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THE RISE OF A PORT CITY

On February 7, 1517, Francis I, king of France, ordered the creation of a fortified port at the site known as ‘lieu de Grasse’, then on October 8 of the same year, signed the charters founding the city. The silting of the Seine estuary combined with territorial ambitions and trade expansion created the need for a new port able to develop economic opportunities and address the kingdom’s defense requirements.

The site selected for the new port, to the north of the mouth of the Seine and already known as ‘le Havre de Grâce’ (haven of grace) was a strategic choice. Around a small creek that would become today’s Roy dock and the ‘grand quai’ (later Southampton quay), Francis I commissioned Italian architect Girolamo Bellarmato to lead an urban project that laid the foundations for the heart of today’s city.

URBAN DEVELOPMENT,
MARITIME DEVELOPMENT AND PROSPERITY

From the 18th century onward, the military port declined to the benefit of maritime trade. This growth spurred the construction of a new town to the north and the construction of the docks for merchant vessels, following the plans of architectural engineer François-Laurent Lamandé. Under the Second Empire, the center remained overcrowded so the perimeter walls were knocked down to make way for wide boulevards and a Vauban-style defensive belt high above the town.

Le Havre then entered its golden age, driven by the industrial revolution and the shipping of commodities. Paternalistic social reformers from eastern France contributed to urban, social, political economic and cultural development in the city and port. The sea front became more urbanized as bathing became fashionable, turning Le Havre into a real seaside resort at the turn of the 20th century. Passenger transport was not left behind: the great transatlantic ocean liners set off from Le Havre for New York.

DESTRUCTION AND RECONSTRUCTION

Le Havre was one of the worst affected European cities after the Second World War. German occupation followed by allied bombing on 5 and 6 September 1944 destroyed the downtown area and left several thousand dead and 80,000 injured.

The project to rebuild the city, established under auspices of the ministry for reconstruction and urbanism, was entrusted to architect Auguste Perret. His team of more than a hundred architects applied the principles of structural classicism, with reinforced concrete following classical codes. Le Havre became a urban testing ground, unique in its expanse and its avant-garde urban approach. Some landmark structures were built: Saint-Joseph church, the city hall and the Immeubles Sans Affectation Individuelle (ISAI) buildings around its square, Porte océane and Front de mer Sud.

THE FASCINATION OF THE ARCHITECTURAL STATEMENT

Following on from this ambitious reconstruction project, Guy Lagneau and Jean Prouvé for the modern art museum, Othello Zavaroni for Palais de la bourse (stock market - now the casino), Guillaume Gillet for the footbridge over the Bassin du Commerce, Georges Candilis for the Résidence de France building, upheld the spirit of Perret’s work. However, it was the theatre designed by Oscar Niemeyer and inaugurated in 1982, now a library and national theatre, that really rounded off the reconstruction process. The poetry of the curves sculpted by the Brazilian architect converse with the orthogonality of the master of structural classicism.

This tradition for architectural excellence, which saw the rebuilt center of Le Havre listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005, still lives today with some big names leaving the mark on the cityscape since the turn of the century: René and Phine Weeke, Charlotte and Alberto Catani, Paul Chemetov, Jean Nouvel, the Reichen and Robert agency, and landscape architect Michel Desvisgne have made sure that maritime city remains a breeding ground for contemporary architecture and urbanism.

Image : Héliogravure de P. Dujardin d’après Jérôme Cock, Vue du Havre, 1553, dans Le Havre d'autrefois, le Havre, Imprimerie du Commerce, 1883, en face de la page 51. Bibliothèque municipale du Havre, R 130.

A FEW KEY DATES

  • October 8th, 1517: Francis I signs the charters founding the city
  • 5 and 6 September 1944: After the Allied bombings, the city center is but a pile of rubble, thousands are dead and nearly 80,000 are direly affected
  • 2005: the city center, entirely rebuilt, is listed as part of UNESCO's World Heritage
  • 2017: Le Havre turns 500
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