8 MASTERPIECES

IMMEUBLE DE LA RUE FRANKLIN

The immeuble de la rue Franklin opens up, for the Perret brothers, the path of experimentation. They were tasked with the building’s plans, but not its construction, since the family business had not yet mastered the technique of reinforced concrete.

The narrow plot (15.87 m x 13.13 m), its unusual orientation and the impossibility of designing a rear courtyard for it pleaded in favor of a structural frame, either in metal or reinforced concrete. “We preferred reinforced concrete” explained Auguste Perret, “that seemed to present advantages as much in terms of solidity as in fireproofing and cost.” In 1910, during his internship in Peter Behrens’ office in Germany, Le Corbusier proudly showed a photograph of the Perret brothers’ building. “In France, there is someone who is really developing modern architecture”. Sigfried Giedion insisted, in 1928, on the freshness of this “visionary construction”. No twentieth-century architectural historian after him would fail to mention this work as a “milestone in the modern era”.

THEATRE DES CHAMPS ELYSEES

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is a decisive work in the history of reinforced concrete. This prestigious edifice conferred an aura of nobility on the new material, in contact with a group of eminent artists nurtured by creative classical culture (Antoine Bourdelle, Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, Ker Xavier Roussel, Henri Lebasque, Jacqueline Marval).

Approached by Gabriel Astruc in 1906 to build a complex of three halls on the Esplanade des Champs-Élysées, the Swiss architect Henri Fivaz, probably inspired by the example of the Berne opera house, proposed a theater in reinforced cement. Moved to the avenue Montaigne, the project was initially designed in 1910 by Roger Bouvard, who proposed a metallic construction and by Henry Van de Velde, who wanted to use reinforced concrete.

Called as contractors in 1911, the Perret brothers imagined a structurally innovative solution: “four pylons supporting two bridges” encased by uniform concrete levels. Revising the plans of the designated architects, they transformed the theater’s expression to such a degree that by the end of building works, they were able to claim its paternity, provoking violent debate in the Parisian press.

EGLISE NOTRE-DAME DU RAINCY

The église du Raincy would not have been possible without the experience the Perret brothers had previously acquired with industrial hangars. While aligned with those icons of modernity, the Esders Garage and the sheds of the Marinoni factory, the church poses, fundamentally, the question of its difference. “I put so much of my thought and my heart into this church,” confided Auguste Perret, “that it is hard for me to talk about it. It is one of the works of which I am most proud.”

The operation is a construction, but one in which all of the elements are arranged in such a way that they form an architecture. “Our posts were set ten meters apart in both directions, we could have organized them in a sequence of crossing vaults (like we would have for a factory). But it was necessary to reinforce the sense of the building, to show the alter. So, we developed a long barrel vault with a series of counter-thrusting cross vaults […]. The shape of the vaults was determined by the formwork that we owned and that, for the sake of cost-effectiveness, we used […] The bell tower could have been made from four heavy concrete pillars. The result, too raw, would have required ornamentation. But we had the molds for the piers in the nave […]”

 

SALLE CORTOT

The salle Cortot is, first, an interior, a closed box treated sculpturally. Its blind façade expresses this interiority.

Its acoustic qualities, as patron Alfred Cortot marveled, are astonishing: “People other than me, with the necessary competence, would tell Auguste Perret that they admired, for technical reasons the hall he built for the École normale de musique. As a witness to the stroke of genius with which he transformed unfavorable location and proportions into an amphitheater, whose lines evoke Greek perfection while finding their inspiration in the refined modernity most beautifully exemplified by the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, I can only thank him for having given music-lovers and virtuosos the ideal setting in which music sounds more beautiful to those who listen to it and closer to the hearts of those who perform it. He said to Maugeot and me, ‘I will make you a hall that will sound like a violin.’ He was right. But, surpassing our expectations, that violin happens to be a Stradivarius.”

 

MOBILIER NATIONAL

The Mobilier national synthesizes, for the Perret brothers, a series of original experiments conducted from the beginning of the 1930’s on the theme of the “grid” and the “monument”.

This experimental sequence, from within a continuous and obstinate research, constitutes an unprecedented study of urban space. Addressing the very large scale through projects for Geneva (competition for the League of Nations, 1927), Moscow (Palace of the Soviets, 1931), Toulon (Marine nationale, 1932) and Paris (Porte Maillot, 1930 / Trocadéro Hill, 1933), the Perret brothers defined a new approach to architecture based on a topographic use of the gridded structural frame. Freed from the necessity of defining a building, but still embodying concrete processes of edification, the geometric grid becomes primarily urban. A result of these new project methods, the Mobilier national appears as a complete monument, classical and balanced. Historian Peter Collins considers it a paradigm of the architectural language created by Auguste Perret, “that he spoke like a poet”.

 

PALAIS D’IÉNA

The Palais d’Iéna, former Museum of Public Works, is the most fully realized expression of “the order of reinforced concrete” invented by Auguste Perret. Its program was developed as part of the activities surrounding the Paris Exposition of 1937.

It involved constructing, near the Trocadéro – on the exact site where, four years earlier, the architect had imagined his vast project for the Chaillot hill – an exhibition space for models of state-sponsored civil engineering projects. After a series of sketches exploring different massing solutions, Perret developed a master plan adjusted to the shape of the site: an isosceles triangle with a rotunda at its peak and a curve at its base. A common floor level absorbs the slope in terrain. The rotunda, housing an amphitheatre, extends into two long hypostyle halls, linked by a curved gallery. Though only partially realized, the Palais d’Iéna appears as a kind of architectural testimonial by the master of reinforced concrete. It retraces all of the themes present in his earlier projects in order to extend, to its conclusion, the rationalist logic of the “sovereign shelter” that he identified with architecture itself.

 

HOTEL DE VILLE DU HAVRE

The hôtel de ville in Le Havre is the most monumental edifice built during post-war reconstruction in France. Despite being the subject of countless debates and design difficulties, this vast structure appears as a harmonious whole.

The interplay of lateral volumes ensures the articulation between the tower and the horizontal mass. The piano nobile seems to descend through the colonnade set upon its base. The tower, whose final form was the result of close collaboration between Auguste Perret and Jacques Tournant, opens at its summit. Its structural frame is left to rise alone in a crown. In this way, a formal dialectic is established between the sovereign shelter and the tower, one that brings into play the multiple resources of structural classicism. Situated where the older urban fabric and the rebuilt center converge, the building offers citizens a solid reference system for the perception of the whole city. It expresses the semantic richness of the order of reinforced concrete and announces its possible applications to urban space. A fulcrum for the square that bears its name, the town hall elucidates, through its very size, the generosity of the cultural project Auguste Perret imagined for Le Havre.

EGLISE SAINT JOSEPH

The Église Saint-Joseph towers over the reconstructed center of Le Havre. Dedicated to the memory of victims of the bombardment, it rises like a lighthouse at water’s edge.

Its lantern tower, visible from the open sea, has become a symbol of the port town. And yet, nothing suggested, in 1945, the construction of a sanctuary at the scale of the city. The former church, erected after the war of 1870, had never been completed. It was still crowned by its “temporary” wooden bell tower in 1944. Destroyed in the bombings, it should have been rebuilt as a simple neighborhood church. The change in program is due to Jacques Tournant, at the origin of the powerful edifice we know today. He showed Auguste Perret’s 1926 project for the Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc basilica to Abbot Marie. Enthusiastic, the priest contacted the architect. Perret took up and adapted the design he had proposed for Paris, a design he had also attempted to realize through competitions (for Sainte-Thérèse in Metz, 1933 and for the Buenos-Aires cathedral, 1936). After several sketches, he arrived at an edifice of exceptional conceptual solidity, bringing thirty years of research in religious art to a masterful conclusion.