Why La Havre, France Is a Modernist Paradise

Photos: Ilpo Musto/REX/Shutterstock (L); Getty Images (R)

Modern design lovers are falling for this French city.

For most of its 500 years, Le Havre did not stand out as a place to visit. King François I conceived this port on the English Channel as a place of commerce, not beauty, and that is what it delivered. In the great age of ocean travel, boatloads of Americans passed through Le Havre on their way to see the rest of France. They did not linger.

In 1944, what charm Le Havre did have was blown to smithereens by Allied incendiary bombs after the occupying Germans refused to surrender. Ironically, it was this catastrophe that helped cement Le Havre as a design destination: from those ashes rose some of the best Brutalist architecture in the entire world.

Credit for this goes to one man. Following the war, the French government chose architect Auguste Perret to remake the city center from scratch. Perret followed this brief in such an honest, modest way that it took Le Havre another 50 years to appreciate the genius of what he had created. And when it finally did, the city didn’t just celebrate Perret’s achievements; it made modern architecture the very heart of its identity.

In 2008, its architectural consciousness now raised, the city commissioned French starchitect Jean Nouvel to design a stunning public swimming pool complex along its docks. And in 2010, Le Havre rediscovered a modernist masterpiece from its past that had been long overlooked: a cultural center designed by the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1982. After years of turning up its nose at the two concrete silo-shaped buildings, the town completely refurbished them under Niemeyer’s watchful eye, shortly before he died.

Since then, Le Havre has been enjoying a kind of under-the-radar renaissance. Design magazines acclaimed its unique take on industrial chic (Manhattan-sur-Mer became a new moniker). Snooty Parisians have started taking the two-hour train ride to see what the fuss is all about. In short, Le Havre has become hip.

Rebuilding La Havre was Perret’s final project—he was 71 when he started. From 1945 onward, he and his team built more than 10,000 housing units and numerous civil, religious, and administrative buildings on close to 370 acres of Le Havre’s city center. (Perret died in 1954 before the work was finished, but his team saw his plan through to completion, wrapping up in 1964.) His material of choice was béton armé, or reinforced concrete—cheap, but also, in Perret’s hands, elegant and sinuous.

The low-rise apartment blocks he designed all look exactly alike, juxtaposing vertical beams, placed the exact same distance apart, with tall windows and prefab concrete panels. It’s the kind of boxy modernism that in England, Germany, and Eastern Europe is referred to as Brutalism, though Perret himself never described his work that way, preferring to be called a modernist. In any case, there’s a light, classical, and decidedly un-brutal quality to his work—an almost Haussmannian feel, but clean and updated.

“It’s an extraordinary apartment—you can tell it was done by a great architect,” said Pascal Denécheau, a musicologist and Paris transplant who moved here in 2009. Denécheau’s Paris friends were initially sniffy about his move. “They changed their minds quickly, and a few even bought here,” Denécheau said.

Jean Nouvel’s Les Bains des Docks, a swimming pool complex in Le Havre’s port area. Hemis/Alamy

Perret also left Le Havre one towering masterwork among his low-slung apartment blocks—St. Joseph’s Church, which he imagined as both a memorial to Le Havre’s war dead and a lighthouse of hope for the city’s future. Indeed, the grand octagonal spire of St. Joseph’s, roughly 390 feet high, looks very much like a lighthouse and can be seen from just about anywhere in the city. It was Perret’s idea to line the spire with small stained-glass insets that dissolve the heaviness of the concrete in a radiant play of multicolored light. He liked it so much he asked to be buried there—though his widow had other plans.

“It’s so massive from the outside, but from the inside, you can really feel it breathe,” said Vincent Duteurtre, who oversees Le Havre’s architectural heritage for the city government. He said that the city’s 2005 designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site changed everything, even for the Havrais themselves. “We were ashamed of our city—I felt it when I was growing up here. It even got the nickname Stalingrad-sur-Mer. Then something happened and we got our pride back,” Duteurtre said.

Indeed, there’s a new wave of enthusiasm here, and the city fathers have started sprucing up the whole town. The old Docks Vauban, where cotton and coffee were stored in the 19th century, have been turned into a shopping mall. Le Havre’s gritty southern districts, where the dockworkers once lived, are being completely retooled. Affordable, funky housing has been cobbled together out of old shipping containers, which were also used to create a big colorful arch on Le Havre’s quay (this makes sense: Le Havre is France’s largest container port).

It has all worked out surprisingly well. The Niemeyer buildings now house a world-class theater, a media library, a restaurant, and a welcoming shelter from Le Havre’s frequent drizzle. On a recent gray day, the place was filled with cheery young Havrais wearing headphones in the music library or sprawled on easy chairs in the lounge. Now the people just say, “Meet you at the Niemeyer,” which is second only to Perret’s work as an emblem of local pride.

Last summer, Le Havre celebrated its 500th anniversary. The festivities kicked off with something called the Magnifik Parade. Some marchers wore costumes made to look like the wall of a Perret apartment block. Others wore the spire of St. Joseph’s Church. Still others wore giant photographs of Perret’s head. The message was clear: Le Havre may have been created 500 years ago, but its real founding father is Auguste Perret.

Tour operator Red Savannah offers private, one-day Le Havre itineraries departing from Paris, starting at $800 per person.