Le Havre: City Scale

This the second post in a series of extracts taken from an atlas of work put together by our post graduate cohort 2013/14. It documents their collective research about Le Havre, a city with UNESCO World Heritage status, in a highly dynamic and complex area of France.


Le Havre maps – 1536 and 1778 + Bassin Vauban 1883

City Scale – Water in the city

The English Channel and the River Seine are important characters for the bigger landscape surrounding Le Havre, so the basins, docks and canals are as important to the character of the landscape within the city itself. There are 63 km of water edge in the city, from the beach, through the urbanised basins surrounded by Perret buildings in the heart of the city
centre, to extensively used docks in the port and the far reaching Canal de Tancarville stretching 25 km to connect the city with the Seine at Tancarville.

Starting as a fishing village, Le Havre turned into a port city for trade and defence in 1517. It was constructed on marshland, painstakingly drained and dug out to form the first basin, Bassin du Roy, still existing today. Le Havre quickly became an important hub for shipping, importing coffee among other things. During the 18th century it was also a central port in the booming slave trade, and as the ships grew bigger the port had to expand, leaving the old basins behind in the city centre.  The city continued sprawling towards the south and the east, rapidly doubling in size again and again throughout the 19th century, a trend that continued during the 20th century.

During this period of rapid expansion the volume of cargo handled in the port also continued to rise. Today Le Havre, France’s biggest port for container traffic, continues to expand, and a new area for handling of the biggest container ships, Port 2000, opened in 2006.  As the port has moved outside the city, several old basins within the urban structure has been left behind, a gift to the city, a great potential for the future development of the public realm in Le Havre.

Tide and Flooding

Le Havre is surrounded by and penetrated by water. Being a coastal town with numerous basins open to the sea the tidal variation of the English Channel is clearly noticeable in the city every day. At the Bassin du Roy, the difference between high and low tide is dramatic. The tidal range can be more than 8m during spring tide and around 4 m during neap tide. The system of water bodies in Le Havre consists of tidal basins on one hand, completely open to the sea and therefore experiencing the daily tidal cycles in full; and regulated tidal docks set behind marine locks to ensure that the water height is kept on a level sufficient for maritime transit at all times.

Bassin du Roy

Bassin du Roy – low and high tide variation

Having the tidal movements of the sea within Le Havre puts the city centre under potential threat of flooding – in particular, during spring tide with strong winds coming in from the south or west, combined with low atmospheric pressure. The city has experienced flooding, especially frequent during the 1980’s, when water overflowed the historical basins into the low-lying Saint-François district. Sea-wall protection has been built up on the most vulnerable sides of the historical basins, to protect the city from future flooding.

The predicted sea level rise at Le Havre is 0.36 m by 2100. If a combination of spring high tide and atmospheric depression occurred the effect may be dramatic around the non-regulated tidal docks in the old town. The risk is minimal though, but some additional protective walls or similar will have to be built as a precaution.

Water Activities

Le Havre is an important  commercial port and popular yachting destination. It is the second commercial port in France in terms of overall tonnage after Marseille and the largest container port in the country. Much of the traffic passing through the Port of Le Havre is crude oil, but it is also important for ship repairs and ferry services to England and Ireland. The Port supports a large industrial zone that contains oil-refining, chemical, petrochemical, cement, automotive, and aeronautical industries. It also contains growing service and administrative sectors and growing tourist industry.

Aerial view

Its 2km of beach opens onto the Seine estuary, once the backdrop for many Impressionist artists, including Monet.  It is suitable for a wide range of water sports such as kayaking, water skiing, sailing and fishing.  Le Havre ferry port, connects Portsmouth, UK to Le Havre, France. For volume of traffic, Le Havre port is the second largest in France. Le Havre port also benefits from direct motorways linking to Rouen, Paris and the north of France. The “Normandy Bridge”, Honfleur, Deauville, Cotentin, le Mont Saint-Michel and the beaches of Normandy are all also easily accessible.

Le Havre is one of the UNESCO cities and due to its geographical location, on the Seine River mouth, at the entrance of the Channel, it is a gateway to Normandy and Paris.  The port of Le Havre can accommodate all sizes of world cruise liners. In 2010, Le Havre cruise port hosted 70 boats and 130,000 passengers. Le Havre opened a new terminal to accommodate passengers and the terminal is fully equipped with a new baggage scanner, baggage handling area and check in counters. With the increasing popularity of cruises in Europe, Le Havre is becoming a handy starting port, especially for Northern Europe cruises.  The port is one of the checking points for competition sailing within Europe routes. Basins in Le Havre are used to dock competition sailing ships in the resting season – a fleet of 44 boats rest in docks around Le Havre’s Paul Vatine basin one week before the start of the eleventh Transat Jaques Vabre transatlantic yacht race.

Historic Context

Following the Industrial Revolution, urban growth in France during the 19 century occurred in a rather anarchic fashion with no urban development plan to guide the reconstruction. Property speculation defined the city’s reconstruction, which caused deplorable living conditions for neighbourhoods in Le Havre. There was no significant redevelopment activities until the outbreak of the Second World War. During the war, the city was bombed 132 times, which caused 5000 deaths, 12500 buildings to be destroyed and 80000 people were homeless. The port was devastated, 370 acres of city centre were reduced to ruins with all public and commercial buildings destroyed.


When the city was liberated, the city council called on Félix Brunau to design a reconstruction plan based on one originally drafted during the war. The plan followed the same principle of rebuilding as the original plan using the name and layout of earlier ideas. In spring 1945, Auguste Perret was named as head architect of Le Havre’s reconstruction, although an organization had already been established locally to oversee the city’s rebuilding. Perret immediately came into conflict with Félix Brunau on the very philosophy of the reconstruction. Perret called for a comprehensive urban redesign to free Le Havre from any constraint the former city might impose and to create a new, modern and rational city. The Atelier de la Reconstruction members organized an internal competition to devise the urban solutions best suited for rebuilding Le Havre.

The post-war reconstruction plan of Le Havre is an outstanding example and a landmark of the integration of urban planning traditions and a pioneer implementation of modern developments in architecture, technology, and town planning. Le Havre is an example of post-war 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.


St. Joseph’s Church, Le Havre: designed by the chief architect for the reconstruction of Le Havre, Auguste Perret.  The church was built built between 1951 and 1957/58 as part of the reconstruction of the town of Le Havre

The Perret Team’s Principles of Composition

Varied periods and schools of thought — including the ancient, gothic, classical, modern, rationalist and the “health and hygiene” school — influenced the principles established by the Atelier de la Reconstruction.  The Perret School thus followed in the French classical tradition, while introducing a spirit of technical innovation and urban research.  The city of Le Havre was rebuilt according to the team headed by Auguste Perret, from 1945 to 1964. The site forms the administrative, commercial and cultural centre of Le Havre. In 2005 UNESCO inscribed the central city as a World Heritage Site.

Urban Design

Three major arteries linked the three areas central to Le Havre’s identity: The city centre, the sea and the port. These roadways are remarkable for their width and the regularity of the structures that compose them. They form what is known locally as the urban areas “Golden Triangle.” The rue de Paris and the avenue Foch, which form the city’s north-south and east-west axes. Two flagship edifices dominate the city, symbolizing the importance of its two powers – the political, represented by the tower of the Hôtel de Ville (235 feet), and the religious, represented by St. Joseph’s Church (350 feet).


Architecture – Perret’s Buildings Space

  • Material : Reinforced Concrete – Offered particularly interesting technical and economic features. It would lend the rebuilt city centre a wide range of colours and effects.
  • Classism – The elements such as columns, capitals, entablatures and cornices were constitutive of the remade facades. All constructions had a flat roof, initially added for extra space to compromise the buildings fifth facade.
  • Construction Framework – The rebuilding of Le Havre would be a large scale plan and huge commitment. Classical influence on the concept of volume is illustrated in Perret’s buildings. Perret wished to create a hierarchy among the building’s construction levels including the crowning elements distributed in harmonious fashion to ensure aesthetic balance.
  • Comfort for All – Comfort in terms of space was the first consideration. This legacy of the 19th century “bourgeois” apartment buildings led to generous ceiling heights, large glass doors with balconies, comfortable size rooms, large entry halls and the use of elegant building materials like worked concrete, wood (oak floors and cabinetry)and metal (wrought-iron balconies and joinery in the entries).Technical comfort followed with the introduction of the latest equipment, including shared forced-air heating, elevators, garbage chutes, bathrooms, toilets and kitchens with appliances.

The Perret apartments were remarkable for the quality of their layout, reflecting post-war social developments. The rebuilding work lasted some 20 years, so the reconstruction site became a testing ground for modern urban design and architecture. This avant-garde spirit, long misunderstood by the local population, is now becoming an integral part of Le Havre’s identity.


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