Visiting Auguste Perret's staple apartment of Post-War architecture in Havre
Modernity and functionality in the profit of the middle-class
© Ana Malnar: Apartment Auguste Perret in the city of the Havre: dining room integrated with the living area
“Let's not do what our ancestors did, let's do what they would do in our place.”
- Auguste Perret
The ruines of Havre after the Second World War, 1950. Source: https://passerelles.essentiels.bnf.fr/fr/chronologie/construction/
The city of the Havre in northwestern France, and the second-largest port in the country, stands out as one of the most devastated European city after the Second World War. With the total of 132 bombardments between May 1940 and September 1944 made by German and British forces, the aftermath resulted in 5 126 deaths and 12 500 from the total of 19 500 destroyed properties. By the end of 1947 about 30 000 habitants lived displaced in 4 800 temporary settlements made by wood or construction material. The reconstruction of cities destroyed by the war started in France in 1941, in the midst of an ongoing war. Auguste Perret arrived in Havre in 1945 as the chief of reconstruction, faced with an important constraint of budget and time. Thousands of citizens needed to be housed in the most urgent and cost-effective manner, and Perret's solution was reinforced concrete. Perret stood out as a huge promoter of concrete since 1903, with his project of a building in Rue Frankin, Paris. He would state that "concrete is a stone that we create, much more beautiful and worthy than natural stone".
© Ana Malnar: Auguste Perret's residential bulding in the city of Havre
© Ana Malnar: Auguste Perret's residential bulding in the center of Havre
Although the whole concept of the new city reaching the surface of 150 hectares seemed uniform and sequenced, in reality, the concrete tones variated in color (rose, beige...) and appearance (raw, graveled, bush hammered). The columns with their capitals, the clusters, and the balconies differentiated in forms, with the single particularity of Rue de Paris, and its covered galleries inspired by the famous Rue de Rivoli in Paris. The exteriors of Perret's residences match perfectly with their interior: they are rational and functional. The apartments are luminous, equipped with vast living areas, American-style kitchens, collective heating, and air ducts. The first 30 apartments were delivered to dwellers on the 15th of October 1950. Perret passed away in 1954 in Paris, without seeing the final realization of this life achievement: the complete reconstruction of the city.
Auguste Perret in 1941. Source: https://labeilleetlarchitecte.wordpress.com/2013/06/30/citation-du-dimanche-35/
As a son of a stonemason, August Perret was born in Ixelles, suburb of Bruxelles in 1874. His interested for architecture started very early, at the age of 11, with the passion for reinforced concrete. He will experiment with this material in his projects of the Saint Malo's casino (1899), the Franklin building in Paris (1903) and the Champs Elysées theater (1913). After his father's death, Perret took off, along with his brothers, the paternal stone enterprise that combined the professions of architecture and construction. His student Le Corbusier worshiped him as someone who was "a pal with the laborers and sublime with the clients". In the period between the two wars, Perret's name was attached to the church Notre Dame du Raincy (1923), conceived with his brother Gustave, tower Perret in the city of Grenoble (1924)- the first tower of reinforced concrete in the world, The Arcueil chapel (1929), Iéna palace (1937)... Recognized as one of the most important french architects by 1930, Perret was not a revolutionist, but an architect evolving between classical tradition and modernism.
© Ana Malnar: the living area furniture pieces are close to those designed by René Gabriel and chosen by Auguste Perret for the 1947 International Exibition in Paris
© Ana Malnar: the living are with the buffet from the 60s
© Ana Malnar: coffee table and chairs from the 60s, inspired by René Gabriel's design
Auguste Perret's show flat located in the center of Havre was opened to the public in 2006, and included in Unesco's list of world heritage. As a visitor, I was immediately struck by the apartment's exposure to natural light. Perret's entire architectural concept of the new city was based on giving the major importance to natural light, hence the large number of vertical windows, that were at the time something entirely new and even repulsive to the locals. By vastly opening the space to lighting, it was no longer possible to furnish the interiors with the standard massive, vertical pieces as they would be visible from the outside, deteriorating the intimacy of the household. Therefore, a whole new system of interior design had to be re-invented.
© Ana Malnar: salon furniture from the 60s
© Ana Malnar: salon furniture from the 60s
© Ana Malnar: supporting post, made of concrete, right in the middle of the entrance
The modularity desired by Auguste Perret is made possible by the positioning of the ducts and the post-beam system, limiting the supporting structure to the entrance column alone. Perret argued that an ideal apartment should be organized around a vast common piece, that should combine a maximum of functions (dining room, reception room, study). The rooms, connected with a bathroom, should be withdrawn as much as possible to protect the privacy of the dweller.
© Ana Malnar: kitchen view on the dining area and study room
© Ana Malnar: the study area with the iconic Remington writing machine
Vincent Duteurtre, a French architect in charge of the renovation of this show flat, pointed out that, connecting the kitchen space with the rest of the living area, changed even the position of a woman in the household, as she was now in the central part of the housing, easily integrated in the daily family life instead of being occupied with domestic chores in a backside kitchen. This American-style kitchen enjoys free-flowing space and natural light from the living room. The mid-century kitchens are also a template for achieving a minimalist, Scandinavian vibe.
© Ana Malnar: the kitchen area composed of a Cepac unit, consisting of a sink and cupboards above and below. It is one of the only pieces of furniture that was delivered with the home
© Ana Malnar: the American-style kitchen
© Ana Malnar: details from the kitchen - a Yalacta yogurt maker, an Auto-Thermos pressure cooker, a Siemens toaster, a coffee maker, an electric coffee grinder, a meat grinder, a Frigidaire refrigerator, a Viso radio
The original version of the apartment was furnished by René Gabriel and Marcel Gascoin. It is interesting to note that Gascoin used scientific methods to determine the place of each object, by its volume, heaviness, and purpose. He was inspired by ship cabins to create high-end furniture that economizes space and can be easily displaced and personalized. For the purpose of furnishing the show flat, the city of Havre acquired staple mid-century furniture pieces, from private owners or garage sales.
© Ana Malnar: the parental bedroom
© Ana Malnar: parental bedroom, details
To understand the interior design of the 60s, it is important to say something about the social and economic context that influenced the way people imagined and created their living spaces. The interior design of the 60s was highly personalized. Following the period of economic unrest, it was a time when people started to pay attention to the way they decorated their homes, and the American home became a statement in this sense. It was also a period where Space-age influences and futuristic designs became prevalent, with iconic pieces like the egg chair and the bubble chair taking the spotlight. The furniture design, as reflected in Perret's show flat, was sleek, primarily Scandinavian-inspired. The prevalent design style was modernism, heavily influenced by Danish Modernism, the Scandinavian style that first surfaced in the 1940s. It was categorized by natural materials, clean lines, minimal forms, and an emphasis on function.
© Ana Malnar: the bathroom
© Ana Malnar: bathroom details. The bathroom has three doors, which facilitates the circulation of air and residents in the home. There are two washing machines, one manual and one electric/gas, but also... a tie straightener!
It is impossible to define the design of Perret's show flat without giving some importance to Marcel Gascoin, a decorator born in Havre in 1907, who specialized in "mass-produced" furniture. He played a central role in the emergence of French design after the Second War worldwide. His father and grandfather were both mariners and from a young age, and he was interested in the precision of a boat's interior design. His company Comera (Companie des Meubles Rationnels), founded in 1945 and specialized in kitchen design, developed the innovative concept of modular storage units that could fit together to make optimal use of available space. Known for his stylistic purity and respect for the material, Gascoin was one of the first to produce furniture sets that reflected a Scandinavian simplicity of wood design, and were mobile, modular, elegant, well-built, and ergonomic.
© Ana Malnar: Marceil Gascoin's C-chair and small secretary in waxed oak, 1950s.
© Ana Malnar: children's room with details
While finding solutions adapted to all budgets, Marcel Gascoin acquired a solid reputation as a rationalist and found one of his specialties in saving space by combining several functions in the same piece of furniture. The children's room is probably the best example of Gascoin's functional design: he invents a child's desk serving as a storage locker, a desk and a blackboard, stools adjustable according to age, and dining tables that become bridges by rotation... The possibility to offer sophisticated, modern housing to a middle-class population is probably the biggest achievement of both Perret's and Gascoin's visionary design. Even 70 years later, the architectural principles of Auguste Perret still remain attractive. In 2023 for example, the price for a four-bedroom apartment in Perret's building is negotiated around 3500 euros per square meter, which importantly exceeds the standard price of 2 500 euros per square meter, for an apartment of the same size.
Visit Auguste Perret's show flat in Havre:
181 Rue de Paris, 76600 Le Havre