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  • Writer's pictureNigel Wakeham

Church of Notre-Dame, Royan, SW France

Updated: Apr 19, 2019

Nigel Wakeham: Consultant Architect

Last week I visited Royan, a small town on the eastern shore at the mouth of the Gironde estuary in SW France. It is now one of the main Atlantic coastal resort towns and has five beaches, a large marina and an active fishing port.


The town became a resort town in the late nineteenth century with beach bathing and a large casino but was totally destroyed in the Second World War. During the war, two German forts, one at Royan, defended the Gironde estuary and towards the end of the war, these constituted one of the last pockets of German resistance along the Atlantic coast well after the liberation of the rest of France. In January 1945 a large force of RAF bombers bombed Royan in two raids that largely destroyed the town. This was done in the belief that the only people left in the town were Germans but the raids actually killed over 1,000 civilians and only a few German soldiers.

Then in April there was another bombing raid by the Americans (using napalm for the first time) which killed another 1,700 civilians and completed the destruction of the town; one reports states that only nine houses were left standing.

Shortly after the war, Claude Ferret, an architect from Bordeaux (and head of the school of architecture there) was appointed to lead the town’s reconstruction. During the design phase, Ferret apparently became aware of contemporary Brazilian architecture (particularly that of Oscar Niemeyer) and this heavily influenced the design of the new buildings. Therefore, unlike the northern towns which were re-built after the war in mainly neo-classical style using rather drab, in-situ and pre-cast concrete, the buildings in Royan are mainly finished in render painted white with colourful accents and there are round buildings, gently curving buildings, wavy canopies, etc. Unfortunately one of the best of these buildings, Perret’s Casino Rotonde has been demolished but the Niemeyer-influenced market building along with many other of the original 1950s buildings survive.

The exception to these rather jolly and colourful buildings is the Church of Notre-Dame, completed in 1958 and built entirely of exposed, reinforced concrete. The church was designed by architects Guillaume Gillet (who is buried within the church) and Marc Hebrard and engineers Bernard Lafaille, Rene Sarger and Ou Tseng and took 3 years to build.

The exposed structure is the main feature of the design and was I think designed by Bernard Laffaille. Laffaille was a pioneer in the design of double curvature structures and pre-stressed systems and he had designed a pre-stressed concrete V-column system (the V-Laffaille) which was used to support the pre-stressed cable net roof of the church (the columns are supposed to be pre-stressed but to me all of the reinforced concrete in the church seems to be cast in-situ so I am unclear about this). The columns are V-shaped and very large with narrow, full-height stained glass windows between the columns (there are fourteen main columns, seven on each side) and triangular stained glass windows (representing the stations of the cross) between the bases of the columns. The effect of the stained glass can only be seen from the inside; from outside they appear to be solid. All of the stained glass windows were designed and made by Henri Martin-Granel. The roof is of reinforced concrete eight centimetres thick, saddle-shaped and 36 metres high at the ends and 28 metres high in the centre.

The architects claimed to have drawn their inspiration from large gothic cathedrals and Gillet thought that the large V-columns when used in a church ‘will bring a monumental and sacred dimension’ and they certainly are monumental!

The mayor of Royan at the time of the construction of the church wished to raise the profile of the town by creating a strong vertical feature that would be visible from both around the town and from the sea. The architects achieved this through the design of the bell tower which is 60 metres high and is surmounted by a 6 metre high cross. It sits at the eastern end of the church above a plaza where there is an altar for outdoor religious celebrations.

Internally, the elliptical nave is 45 metres long by 22 metres wide at its widest and can seat around 2,000 people. There is an ambulatory at ground floor level on both sides of the nave, a gallery three metres above the main floor level and another gallery a further three metres or so higher up. The site slopes quite steeply down from the west end of the site. The entrance is at the western end at the level of the first gallery with a wide staircase leading down to the main level and the altar at the eastern end with a large, triangular stained glass window lighting the choir behind. The altar table is very impressive and like the rest of the building, is constructed of fair-face reinforced concrete. There are a number of spiral staircases, most of which are expressed on the outside of the church and the function of which is in some cases obscure.

The interior of the church is very impressive. The volume of the main space is huge, dark and mysterious, lit only by the narrow, vertical, stained glass windows reaching up to the roof and the much smaller, triangular stained glass windows at low level. Entering from the western end one eyes are immediately drawn to the altar with the large triangular stained glass window behind. The ambulatories around the two sides are less successful being quite low and very dark and the function of these is not immediately obvious. There are some other rather odd spaces at the western end on either side of the altar that contain entrances from the outside and these seem to have been tacked on as an after-thought.

On the exterior, the slope of the site does not appear to have been very well handled and the sloping concrete roofs over the ambulatories on either of the long sides of the church are particularly clumsy in the way that they hit the ground (on the north side they sit on a concrete platform at the level of the main entrance that seems to have no particular use). The large concrete canopy over the main entrance at the western end is also rather clumsy in both design and detailing.

The church was classified as an historic monument in 1988 and has recently been restored. These restorations covered the entrance portico at the western end and the west elevation, the roof and the terraces. There seems to have been some movement outwards at the top of the side walls as there are now some (rather elegant) steel ties in the centre of the church on the underside of the roof slab tying the tops of the two sides together.

Overall, it is an extraordinary building unlike any other church that I have seen and is well worth a visit if you are in the area. The rest of the town is also well worth exploring and I wish that we had had more time to do so; I may well go back for another look around.


Architecture in Developing Countries: A Resource

The design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health in rural areas of the developing world.

Nigel Wakeham is an architect who lived for 23 years in Southern and West Africa and the SW Pacific working on education, health and other projects. He has since worked for over 20 years as a consultant for national governments and agencies such as the World Bank, DFID, ADB and AfDB on the implementation of the construction components of education and health projects in many countries in the developing world.​

​The objective of this website will be to provide the benefit of more than 45 years of experience of working in developing countries to architects and other construction professionals involved in the design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health. It will provide reference material from the projects that Nigel has worked on and technical information on the design, construction and maintenance of educational and health facilities and other relevant topics and these will be added to from time to time.

I am happy to be contacted by anyone requiring further information on any of the projects or resources referred to in this website or by anyone wishing to discuss work possibilities.


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