Béthune : a town designed by Jacques Alleman


In October 1914 the German Army came to a halt eight kilometres from Béthune and began shelling the town; however the most destructive bombardment took place in the last year of the war on 28 May 1918, flattening the main square and its immediate surroundings. In total 25% of the houses on the town were destroyed and 28% damaged. The belfry, alone among the debris, remained standing but was severely damaged. Work to clear away the rubble began as early as October 1918. The reconstruction of Béthune fell within the scope of Cornudet's law of 1919 which required all towns of over 10,000 inhabitants to draw up plans for future development, improvement or extension. The guiding principle put in place by the architect Mulart was simple: improve access to the centre of the town by widening the existing streets and lay a new road between the train station and the main square. The unhealthy dwellings in the town centre would be removed. Houses would be connected to mains water and sewage, and "water closets" made compulsory.

As with other towns in a similar situation, Mulart's plan was a compromise between two contradictory requirements: he had to make the urban environment more spacious and open, whilst respecting the law which required him adhere to the pre-war layout of Béthune. Around the edge of the town centre private companies built estates to house their workers and the most remarkable of these was built by the railway company La Compagnie du Nord. It was a pioneering development equipped with a certain number of collective facilities such as a community centre, sports field, schools, and so on. Reconstruction for private homes was not subject to planning rules governing their appearance and the result was an eclectic mix of styles.

The main square was the only part of the town to be given special attention. The architect Jacques Alleman was given the job of rebuilding the square, the town council requiring him to pay special attention to the aesthetics of the undertaking. Alleman was confronted with two problems: one, the layout of the properties had to be retained despite being narrow, some facades barely exceeding 2.7 metres; the other, the town hall was to remain in its original position on a plot of land fifteen metres wide and thirty metres deep. Before the war the main square showed little architectural identity, it was surrounded by brick houses of different sizes and white facades

Béthune town square presented Jacques Alleman with an opportunity to use his knowledge of the decorative arts to great extent (he went on to receive an award in the exhibition of decorative arts of 1925). The square was designed to be like a great open-air theatre where the town and the town hall would provide both a picturesque and regionalist backdrop. Two essential themes were to dominate the square: the gable and the balcony. The regionalism of the architecture was accentuated by giving the buildings high gables to compensate for the narrowness of the housing plots and to create a certain rhythm. Each house was trimmed with a balcony, giving a theatre-box view of the main square. An accomplished draughtsman, Alleman amused himself by adding baroque decors to the facades overlooking the square (suns, cannon, vines and other symbols). The balcony ties were designed to be spectacular, with bay and oriel windows adding to their relief. He took particular care over the design of the ironwork. Overall, Jacques Alleman made Béthune main square an unusual but exuberant setting.

Claude FOURET,
Professor of History

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