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Rebuilding Northern France

By Hugh Clout
The devastation of war in northern France led to new approaches to planning as well as reconstruction both ancient and modern.

During 2014 events to commemorate the start of the World War One will attract large numbers of visitors to northern France and Belgium. Doubtless they will focus attention on battle sites, war cemeteries and museums, and I suspect that few visitors will think of exploring the landscapes and townscapes of post-war reconstruction that are often dismissed as being ‘ordinary’. Of course, most of those who suffered loss (the sinistrés) wanted their familiar environments to be ‘reconstituted’ and to closely resemble what had been lost. Reconstitution à l’identique was a phrase in common use after the Armistice of 11 November 1918.

Extending from the Channel coast to the Swiss border, the régions dévastées contained much of France’s most fertile farmland, and contributed one-third of its manufacturing output and most of its coal on the eve of war. Places close to the relatively stable front line experienced prolonged destruction but severe devastation could occur in just a few days or weeks of military advance or retreat. Whatever the circumstances, 620 settlements were annihilated, 1,330 were more than half destroyed, and 2,350 suffered rather less damage. Most were villages or small market towns, and thousands of isolated farmsteads were also destroyed. Among larger towns suffering damage, the mining centre of Lens and the textile town of Armentières were reduced to heaps of ruins, and the cathedral cities of Reims and Soissons lost four-fifths of their buildings. Destruction of churches, town halls and theatres so devastated the cultural legacy of northern France that it was a shattered wilderness at the end of 1918.

Military and civilian workers set about demolishing dangerous ruins and collecting human remains at temporary cemeteries prior to the establishment of the war cemeteries that now form such striking features in the landscapes of northern France. Official surveyors used four colours to map differing degrees of damage. Red showed complete destruction, yellow indicated important damage, green represented slight damage, and blue marked land that escaped destruction in the war-torn zone. Local residents feared that the state would requisition property in the ‘red zone’ and prevent it being farmed in future. During the 1920s, most of these contentious areas were purged of dangerous wartime paraphernalia. The ‘red zone’ was reduced in size and most was returned to agricultural use as the landowners desired. Only a few patches of ‘red zone’ survive, as state forests (around Verdun), military training grounds (near Reims), or commemorative sites. It is in these areas that the overgrown ruins of a score of villages that were not rebuilt in the 1920s may still be found.

In October 1914, the French state pledged to assist the sinistrés with reconstruction but not until April 1919 was legislation passed to specify how they might request compensation. The process proved to be a bureaucratic nightmare through which rich landowners could navigate with help from lawyers and accountants, but less affluent sinistrés were left to their own devices. New legislation eased the situation in 1920 allowing sinistrés to form reconstruction cooperatives in order to employ professionals, claim compensation, prepare plans for rebuilding, and retain architects and builders. By 1926, 2,600 reconstruction cooperatives with 176,000 members had been set up, with other cooperatives pooling funds and expertise to rebuild churches, schools and town halls within dioceses or départements. Most of these organisations were not wound up until well into the 1930s.

Long-awaited legislation, known as the ‘Loi Cornudet’, on the planning, ‘embellishment’ and extension of French towns, was passed in March 1919. Covering towns in the Paris region, those with more than 10,000 residents as well as smaller places that were growing rapidly, it also embraced all settlements that had undergone destruction during World War One. This ambitious law sought to ensure that urban growth and reconstitution should be both orderly and hygienic, and conform to official town plans. Application of the law was to prove remarkably slow and contentious for places that were simply expanding. Indeed, only one-sixth of such settlements had their plans drawn up and approved by 1940. By contrast, the situation was much more urgent for war-torn towns and villages since no reconstitution work (for which compensation might be claimed) was permitted until a plan had been drawn up and had received official approval. The introduction of improvements to street layout, housing, water supply and mains drainage was an essential feature of this well-intentioned law; however it generated layers of bureaucracy and slowed down the fundamental task of rebuilding. Hundreds of thousands of sinistrés spent years, rather than months, living in huts provided by the state, in patched-up ruins, or in overcrowded homes of family or friends. Temporary churches, town halls, shops and other commercial buildings were commonplace across northern France throughout the 1920s.

Early in that decade French architects and builders were confronted with an unprecedented challenge as plans for what came to be known as the ‘great reconstruction’ had to be prepared, since they were called upon to design or construct whole settlements or neighbourhoods rather than satisfying the wishes of individual clients concerned with single buildings. At this time, the planning profession was in its infancy and most reconstruction plans were drafted by architects with little or no expertise of complete settlements. Members of the Alliance d’Hygiène Sociale and similar organisations argued that good design, access to light and air, and provision of clean water and efficient drains were essential if reconstruction were to succeed. Architect-planners wholeheartedly accepted these objectives but opinions were divided on matters of style. ‘Regionalists’ drew inspiration from what had been lost and from the bricks and stone of surviving buildings, whilst ‘modernizers’ favoured innovative designs and the maximum use of concrete and steel. In practice, use of concrete for infrastructure and brick or stone for exterior cladding provided a workable compromise. Among construction companies, family firms favoured traditional, artisanal approaches, whilst big firms from Paris or industrial areas employed machinery and large teams of workers.

The ‘great reconstruction’ of the 1920s remodelled the layout of thousands of villages and small towns, and saw the rebuilding of numerous churches, mairies (town halls) and schools. Farmhouses across northern France were improved, but few landowners took advantage of funded schemes to reorganise fragmented agricultural holdings. At a different scale, the reconstitution of devastated neighbourhoods in larger towns produced notable changes in the townscape that surpassed the replacement of individual buildings. As they contributed to this process, some architect-planners looked resolutely to the future, whilst others favoured the reinvention of tradition.

The widely publicised destruction of the ancient cathedral city of Reims, where kings of France had been crowned across the centuries, attracted attention from around the world and especially from American architects, planners, building companies and benefactors who were eager to assist the work of reconstruction cooperatives set up by local sinistrés. The Renaissance des Cités mutual welfare group enlisted the services of George Burdett Ford (1878–1930), who had studied architecture and planning in the USA and Paris. An ambitious ‘Ford Plan’ for Reims proposed creating broad, modern avenues and parks as well as restoring the cathedral and other historic buildings à l’identique. Some of Ford’s early ideas had to be scaled down because of cost, but by the early 1930s many had been implemented and Reims had been largely rebuilt. Its reconstituted art-deco banks, cinemas, department stores and car showrooms, aligned along widened city streets, symbolised a new age of consumerism. Visitors from across the Atlantic declared that Reims had become the most ‘American’ of French cities. Smaller examples of remodelled townscapes that benefited from international expertise and funding during the 1920s are found at Soissons and Verdun, where historic fortifications were declassified, thereby providing additional space for reconstruction work

By contrast, much of the rebuilding in French Flanders involved a reinvention of tradition and the application of ‘neo-Flemish’ designs for churches, public buildings, shops and houses that typically surrounded re-organised town squares and lined newly widened streets. Louis-Marie Cordonnier (1854–1940) was the most prominent (but not the only) architect to work on towns and villages in the devastated Lys Valley, located to the west of the city of Lille. He had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and drew inspiration for the work of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, best known for his application of medieval designs. Jean-Baptiste Cordonnier (1820-1902), father of Louis-Marie, had been a renowned architect who designed apartments in Lille and weekend retreats along the northern coast. Between 1880 and the outbreak of war, Louis-Marie designed ‘neo-Flemish’ town halls, belfries and commercial buildings in and around Lille and on the northern coalfield, as well as the massive Peace Palace in The Hague. The reconstruction plans that he and his associates prepared in the 1920s incorporated additional space for markets and the movement of vehicles. The replacement churches, town halls and belfries that they designed made abundant use of brick and stone. As well as working with reconstruction cooperatives in Armentières, Bailleul, Merville, Laventie and nearby towns, Cordonnier designed many churches that would be rebuilt by ecclesiastical cooperatives in the dioceses of Lille and Arras. In some instances, his initial settlement plans and proposals for individual buildings proved too expensive to implement and had to be simplified. Cordonnier’s work is particularly well represented around the central square of Armentières, where the town hall and belfry, the main church, market hall and the monument aux morts were designed by him. However, the smaller town of Bailleul arguably conveys the most complete expression of his distinctive style. Mundane workers’ dwellings were replaced by elegant brick houses, and a model hospital and several schools were rebuilt in ‘neo-Flemish’ style as well as the vast town hall and the church of Saint-Vaast. In continuation of his pre-war activities, Cordonnier employed his talents in the coal-mining town of Lens, where he designed the Grand Bureaux des Mines, now occupied by the science faculty of the University of Artois.

The landscapes of war-torn northern France that were reassembled during the 1920s comprise a variety of unmistakably new features such as the cités-jardin (garden suburbs) that were laid out around Reims to accommodate residents displaced by rather more spacious rebuilding in the inner city. Other examples include estates for railway workers that were built adjacent to major junctions and marshalling yards. By contrast, few visitors to Arras would imagine that its two great market squares, belfry, elaborate town hall, bishop’s palace and cathedral had suffered intense destruction during the First World War and had been reconstructed à l’identique by architects using photographs and drawings. Local stone created a visual illusion of authenticity but reinforced concrete was employed in building frames. In sharper focus, the townscapes of reconstruction are also assemblages of reconstitution in which architects employed by cooperatives or by individual property owners gave full expression to their ideas. As a result, art-deco buildings are found not only in Reims and Soissons, but also near the Gare de Lille-Flandres in central Lille, around the Grand’Place in Béthune, and along the shopping streets of Lens as well as adjacent to its rebuilt railway station. Unlike their ‘invisibility’ in past decades, the reassembled landscapes – and reconstituted buildings – that resulted from the great reconstruction of the 1920s have started to be reappraised as cultural features in their own right after many decades of neglect. Special websites, brochures and maps have been produced, and new museums, information panels and way-marked heritage trails now play their part in revealing and interpreting the reconstituted landscapes of northern France to residents and visitors alike. Indeed, four of Cordonnier’s belfries (Armentières, Comines, Dunkirk, Loos) figure on the list of two dozen across northern France that were recognised by UNESCO in 2005 as forming a World Heritage Site. Most certainly, there is another landscape history to explore in the dozen northern départements for those who may not be satisfied by visits to changing frontlines, battlefields, military cemeteries, and war museums. However, the story cannot end there, since these areas experienced further waves of destruction associated with the German advance of 1940, Allied bombing of transport nodes and manufacturing sites, and further damage linked to the German retreat in 1944–45. This shaped a different geography of destruction from that produced during 1914–18, since coastal ports, bridging points, industrial areas and settlements near airfields experienced intense loss. A second phase of reconstruction duly followed in the late 1940s and 1950s that required much more effective urban planning than that associated with the Loi Cornudet. This process added an array of often strikingly modern features to the palimpsest of cultural landscapes in northern France that awaits the attention of perceptive visitors.

Professor Hugh Clout is a geographer who has taught at University College London since 1996.

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Posted by Peter Quinn - July 14th, 2014
A fascinating aspect of the war that is almost always overlooked in any discussion of its effect. Very interesting piece.

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