Spring 1954 & Autumn 1985: France”s concrete city

Le Havre is a city with two “sacred monsters”, according to Jean-Christophe Masson, the architect of the Alta Tower

One is Auguste Perret, the man who gave the northern French port, heavily bombed during the Second World War, its ordered, classically proportioned streets.

The other is Oscar Niemeyer, whose 1980s Volcan cultural centre rises like a ship’s funnel from the Quai George V. Both architects used concrete as their medium, to very different effects. The result is a city – now recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site – that has become a poster child for post-war planning and modern architecture. Perret is perhaps the lesser known of the two.

But on his death in 1954, CQ wrote: “He gave to architecture two entirely new concepts – that of reinforced concrete as a medium for dignified and graceful construction, and that of the reinforced concrete frame as its means.”

In early 20th-century Paris, such ideas verged on the heretical: “The reinforced concrete flat in the rue Franklin in 1903, the garage in the rue Ponthieu in 1906 were the revolutionary early works…which brought him storms of abuse. Undeterred, in 1923 he added to them that jewel of a church Notre Dame of Le Rainey, and from then on his laurel crown was secure.”

By the time of the Le Havre reconstruction, his ideas had evolved to incorporate innovative precast elements, from which he built a unified grid of generously sized apartment buildings, with shops and restaurants at street level. The city, CQ concluded, would be his “lasting memorial”.

Niemeyer’s Volcan came three decades later – the first notable addition to Perret’s city plan, and a very different approach to architecture. “Here are the authentic marks of the Brazilian master: bold and curvaceous geometric forms of dramatic simplicity exploiting the sculptural possibilities of reinforced concrete – Brasília come to Europe … The building succeeds, surely, simply because it is a monument in its own right, making no attempt … to be part of the town fabric or to blend harmoniously with it.”

A book, The World Recast: 70 Buildings from 70 Years of Concrete Quarterly, is available from

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