An urban vessel in Le Havre

For the design of the École Nationale Supérieure Maritime in Le Havre AIA set itself the architectural challenge of considering the school in the spirit of a “school boat” which, at night, becomes a lantern.

AIA Associés, École Nationale Supérieure Maritime, Le Havre, France
The École Nationale Supérieure Maritime is anchored in the relationship between Le Havre and its docks; its morphology, its character and its texture all bring to mind ocean-faring vessels.

Its position, parallel to the quay, places it in a direct relationship with the basin and the port. Over a 100m stretch along the quay, the building grazes the waterfront on one side while stretching towards the city on the other. From the entrance to Le Havre, its prow cuts a lean figure, rising towards the city.

It stands out among the initial views of the port as visitors enter the city along the Vauban basin. Set between earth, sky and sea, the school seen from afar suggests a ship on the high seas, but also the great selachians of the deeps.

AIA Associés, École Nationale Supérieure Maritime, Le Havre, France
AIA Associés, École Nationale Supérieure Maritime, Le Havre, France

The ground below the building raises it, as does the chiselled glazed aperture marking the reception area on three facades. A spatial continuum develops from the basin to the roof of the building, creating a transition between the water, the ground and the sky. This ascending sequence begins at the quay, opens onto the city with a raised forecourt, and continues with a “stairway street” through the four levels of the structure leading to the upper deck which enjoys panoramic views of the port and the Seine estuary.

The metallic latticework (anodised aluminium) with its dark reflections fluctuating throughout the seasons, the time of day or with the weather makes this a vibrant marine and urban structure. The elegant interaction between solids and voids reveals its internal structure by meshing transparent and opaque surfaces. The envelope, with its great lacerations, rises from the ground, following the folds of the ramp towards the interior and disappears at the level of the attic, where the structure meets the sky. The slant of the skyline from belvedere to prow, as well as the appearance of chimneys of light directly above the stairway-street reinforces the impression of a ship with a dark hull.

At night, however, the vessel becomes a lantern: the lights arranged in the space between the two translucent skins reveals the structure.

AIA Associés, École Nationale Supérieure Maritime, Le Havre, France
AIA Associés, École Nationale Supérieure Maritime, Le Havre, France

The design was developed around the idea of making the building a learning tool whose internal organisation mirrored that of a ship. This original concept of a Ship in School draws upon the legacy of the old school boats. The aim was not to create an actual boat, but to adopt its structural principles. The students are immersed in conditions close to actually being at sea, in particular with the simulation “machine” rooms, a marine engine and ten “gangway” simulations over the three levels.

AIA set itself the architectural challenge of considering the entire school in the spirit of a “school boat”. The entire structure is configured in this way: from its forecourt which suggests a boarding gangway all the way up to the upper deck, through the machine room, the technical premises in the hold, the sixteen rooms and the four amphitheatres with a view over the basin. Beyond the specific spaces commissioned for the project, the various indoor spaces are treated in the same way as a ship, where technical elements are visible and omnipresent. It is not necessary to conceal these technical elements, the needs, aim and operation of which students must come to understand.

Heating, ventilation, plumbing or various electric networks: the utilities for the ENSM project resemble those of a ship in all respects.

Like a ship, the ENSM manages its own energy consumption and remains autonomous thanks to processes used in energy-plus buildings (known as BEPOS in France). The bioclimatic and technical design rests on four development principles: reducing needs through a bioclimatic architecture which favours passive solutions; the implementation of very high performance systems to optimise energy consumption; local, renewable energy sources; monitoring performance over time with the building’s technical management tool which integrates energy monitoring software.


École Nationale Supérieure Maritime, Le Havre, France
Program : school
Architects : AIA Associés (Laurent Pérusat and Jean-Pierre Buffi)
Fluids consultants : AIA ingénierie
Structure & acoustic consultants : Sogea Nord-Ouest
HEQ consultants : Echos
Economist : Économie 80
Client : Communauté d’Agglomération Havraise (CODAH)
Cost : 27,8 M€ HT
Area : 9650 sqm
Completion : 2015


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