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Wonders of the French Architecture

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You’re gonna enjoy this one if you’re French or if you have a soft spot for the French or the French culture. That was me saying “French” a lot!

Well; brace yourself for some more cause we’re gonna pick great things about the accomplishments of the French style architecture over the centuries that have raised awe and praise.

So, we are not going to be chattering about a list that merely enumerates all historical periods of the French architecture design.

Instead, we will bring you great French architecture design examples that bent the rules of their time; avant-garde buildings that introduced new ways to the French style architecture and soon rolled out whole new world-wide movements for years to come if not decades or centuries.

All the buildings are brought in a chronological order; starting with the ones that date back to the Roman Empire’s rule over the soil that is now called France, and move forward through the history all the way to our time.

As we tell the story of these spectacular buildings, we will cover the social and philosophical background that gave rise to all the revolutionizing nuances over the course of the French architecture history.

Let’s journey back to when France as we know it wasn’t even on the map. It was nothing but a part of a massive region, known as Gaul that pretty much encompassed all western Europe and was under the rule of the Great Roman Empire.

Pont du Gard in Nîmes

Pont du Gard in Nîmes

Unlike the Greek, Romans had figured out how to use architectural concrete in their construction. Beside great structures such as Pantheon or Colosseum in Rome, they did something remarkable in the land that would later be called France. I would advise you to read the Greek architecture blog too.

They used to carry water to remote villages. They would use gravity in their favor and built rather long archways where water would run on top.

One of these elevated canals in southern France was called Pont du Gard. It would carry water over the Gardon river and take usable water to a nearby city called Nîmes.

Time flew and the Roman Empire was consecrated and divided into western and eastern blocks around 300 A.D. at the same time as the beginning of the Dark Age.

How would French architecture design impact the Medieval period?

Reims Cathedral in Reims

Reims Cathedral

Medieval architecture is architecture during the middle ages. We all know that Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles were the two major Medieval architectural movements.

The name Gothic is given by Renaissance posterity and it was actually known as “Opus Francigenum” back during its prime. But it translates to “French Work” and so it first emerged in France.

Gothic style’s distinctive signature is the flying buttresses that support the cathedral’s nave and ends with a bright choir where sunlight pours in.

French architecture at this particular period was pretty obsessed with light and height. That’s why gothic churches are the tallest cathedrals in Europe.

One of the most famous cathedrals that showcase the glory of this episode of the French architecture history is Reims Cathedral in Reims, France.

Ribbed vaults, flying buttresses made out of stone, extensive use of sculptures with remorseful expression, and wide window openings that light up the inside, are all elements French gothic architects have done to perfection here.

After the culmination of the medieval period by Gothic style, the revival of the classic era was first dawned in Italy and then took over the rest of the continent.

The same is true for the Baroque. A Luxembourgian palace in France with its Baroque-typical three-winged structure was emulated in numerous palaces across France including Versailles by Louis Le Vau.

Although the name Rococo, an originally French architecture movement, entails taking Baroque’s relaxed and curvilinear characteristic to a whole new level, it didn’t revolutionize the styles that preceded it.

So, we move on to the next big thing that happened to the French architecture history in the late 18th century till mid 19th century.

Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

Arc de Triumphal du Carrousel in Paris

French Revolution and the overall frustration with Baroque and Rococo that were favored by soon-to-be-overthrown French Royals, gave way to a breeze of change by retreating back to the values of the classic era.

An early example that tipped the scales in favor of the so-called “Neoclassical” style in the French architecture history is Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in central Paris.

Simplicity and purity of classic proportions and motifs as opposed to Rococo’s overwhelming use of gilded ornaments and intricate patterns is apparent in this triumphal arch in the capital.

The Eiffel Tower and the Grand Palais

The Eiffel Tower in Paris

The new wave of rationality that was promoted by Neoclassicism established a language in both progressive and conventional architecture communities France.

It was one of the pillars that gave way to the industrial revolution in the mid 19th century and the crown jewel of which was the Eiffel Tower that was first debuted at the Universal Exposition, hosted by Parisians in 1889.

The other end of the spectrum coupled the use of classical elements with iron and glass; an example would be Grand Palais or Bibliothèque Ste Geneviève in Paris.

Grand Palais in Paris

The influence reached across the pond to New York City’s Grand Central Terminal where you can still see heavy classical elements and ornamental decorations sit in rectangular proportions of the industrial age.

Castel Béranger

Castel Béranger Apartment by Hector Guimard in Paris

The eclectic narrative of the mid and late 19th century that had dominated Europe used elements of almost all previous architectural styles to yield originality. You’ll get the idea by looking at Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Church in Paris.

Art Nouveau was a response to all that. It spanned across various art branches like painting, furniture design, and of course architecture. It might have originated by Belgian architects but it was perfected by their French architecture design counterparts.

Art Nouveau used organic curved forms in molded steel, glass, and wood. Most Art Nouveau buildings and patterns conjure up plant forms. A renowned example is Hector Guimard’s Castel Béranger apartment in Paris.

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris

Quite similar to Art Nouveau French architecture style, the early years of the 20th century witnessed a far-reaching movement that advocated simplicity of modern design with handcrafted decorative patterns. It went by the name Art Deco.

A pioneer of this French architecture style is August Perret, who meticulously used reinforced concrete in Champs-Élysées Theatre in Paris.

Art Deco was later exported all around the world where it especially flourished in the US; you must have heard or seen the Chrysler tower in Manhattan.

Chrysler Building in Manhattan

The same modern look adorned by handcrafted decorations molded in steel, glass, and concrete show the spirit of French architecture design in the Big Apple!

Villa Savoye

Villa Savoye By Le Corbusier

The modern movement doesn’t have a single leader. Frank Lloyd Write in America, Bauhaus in Germany, and the great Swiss-French Le Corbusier in France all led the movement separately through the first half of the twentieth century.

Le Corbusier was particularly articulate to delineate modern principles both in his buildings and writings.

His Villa Savoye in Poissy, according to his own “Five points of new architecture” treatise, best shows five defining principles of the modern movement.

You can see free façade design on all sides of the villa, the roof garden on top of it, its horizontal windows, and its free ground plan that is made possible by the elevated mass of the villa over the "Pilotis".

George Pompidou Center

George Pompidou Center

As the world grew tired of modernism in the second half of the twentieth century, French President George Pompidou was looking for a movement to refocus gapes to Paris, almost a century after the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower.

Young Renzo Piano and Richard Rodgers were not French nationals but stroked a new era of French architecture glamour by their innovation at the George Pompidou Center.

To free up internal space for exhibitions and interior social gatherings, they moved all utilities to the outer layer of the building. A bold statement that would herald high-tech movement that originally initiated as a French style architecture.

Parc de la Villette

Parc de la Villette in Paris

Parc de la Villette plan

Continuing on with the so-called post-modern era and through the second half of the twentieth century, a certain stream of French architecture was tremendously inspired by post-structuralist philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze.

Due to its deconstructive roots, Parc de la Villette in Paris has been designed to detach from the public historical conception of an ordinary park. For example, visitors won’t feel the same as when they enter Central Park in New York City.

Bernard Tschumi has placed these red iconic structures known as Follies across the park to create a sense of direction and navigation. These exploded structures are intended to prevent any portrayal of familiar, historical archetypes.

All this strangeness helps create a vacuum space named by the architect as “non-place”, and it is meant to create a direct relationship between the visitors and the park; getting rid of all background expectations when they face the park.

This Deconstructive design approach was promoted by French Philosophers and dared to implementation by the French architecture pioneers in the late 20th century.

Bibliothèque Nationale - south view

Bibliothèque Nationale

Paris has been the scene for other aspiring controversial projects; most of which have been proven to have dissolved in the city’s present urban fabric.

In the 80s and 90s, under President François Mitterand, the so-called “Grands Projects” were directed to invite a new wave of change in the French architecture history.

France National Library or Bibliothèque Nationale in downtown Paris followed the same path as its much-debated precedent; the Pyramide pavilion at Louvre museum.

Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris

With its four huge volumes of minimalist mass finished with glass, steel, and wood, the national library mixes the innate might and grandeur character of the French architecture history with the void and humility of its transparent glass work.

So, the building is not looking to overstate its presence; a socialist statement that was certainly campaigned by the leftist president.

It both makes a bold and humble impression at the same time.

This project’s jump into the minimalist values of the late Modern era is leveled out by its green central courtyard that tries to value nature as the returning point of solace for the urbanized human.

A conclusive point for this chapter of the French architecture design.


French architecture history, just as in many other countries and civilizations across Europe and all around the world, has been an inspiring source for change and innovation.

French architects and philosophers have capitalized on the country’s artistic and cultural reach all over the world and as you’ve seen through just a handful of examples we made here, they have kindled the original sparks of many architectural movements in history.

Over to you! What architect or building of the French architecture design perplexes you the most? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

Mitchel Sardy
Author: Mitchel Sardy
I am a Computer Engineer and an architecture enthusiast, graduated on both majors up to the master's degree from the University of Washington; I'm an advisor to early-stage architecture startups all around the globe; the ones using computer-based solutions to design in architecture.

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