After the Liberation, rebuild a country in ruins ...

... The destruction of war affected every part of the country. Assessing this destruction was entrusted to a Committee on the Cost of the Occupation, set up on 21 October, 1944 and which a year later became the Consultative Damages and Reparations Commission.

Le Gouillonneys, mine clearers on the dunes, 1946. © Ministry of equipment

Lorient. ©Private coll. - Dunkirk, 20/07/1945. - Brest, Visit of General de Gaulle, 26/07/1945. ©ECPAD
Corps 1

Several obstacles made damage assessment difficult: the time elapsed between the liberation of the first departments in June 1944 and the total withdrawal of enemy troops in May 1945, the social and political uncertainties, the communication difficulties between regions. Furthermore, the Government that came out of the Resistance, in addition to calculating the ruins, also wanted to distinguish the share of the destruction due to Vichy, the occupying forces and different types of military operations, including Allied bombing.

The Toll of Destruction

Lorient, 04/06/ 1945. ©ECPAD/Tourand Jean-Jacques

Determining the amount of losses was essential to restoring production since this required setting priorities in allocating financial resources. It was also a moral, legal and political issue because the assessment of the damages and the needs arising as a result was to be used as an argument in requests for international aid. This explains some high estimates made by the authorities, both out of prudence when preparing budgets and to have room for manoeuvre in the upcoming peace treaty negotiations. In addition to its own counts, soon backed up by those of the Ministry for Reconstruction and City Planning, the Commission used data provided since 1940 by the National Statistics Service, town halls, the ”Ponts et Chaussées” route construction administration and Vichy's city planning services. As for private individuals, in line with a process similar to that of municipal administrations, they knew that the assessment of their damages would form the basis for calculating the amount of their benefits. So they did not tend to hold back when putting a figure on the amount of damages they suffered.

1,838 communes were declared to be disaster areas in 1946 with over 30% of their housing stock destroyed. Among these were 15 of the 17 cities having over 100,000 inhabitants, 21 of the 39 cities having between 50,000 and 100,000 inhabitants and 154 communes having between 10 and 50,000 inhabitants (out of 278). The entire urban infrastructure of the country had been hit, even if almost one quarter of the communes affected were small rural villages of between 200 to 2,000 inhabitants. 460,000 buildings were totally demolished and 1,900,000 damaged, i.e. 18 per cent of the building stock. Yet these numbers are an abstraction, as some agencies counted buildings, others counted in terms of apartments or premises occupied, the term building could refer to either the entire building or the main body of it. While not very important for urban buildings (although stations, factories and shops were subject to this inaccuracy), this method of calculation meant estimates for agricultural holdings varied significantly.

Railway station in Le Mans, 1945. ©ECPAD

Finally, the demolition of some 1,900 structures (bridges, tunnels and viaducts), 115 stations, 7,500 road bridges and 4,000 river bridges, made communications difficult with France being a splintered country until the early months of 1946.

Besides recording the number of destroyed buildings, the Commission established global figures for the country's major activities (agriculture, industry and trade, transport and communications), calculated in billions of francs and indicated in their 1939 value. The damage included, in descending order, spoliation, destruction, damage to persons and damage to property other than real estate.

Marseille, 03.07.1945. ©ECPAD

The most damage in terms of sectors was that to real estate and furniture far ahead of transport and communications which were almost on a par with industry and trade as well as agriculture. Assessment criteria also took account of the size and function of the affected city. The existence of damage to historic monuments and the original nature of the type of architecture was given as much weight as how early and how often the damage was repeated. And, of course, large ports weighed more than small harbours, to say nothing of the electoral weight of the rural communes which did of course suffer greatly but without significance in terms of the economic recovery. Finally, the method of destruction was not neglected when it came to assessing the damage. The barbaric or wanton nature of the destruction resulted in more importance being given to a ruined village burnt down in retaliation than to the bombing of a German submarine base.

Reconstruction was not going to be easy. Ten years were needed to rebuild most of the ruins.

A ministry dedicated to reconstruction and city planning

As soon as it was installed in the capital, the Provisional Government made use of the measures taken by the Vichy regime to cope with the destruction that had not ceased since the spring of 1940. It began by creating the Ministry for Reconstruction and City Planning (MRU) in November 1944. Under the direction of its first leader Raoul Dautry, architects, planners, surveyors, engineers and technicians who had been in office since 1940 and who had mostly escaped the purge, formed the backbone of this new ministry.

Lorient, 1956. ©Archives du Morbihan

Financing the reconstruction was governed by the law of octobre1946 on war damages. This law was relatively generous. The only restriction was that victims had to prove that rebuilding their destroyed property was not just an individual need but that it also was required for the ”common good”. In other words, residential, commercial or industrial properties were given priority over holiday homes while personal property received little if any compensation. In return, the future beneficiaries of compensation (communities or individuals) were subject to binding rules. Firstly, villages and towns had to be ranked as ”disaster areas”, i.e. have suffered destruction beyond the threshold at which compensation kicked in. Then they could not start rebuilding until they submitted a reconstruction and development plan to the MRU. The plan was reviewed by Ministry experts and was approved only if it complied with government directives. During all these administrative formalities, Villages and towns used the time to clear away the vast amounts of rubble, estimated to be around one hundred million cubic meters, which covered destroyed areas and to defuse some thirteen million mines that infested the country.

After declaring their losses individuals had to form associations, called reconstruction associations, to receive compensation. They also had to accept the locations of new buildings and the ministry's surface and comfort standards. The work was entrusted to state-licensed planners, architects and contractors chosen and imposed by Paris.

Two requirements guided the actions of the MRU: develop cities in line with the economic modernisation policy promoted by the government and put a stop to the housing crisis that had been latent since the end of the nineteenth century but aggravated by war damage and the increase in the birth rate

From left to right: Cité Commerciale, Lorient. - Equihen, Pas de Calais. ©Coll. P. Bernard - Brest, the 1960's. ©Association Les Amis du Polygone Point du Jour

Temporary Constructions

Wooden barracks, Caen.
©Coll. IWM DP

The construction of temporary buildings to house refugees and victims is consubstantial to wars and the destruction they cause. The north and east of the country had been covered with such constructions after 1918 with some still being inhabited in 1945. The Vichy government had in turn created a special department to build these temporary constructions after each major bombing campaign. Although it disappointed through lack of resources, this experience, as in many other areas, was used after 1945. Two problems, however, were holding back the development of these constructions. First, the very validity of their existence was challenged by some planners and politicians. In order not to incur unnecessary costs in the long term and to ensure sites within the areas earmarked for reconstruction remained cleared, they felt that the victims should not hope to be rehoused rapidly in dismountable huts and should find their own temporary solutions. In addition, despite the research conducted during the war, production was limited and it was necessary to call upon the outside market to procure these constructions and this again put a strain on tight budgets. Especially since the line taken in the First modernisation and equipment plan was to consider housing as a commodity, subject to such productive sectors as energy, machine tools and transport infrastructures recovering and developing. These principles, the consequences of which were accentuated by the increase in the birth rate and the concentration of the workforce in urban areas, led to an acute housing crisis both in rural and urban areas.

Government officials, local councillors and planners had to resign themselves to building provisional constructions as they were acutely aware that permanent buildings would not be ready for quite some time and were under pressure to appease an increasingly critical public opinion. While planners were hoping for a change in favour of housing in the second plan, 1947 was the year of massive construction of barracks in all affected cities. In Caen, as in Lorient, Le Havre or Dunkirk, shops reopened in the form of wooden stalls, hurriedly furnished shacks were used as schools, the faithful went to pray in shelter-churches and the inhabitants of the destroyed neighbourhoods lived in small maisonettes manufactured in France or imported from Sweden, Britain and the United States or from Germany and Austria as compensation for war damage.

These barrack districts made those who could get into them happy and those who could not, jealous (income too high or too low, non-compliance with deadlines for filing applications, political affiliation etc.). These barracks were relatively comfortable compared with the widespread substandard housing all over the country. This explains why today, in the twenty first century, these buildings are still inhabited, for example in Le Havre or Brest, by the descendants of their original occupants.

Once temporary lodgings had been provided, the next step was to decide what the reconstructed cities would look like.

Urban and architectural forms

Facade of the Cité Radieuse. Marseille.
©M.-G. Bernard Creative Commons

For planners, the reconstruction was an opportunity to modernise the cities. They wanted to remove the winding lanes bordered by slums and clean up the neighbourhoods where small workshops, polluting factories and popular dwellings were all piled up on top of each other creating unsanitary conditions and a source of disease. This is why, all reconstruction plans were designed based on the principle of separating large urban functions, a system called zoning. While stricken companies rebuilt their premises on the urban outskirts, the vacated space was earmarked for more spacious and less dense lodgings. Commercial and administrative functions were also grouped into single centres and this was the great novelty of cities in the 1950s.

The Old Port and the Tourette development
developed by Fernand Pouillon
between 1948 and 1953, Marseille. © DP

To achieve this loosening up and spreading out, the MRU undertook to consolidate fragmented plots. These sites were the result of a long urban history during which they were fragmented into a huge number of intricate narrow plots embedded into each other. This consolidation was complex: the agreement of the owners was needed and surface, situation and orientation equivalents had to be calculated. Long and hard negotiations resulted in solutions acceptable to both the authorities and victims in the disaster areas. These negotiated solutions, the only possibility in the context of the return to democracy, made the results of the consolidation less radical than planners had hoped. Nevertheless, the consolidation of the fragmented plots led to bigger and better regulated plots even though this operation was more or less in line with the spirit before the war.

Planners also wanted to change the roads, a new opportunity for negotiations with residents who lost valuable square meters for the benefit of this ”common good”, a concept that did not always get a favourable welcome from citizens still traumatised by the war, the Occupation and the loss of their property. While there were some significant innovations such as the wide avenues from the train station to the centre of Caen or Saint-Nazaire, planners failed to impose major upheavals in every case. The new routes, despite the scale of the corrections, were laid out in line with the spirit of the previous routes.

When choosing the forms, the MRU gave evidence of a more consensual pragmatism. The reconstructions were entrusted as much to proponents of the modern movement in architecture as to proponents of tradition architecture as taught at the École des Beaux-Arts. This is why reconstructions were, on the whole, neither totally modernist nor identical to those in the past. These ”average” reconstructions tried to refrain from breaking too brutally with the past. The forms of the new buildings tried to fit in to the old landscape. Some cities, however, were chosen for their symbolic strength. Thus, in Oradour-sur-Glane, a Limousin village burned during the retreat of the German army in June 1944, the ruins were preserved in remembrance of the martyrdom of its inhabitants and a new town was built a few hundred metres from its former location. Yet, this conservation of ruins as testimony of the horrors of the war was rare.

Dunkirk, in the 50's. ©DP

Most rebuilders, in agreement with most victims, called for so-called identical reconstructions. In Saint-Dié, this was the result of the opposition from inhabitants to Le Corbusier's modernist project. In Gien, Saint-Malo and Blois, the attachment of the communes to the older forms was relayed by the economic arguments of those who put forward the tourist appeal of their city. On the other hand, the proponents of modern architecture won the day in Le Havre with the project being entrusted to Auguste Perret, in Royan, which had lost a large number of its Rococo buildings built at the end of the 19th century when the resort was developed and in Sotteville-lès-Rouen, rebuilt by Marcel Lods. Beside these characteristic reconstructions, in most cities, attempts were made to patch up the devastated urban fabric and achieve a smooth transition between renovated old buildings and totally rebuilt neighbourhoods, as in Marseille and Caen.
While the debates between architects and planners were vibrant as they searched for solutions, little account was taken of the wishes of victims. These found that the orders handed down from Paris, both those from the MRU and from practitioners, did not reflect their specific situation and wishes. From this point of view, the history of the reconstruction can also be seen as that of the conflicting relationships between the central power, which established general rules, and municipalities, closer to the wishes of the victims. The inhabitants of the destroyed cities were not very aware of the debates between the different architectural schools of thought. The high-rise buildings, dear to the architects of the modern movement, seemed to them to be an ”American” import, far from their traditions. Furthermore, urban planning rules developed since the beginning of the century advocating the destruction of slums, the widening of alleys and the disappearance of small industries in residential areas, did not correspond in any way to their daily lives. They did not like concrete and terrace roofs and this was greatly regretted by Le Corbusier and his friend Eugène Claudius-Petit. This Minister of Reconstruction repeatedly regretted the choice of the French who were wary of modernist forms.

Because this type of architecture had the favor of the MRU, who had been won over by the slogan ”air, sun, light”, which involved the destruction of the slums, the end of alignments on the streets, in favour of perpendicular buildings, built in green spaces. The Ministry saw reconstruction as a whole with the same solutions being applied to every aspect of it. Municipalities however were aware of their specific situations. In Lorient for example, the first reconstruction plan provided for a vast green area which would have cut off the arsenal from the rest of the city, a solution contrary to the wishes of the municipal Council. It took much negotiation to come to an agreement. This was also the case in Marseille. No less than three major projects were developed before the Old Port buildings were rebuilt without skyscrapers along the old quays. In Dunkirk, plot consolidation saw victim associations and the Chief Planner at loggerheads. Similarly the wish of the Ministry to not rebuild Dugny, hit by the bombing of Le Bourget airport, were swept aside by the inhabitants of the city who refused such a radical solution.

Despite these difficulties, little by little, all the building sites started up in 1947, giving the French urban landscape a new look. The completion of reconstruction, a decade later, coincided with the beginning of mass industrialised construction and territorial development directly based on reconstruction policies.