is a magnificent home built in 1790, conceived as a tower-like stack of rooms arranged around an octagonal light well. One of the few buildings to escape the bombs, it is Le Havre’s answer to London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum, a vertical cabinet of curiosities, full of nooks and crannies and intriguing displays of the life of an 18th-century trading family.
Once buildings start to pall, Le Havre’s 2km of pebble beach provide opportunities for sailing, windsurfing and kayaking, while the city’s 500th anniversary programme will see the arrival of fleet of tall ships (31 August-3 September). A series of large-scale public art installations scattered around town is also planned, along with the appearance of gigantic Brobdingnagian puppets (7-9 July), courtesy of street theatre company Royal de Luxe, who brought the Sultan’s Elephant to London in 2006.
Parisian weekenders have helped ensure Le Havre’s food options are top-notch, though thankfully without the capital’s prices. Treat yourself to the prix-fixe lunch (€40) at the two-Michelin star Jean-Luc Tartarin, where the sculptural amuse-bouches could be straight from Niemeyer’s studio, or gorge on seafood at Le Grignot (prix-fixe lunch €15.50, seafood platter from €18.60) in the main square. La Taverne Paillette (menus from €15.50-€31.20) offers interesting Alsace cuisine and a great choice of beer, while those looking for the full gourmet experience should get in touch with local chef Régine Boidin (chefchezvous76.com), who runs lively cooking courses (in French, €35pp) at her charming manor house 20 minutes outside the city in rolling Normandy countryside.
Those who have caught the concrete bug should continue a little further along the coast to see the ruins of Atlantic Wall, Hitler’s vain plan for a series of coastal defences stretching for 5,000km from the northern tip of Norway to the south of France.
On the hill above the port town of Fécamp (where restaurant Le Vicomté serves delicious Normandy black pudding with apple in a pastry parcel), crumbling mushrooms of concrete cling to the clifftops, their long look-out slits keeping watch over the horizon. Inside are the dank, cramped spaces that used to house soldiers’ sleeping quarters, ammunition and radar equipment.
More than 13m tonnes of concrete went into building the 12,000 bunkers that now lie in varying states of ruin along the French coast, a history brought to life in the Atlantic Wall Museum at Ouistreham, south-west of Le Havre, which has useful maps showing the sites of these sinister relics – glowering fortified lumps that, despite their heft, were stormed within hours of the Normandy landing (with the help of explosives).
On the way back to Le Havre, the pretty fishing village of Honfleur has a picture-postcard harbour of jumbled slate facades and brightly coloured awnings, providing a welcome antidote to all the bunkers – and a reminder that there is life beyond Perret’s regimented grid.
Way to go
Accommodation at the Hôtel Oscar (doubles from €78 room-only) was provided by the Normandy Tourist Board (normandy-tourism.org). Brittany Ferries operates routes from Portsmouth and Poole to Le Havre from £79 each way. For more information on Le Havre’s 500th anniversary celebrations, visit uneteauhavre2017.fr