In the early 20th century, Auguste Perret discovered a still recent building material, reinforced concrete. Delighting in its clear, elementary forms, he used it in hundreds of innovative designs over the following decades.
Perret was barely 30 years old when he created a new building in the Rue Franklin in Paris, a building that soon made history. The young architect made no secret of the structure of this apartment building: the load-bearing reinforced concrete skeleton is clearly separated from the non-load-bearing filling and both are dearly visible in the facade. Thanks to the narrow supports and large window areas, the building, despite its size, does not appear at all massive, but rather light and transparent. Perret had decided in favor of a comparatively new building material: reinforced concrete, in other words concrete cast over a framework of iron bars, which had been in use only since the mid-igth century.
Perret remained loyal to the material all his life, and it is the main element of his buildings of the decades that followed. Only rarely are the facades of his concrete structures disguised with cladding, as with the Theatre des Champs-Elysées, which is adorned with reliefs by the artist Antoine Bourdelle. This site for contemporary music on the impressive Paris street, incidentally, became talked about not only from an architectural point of view—it was there, after all, that modernism in ballet originated.
A Man of Few Words
Perret, who from 1905 worked with his brothers Gustave and Claude, moved straight on to the next commissions, his chosen material continuing to be among the tools of his trade. This is shown by some 380 executed designs. He created department stores, urban villas, cathedrals and museums in concrete—in Casablanca, Paris, and Sao Paulo. His work soon found its way into exhibitions and architectural journals, and Perret, who was also active as a teacher (not least among his pupils was Le Cor-busier), was honored with many awards. Self-confident, dignified and elegant—this was how his colleagues described him. There was one more thing on which they all agreed: Perret was a man of few words. His eloquence was expressed in his designs.
A Celebration of Concrete
In France, though not in his much-loved Paris, but in Le Havre in Normandy, Perret made his name as a town planner. From 1945 he dedicated himself to the reconstruction of the port, which had been almost completely destroyed during the Second World War. Within ten years the new Le Havre came into being, according to the plans produced by his office, with concrete appearing everywhere, and used not just for basic utilitarian buildings. His prefabricated private houses, the church of St Joseph, and the Town Hall have a special fascination all of their own, and since 2005 have been placed on UNESCO’s list of World Cultural Heritage sites.
Major works of Auguste Perret
– Rue Franklin apartments, Paris, 1902–1904
– Garage Ponthieu, Paris, 1907
– Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1913
– concrete cathedral in Le Raincy, France, Église Notre-Dame du Raincy, 1923, with stained-glass work by Marie-Alain Couturier
– the Concert Hall of the École Normale de Musique de Paris, 1929
– extensions to the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1945
– the City Hall, St. Joseph’s Church and further reconstruction of the French city of Le Havre after more than 80,000 inhabitants of that city were left homeless following World War II, 1949–1956
– the Gare d’Amiens, 1955
– the villa Aghion, in Alexandria (destroyed 28 August 2009)