Placebook (59)

by Nikolaus Knebel

Le Havre, France. Memories return unexpectedly. Often triggered by words, sounds, smells, feelings, or looks, they can eventually bridging between one place and another. I had only spent a few hours in Le Havre on the way to embarking on a ferry across the channel. The city left an impression of light modernity mixed with some grandeur on me, reinforcing the general mood of France that was transferred to us through the French classes we had in school.

I sensed a similar look-and-feel when visiting the French school in Addis Ababa, the Lycée Guebre Mariam. The school consists of three long rectilinear slabs arranged in a U-shape so that a well-proportioned courtyard is created. The design of each of the three buildings is based on the same construction grid, which is clearly visible in the expressive vertical columns on the facades. The walls between these columns are either glazed or filled in with materials of different kind. What is striking are the nice proportions that range from the small scale details all the way to the overall arrangement of the ensemble. Overall, a pragmatic and disciplined, however, elegant and playful way of building.

Given the few modern buildings in Addis Ababa, I could soon detect a dozen more of such kind of buildings. They were all based on the same grid, but differed in materials, infills, proportions, and arrangements. The architect it turned out was a Frenchman, Henri Chomette. He not only left his traces in Ethiopia, but also built the Central Bank building in Brazzaville, the French Embassy in Cotonu, a market and town hall in Abijan, and back in Addis Ababa again, a police academy which later became the headquarter of the African Union. Again, the same formula for building was clearly visible, but nevertheless each project had its own unique feature.

Henri Chomette began his career as an assistant to Auguste Peret, the old French master, who was in charge of the rebuilding of Le Havre after the Second World War. Peret came up with a concept of rebuilding the city on a standard grid that would run from the urban design level all the way to the planning of the construction details. A systemic approach, that fitted to the cultural, as well as the socio-economic situation of post-war France, where labour-intense and job-creating low-tech construction was needed to get the industry on its feet, as well as the fast reconstruction of cities, a process that needed to be controlled aesthetically through a straight-forward set of rules rather than complicated regulations. Today, Le Havre is one of the few modern cities that have the World Heritage status.

Henri Chomette pursued a long-lasting career and built in many African countries. The lessons from Le Havre seemed to fit very well with the African context. And they would still do today.

all PICKS von