Rebuilding Arras : old and new ideas


"Reims! You are not alone: Arras is a ruin", cried journalist Albert Londres in 1914, thus setting the level of expectation for the reconstruction that was to come. Arras was associated with Reims, a national monument "par excellence" according to the historian Louis Bréhier. In the mind of their contemporaries, the Germans of the Great War were trying to destroy the France of Saint-Louis with, in Reims, the destruction of the cathedral and in Arras, the city itself, its heart, the literary capital of the Romance civilization of the 13th century. Any reconstruction was clearly going to be a hard task and in the case of Arras it demonstrated the town's grandeur, its ambitions, but also its limits.

The bombardments of September 1914 and May and June 1915 destroyed all the buildings around the two main squares, including Saint-Vaast Palace and the cathedral, the bell tower, the town hall and some town houses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Only 5% of the houses in the town survived intact, the remainder being damaged or destroyed.

The reconstruction of the main squares and the monuments was a priority and the works were entrusted to France's inspector of ancient monuments, Pierre Paquet. The law of 17 April 1919 relating to war damages ruled that ancient monuments should be rebuilt to what they had been before the damage (on 27 December 1918 the houses around the squares, Saint-Vaast Abbey, the belfry and the front of the town hall were made listed buildings). The reconstruction works took a long time, from 1919 to 1934, and this was most certainly due to the catastrophic state of the buildings which required rebuilding rather than restoring. Indeed, in most cases a pile of rubble was all that remained, for example, two-thirds of the 155 facades around the squares had been obliterated.

Pierre Paquet proceeded carefully, avoiding the sometimes "adventurous" methods of the 19th century and the architect Viollet-le-Duc. He had no precise plans of the facades or the buildings to work from, so he consulted old documents and photographs, overcoming complex problems as best he could. Some of the 19th century additions were not retained. The ancient exteriors of the buildings were systematically conserved however the interiors were treated with far more latitude, for example the town hall was adapted to meet the requirements of a modern municipal administration.

Case by case the general plans of the buildings were corrected according to classical rules of symmetry, the town hall being a good example of this. The decors of the facades were either restored, if knowledge of the originals was available, or otherwise reproduced in the spirit of the building. On the technical side, the reconstruction of Arras was a watershed in the use of reinforced concrete. An example of this being the bell which, despite its medieval appearance, was built around a solid structure of concrete and steel. Saint-Vaast Abbey and the houses around the main squares were also rebuilt using the technique. Lastly, the reception hall of the town hall was decorated with paintings by Charles Hoffbauer which showed the town and population of Arras in an idealized 16th century setting. Still visible today, each part of the fresco is a sort of genre painting, the artist taking inspiration from Bruegel and ancient illustrations. The work of Pierre Paquet in Arras is impressive for he managed to resurrect not only the town's ancient buildings but also the two main squares. His work prefigured modern restoration in that it used the latest technology whilst adhering faithfully to the original, respecting the spirit of the construction but being creative with the solutions.

Nevertheless the reconstruction of Arras had its limits. Rebuilding the old centre to how it was before the war was extremely expensive, requiring national and international aid, and drew resources away from the reconstruction of the rest of the town. The first plan, which tried to reconcile public health with town planning, was drawn up in 1923 but was soon abandoned because it was considered to be too ambitious. The French State dragged its feet in financing the reconstruction and the transfer of compensation rights also made the operation more complicated. Speculators ensured that a large number of plots were divided up. New health and safety standards were not respected and town plans were not drawn up. In 1925 the new plan for Arras was less ambitious than the previous one, devoted mostly to organizing mains gas, water and electricity supplies. Sixty kilometres of pavements and lighting were laid and new schools and colleges were built; however progress in social housing lagged behind.

This situation created a huge contrast between the historic centre, which was losing much of its commercial interest to the area around the train station, and the rest of the town. The authorities had to respond to the immediate expectations of the population and try to dispel the traumas of the war by evoking past glories, a veritable source of hope. For this reason alone, Arras is a fine representation of the ambitions and the limits of the Reconstruction.

Claude FOURET,
Professor of History

Archive pictures

Vue de l'hôtel de ville et du beffroi d'Arras fin 1915

coll. particulière (jpg - 0.06 MB)

Vue de l'hôtel de ville et du beffroi d'Arras fin 1915

Vue de la Grand' Place d'Arras en février 1919

Fred Schutz / American War Department / Wikimedia Commons (jpg - 0.05 MB)

Vue de la Grand' Place d'Arras en février 1919