Bienvenue au Havre!

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Ok folks, this is going to be a longish one, as I am now on my third full day (time flies!) in the lovely city of Le Havre, on the northern coast of France, in the region of Upper Normandy.

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I’m here for an artist’s residency as a “Winner of the “Le Havre-New York-Exchanging Glances” program with the support of Institute Francais (Paris) and the City of Le Havre”, an extremely generous program also coordinated through Triangle Association in Brooklyn, NY. I am here with another New York artist, “Winner” Nora Herting, while two Le Havre artists take our places in Brooklyn. We are here for almost three months to explore the city, seaside, history and culture and draw from all of this to make art! I am incredibly grateful to these organizations for this fantastic opportunity and am thrilled to be back in Europe with nothing to do but explore and create

More on the history of Le Havre as I discover it, but in our first few days we’ve just been settling in and wandering around the city. We are housed in a flat between two elementary school playgrounds, so children periodically run around yelling just outside our apartment (front and back) throughout the day. Of course they are yelling in French, so I’m hoping some of it will sink in. In the evenings there are very low-impact aerobic courses for the local femmes, who shake it to old-school Madonna. The flat is quite large and comfortable–the only inconvenient aspect is the front door keyhole which is located, curiously enough, about 1 foot off the ground.

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As noted, Le Havre is on the coast and is a major port for cargo of all sorts, from goods to people, and there is a constant flow of cargo ships, cruise ships, tugboats and sailboats in and out of the port. The seafront is lovely, with clear green water and a beach of gorgeous rocks/pebbles.

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I understand that the rocks are largely fragments of the buildings destroyed in WWII, when the city was held by the Germans and the Allies bombed the entire downtown to obliteration. This, of course, changed the identity of the city forever.

Le Havre, 1939, pre-bombing:

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Le Havre, 1944, post-bombing:

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It’s difficult to grasp the extent of the destruction, where the only things left of the downtown were the roads. Of course numerous locations have experienced similar if not worse devastation–what makes Le Havre unique is the method of its reconstruction. Rather than try to recreate the city as it was, the downtown was redesigned, replanned and rebuilt under the direction and design of a single mind; architect Auguste Perret. He retained some of the main streets and sites (church, city hall) but largely created an entirely new city almost exclusively out of reinforced concrete for its ease of use and affordability. His overriding theme was “harmony”, which extended from the urban plan to the architectural design to the furnishings of the new apartments for the people. After a brief tour of the city I have also learned that Perret put specific building rules into effect and then subsequent architects had room to play within those rules, so there are variations between the buildings, especially with each decade and change in architectural style. I am of course reducing what was a complicated effort to its most simple idea and there will be more to come on the reconstruction. The image below shows some of the reconstructed city center. The central tower is a concrete and stained-glass church, Saint-Joseph.

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At first glance the downtown is a fascinating time capsule and a monument to the force of a single vision and the ideals of 1950’s France. The buildings are uniformly blocky and generally rather low (from NYC standards, of course), but full of windows. It’s an interesting experience to walk down the streets, watching the buildings spread and fold against each other, almost creating the sense of a single, long, multi-faceted building. Square after square after square are stacked and laid next to another in almost dizzying regularity. 

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Since our tour I have a better appreciation for the subtleties of the buildings, but that is for another post. Fortunately humans inhabit these spaces and the cubes are made distinguishable by plants, chairs, awnings, and every once in a while, a retiree.

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I should note that those photos were taken on an overcast day and when the sun shines on the concrete they glow with a much more beautiful light.

Outside of the downtown original buildings still stand, revealing a surprising variety of architecture.

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Here you’ll also see more contemporary structures, which, along with the seaside and errant palm trees, can give parts of the city an almost mediterranean feel.

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But the big draw is still the sea, and we’ve already witnessed some gorgeous sunsets.

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More to come, but for now, bonne nuit! 

 

About Stephanie Beck

Exploring the international world of art.
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