Auguste Perret occupied a pivotal position in the development of the use of reinforced concrete in modern architecture, a tradition extending from Hennebique to de Baudot. Contemporary French concerns—on the one hand, an intense interest in new constructional methods, and on the other, a desire for traditional, formalist systems of proportioning and ordering—find eloquent and convincing confluence in Perret’s work. Born in Brussels, Perret attended the École des Beaux-Arts, where he was influenced by rationalist theorists Gaudet and Choisy, who belonged to a tradition stemming from Viollet-le-Duc and Laugier. Perret combined Gaudet’s classical compositional principles and Choisy’s simple and direct structural solutions with the basics of building construction acquired with his brother Gustave in their father’s firm.
The apartments in the Rue Franklin (1904) were the first to exploit the constructional possibilities of reinforced concrete to gain a greater openness of plan, which was later to influence Le Corbusier’s plan libre (free plan), and larger windows on a restricted site.
The external framework is emphasized and covered, partly for practical reasons, by ornamental tiles that follow the structural contours. The angular effect contrasts with contemporary Parisian Art Nouveau apartments.
Decorative elements are eschewed in the Garage Ponthieu (1905), which Perret called “the world’s first experiment in aesthetic reinforced concrete.” The concrete frame of the interior, with its large spans and thin supports, allowed considerable flexibility in accordance with the function of the building. The formal aspects include the strongly geometric facade with classical resonances in its arrangement, the upper attic story, and the two cylindrical, nonconstructional pillar supports of the main entrance. The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées (1913) in Paris, originally planned by Henri van de Velde but carried out to Perret’s designs, shows a contrast between the ingeniously delicate framework of the building designed to allow uninterrupted views and the heavy walls, pilasters, and cornices of the facade that betray Perret’s classical sympathies.
The church of Notre Dame at Le Raincy (1923) near Paris marks a departure from, and yet a logical culmination of, Perret’s pre-World War I work. A building of high technical innovation, this memorial church established him as the leading exponent of this architectural system. The structure demonstrates the way in which a modern material such as reinforced concrete could be used to reinterpret traditional ecclesiastical typologies while maintaining a visual connection with established forms. The outer walls constructed from prefabricated components create perforated concrete screens that allow the light to filter into the interior. These combine with the nave, aisles, and slim columns carrying low-arching vaults to create a light and graceful interior. Traditional principles, both classical and Gothic, are invoked, and yet the building denies adherence to either.
After the war, Perret further pursued the neoclassical elements of simplicity and clarity exhibited so clearly in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. His command of the essentials of classicism is well represented in designs for the competitions for the Palace of the League of Nations (1927) in Geneva and the Palace of the Soviets (1931) in Moscow. Perhaps the best expression of Perret’s doctrine was the Hotel du Mobilier National (1934) in Paris, which addressed the problem of combining diverse practical requirements in one building and the problem of a sloping site. The Musée des Travaux Publics (1932) in Paris served as a museum for large engineering models, and so the internal columns were minimal. The tide of opinion among the international avant-garde was indifferent to the classical affinities of these buildings despite their structural novelty and ingenuity.
Special interest attaches to the apartment building (1932) built speculatively at 51–55 rue Raynouard in Paris. Perret occupied an apartment at the top, and a spiral staircase gave access to the firm’s offices on the lower level. Perret accommodated the challenges of the corner triangular site by building nine stories above the level of the rue Raynouard and 12 above the level of the rue Berton. The structure introduced a radical approach in that all the posts and beams were poured in place and the in-fills precast in bare concrete.
Perret’s most important postwar commission was the reconstruction of Le Havre (1956), destroyed during the war. With a group of disciples, he developed a master plan that serves as a model of 20th-century neoclassical town planning. Perret designed the plaza that housed the new city hall as well as the church of St. Joseph (1957). He was the first president of the Ordres des Architectes and was elected to the Institut de France.
After receiving numerous international distinctions, he was named president of the International Union of Architects. He died in 1954 in his rue Raynouard apartment.