We can praise the French for a variety of reasons, including their food, fashion, wine, art, artists, and a plethora of important art movements, but we must not overlook their spectacular architecture. Throughout history, French architecture has served as a model for the rest of the world, giving rise to some of the most well-known architectural styles. In terms of the most recent time, a few world-renowned architects, such as Jean Nouvel and Dominique Perrault, are immediately identified with France. Even Le Corbusier, the father of modernism, is a Frenchman in heart, despite being born in northwestern Switzerland. Let us investigate how French architecture has evolved throughout time.

Evolution of French architecture - Sheet1
Nimes, La Maison Carrée _©Merle ja Joonas

Romans | French Architecture

The history of French architecture began with the Roman period when the Roman Empire ruled over the province of Gaul. Some noteworthy Galo-Roman designs in France, such as Maison Carree and Amphitheater in Nimes, The Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière in Lyon, or Alyscamps in Arles, one of the most famous necropolises from the ancient period, have thankfully been preserved. Furthermore, the ruins of some important old infrastructure may be found across France, such as the Pont du Gard aqueduct in Nimes and the Barbegal mill near Arles. The introduction and deployment of concrete, as well as the use of arches and vaults, were all hallmark features of Roman architecture.

Romanesque Architecture

The Romanesque style was Europe’s first unified style to emerge in the Middle Ages. In fact, the name literally means “descended from Roman,” which is ironic given that it was the first great item to arise after the Romans fell. Even if we consider the 10th century to be the predecessor of Romanesque architecture, determining the exact date and location of its beginnings is difficult. There are several instances of First Romanesque or Lombard Romanesque structures in northern Italy and France dating from the 8th to the 10th century.

Evolution of French architecture - Sheet2
Cluny Abbey _©Anna & Michal

Both the early and late Romanesque styles are distinguished by thick walls and piers from which the domes arose, a reductive approach to decoration and sculpture, and rhythmic repetition, both on the facade through identical windows and arches and in terms of structure arches that comprise the nave. The use of three portals leading into the nave is a common design element. Later, beginning in the early 13th century, the structures were further embellished with pinnacles and lengthy spires. These characteristics influenced the eventual development of the identifiable Gothic style.

Gothic Architecture | French Architecture

French Gothic architecture was prominent in Europe from the mid-12th century until 1500. Even now, it is one of the most common architectural types in France, having a particular personality. Surprisingly, the word was originally Opus Francigenum, which means “French labour,” and was coined during the Renaissance. Early Gothic, High Gothic, Rayonnant, and Late or Flamboyant Gothic architecture have traditionally been separated into distinct styles. There are still disagreements about this stringent segregation, as there were about its predecessor. 

Evolution of French architecture - Sheet3
Notre Dame de Paris_©RuiPereira

Early Gothic

With the introduction of the pointed arch as a feature and an emphasis on the height of the walls and ceiling, the Early One was a direct successor to Romanesque architecture. Arcades were coupled with a gallery, a triforium, and a clerestory, which was the second line of arches added above the original arcade, generally with windows providing light and/or fresh air. The builders devised flying buttresses to support the lofty walls and make the construction more solid. As it turned out, this structural feature became one of Gothic architecture’s most recognizable symbols and was frequently regarded as a work of art or ornament. A six-ribbed, sexpartite vault was another notable development, which was ultimately supplanted by the four-ribbed vault.

Evolution of French architecture - Sheet4
Bourges Cathedral_©GComS

High Gothic

Following the original canons, the High Gothic style aspired to attain larger building heights while also attempting to make the construction lighter. This is one of the reasons why a four-part wall was reduced to three pieces, and the gallery was subsequently removed. As a result, clerestory developed from a single window in each segment to a pair of windows connected in the middle by a rose window. Rayonnant and Flamboyant, two additional forms of French architecture of the time, are also derived from High Gothic architecture, but their creators were more concerned with the two-dimensional, ornamental qualities than the structural aspects and real use of space. Although the exact point of transition was never made apparent, the latter is considered to be the stylistic “child” of the former.

Evolution of French architecture - Sheet5
Château d’Ecouen_©campra

Renaissance of French Architecture

The Renaissance left an indelible effect on practically every region of Europe, or at the very least the Western portion, as it began expanding from Italy. It became the most common kind of architecture in France, employed mostly for the creation of chateaux and associated with the royals. It was quickly changed into French Mannerism after its introduction in the late 15th century. Henry II, who collaborated with Italian architects and painters to create the Palace of Fontainebleau, is credited with popularising this style of French architecture. They also established the First School of Fontainebleau, one of two schools that defined the age of taught creative creation in France throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries.

The French Baroque

An era of French Baroque flourished under the reigns of three renowned French monarchs with identical names: Louis XIII, XIV, and XV. The Luxembourg Palace in Paris was dubbed the “role model” for all other baroque constructions in France because it was the personification of the open three-wing arrangement with an innovative twist. Salomon de Brosse’s architecture was the first to highlight the entry, for example, the middle wing, while making the two side wings appear inferior to the central one. This became a distinguishing aspect of Louis XIII’s style later on.

Evolution of French architecture - Sheet6
Château de Versailles_©Nono vlf

Other architects used the same technique in similar structures, such as François Mansart’s Château de Maisons or the Palace of Versailles, which was designed by three masters, architect Louis Le Vau, designer Charles Le Brun, and gardener André Le Notre, who collaborated to create a landmark of French architecture. The notion of the French formal garden was established for this event, in which symmetry and order take over nature. It went well with the structure, which was influenced by Baroque villas but executed in a more traditional French style.

Evolution of French architecture - Sheet7
Hotel de Soubise_©NonOmnisMoriar

Rococo

Unlike the Renaissance and the Baroque, which were both born in Italy, Rococo was born in France. The name is most likely a combination of the terms rocaille (stone) and coquilles (shell), which are both frequent themes in the game. In terms of a more comedic and free attitude to composition and architectural design, it shares many characteristics with Late Baroque, which is occasionally interchanged. While the Baroque was more fun than the Renaissance, the Rococo has pushed this to the next level, with an overtly non-symmetrical, colourful, curvy, and highly ornamented style. This Rococo-style surplus of adornment is commonly attributed to the squandering eras of Louis XV and Louis XVI, and this is not by chance, since they are both linked to it. Rococo, on the other hand, quickly became an international style as it swept throughout Europe, including Vienna, Prague, and Lisbon.

Evolution of French architecture - Sheet8
Arc De Triomphe_©Anirudh Koul

Neoclassicalism

Rococo was quickly superseded by Neoclassicism, and it was criticized by those who associated it with the monarchy as well as historians who lacked an appreciation of the “playful” nature, dismissing it as “poor taste.” As a result, Neoclassicism arose as a restoration to the status quo. Several distinct streams emerged during this time, one of which was the Greek Revival, which lasted until the late nineteenth century when it was eventually deemed counter-modern and counter-progressive. It was contemporaneous with the Romantic and Gothic Revival movements. Greek Revival was never a popular style, neither among the general public nor among the government, as though the ordered, severe architecture just did not suit French taste.

Evolution of French architecture - Sheet9
Paris from the Arc de Triomphe_©Pierre Blaché

Une Belle Ville – A Beautiful City

France was ruled by Napoleon III in the second part of the nineteenth century, and it was during this time that Baron Haussmann essentially rebuilt Paris. Many people consider Paris to be the most beautiful city in the world, and much of it is due to the Second Empire period. Many of the ancient ones were enhanced, the roadways were accompanied by lines of trees, and street fronts became united by cream-colored stone tiles. A trapezoid-shaped roofing, known as a mansard, became popular during this time. This boxy roof has become synonymous with French design.

The nineteenth century, on the other hand, marked the start of a new era in architecture over the world. The Universal Exposition, held in Paris in 1889, was the venue for the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, France’s newest engineering triumph. This was a symbol of the Belle Epoque, as well as a manner of demonstrating that Parisians, like the British and their Crystal Palace, are moving forward with the contemporary world. Following the 1889 Expo, Art Nouveau emerged, which was welcomed by the French for a brief period until being superseded by Art Deco just before World War I broke out.

Modernism | French Architecture

The twentieth century was a time of great change, and France’s architecture was no exception. Following WWI, two conflicting streams emerged: the tradition-based Beaux-Arts and the Modernists, led by Le Corbusier and Robert Mallet-Stevens. Even with Le Corbusier’s radical urban ideas, which terrified Parisians, both streams found a way to cohabit, as we all know today. For better or worse, he never got the chance to truly remove half of Paris’s historical center, but his architectural plans left an indelible impression on the rest of France, the most renowned of which is the magnificent Villa Savoye in Poissy, in the French capital’s outskirts.

La Philharmonie de Paris_©dalbera

Even when viewed with a stern critical eye, the impact of Le Corbusier and his colleagues can be observed today. In today’s post-postmodernist period, we have the opportunity to appreciate Jean Nouvel’s glamorous architecture, which has been created all over the world, as well as to re-interpret the concept of glamour via all of his eccentric creations. Furthermore, the French gave us a few post-structuralists, particularly Derrida and Deleuze, who influenced some of the world’s most prominent builders, like Peter Eisenmann. That is to say, even in the most unexpected ways, the French continue to play an important part in the history of architecture.

References:

Encyclopedia.com. (2000). French Architecture | Encyclopedia.com. [online] Available at: https://www.encyclopedia.com/literature-and-arts/art-and-architecture/architecture/french-architecture

Wikipedia. (2020). French architecture. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_architecture

Belle France. (n.d.). French architecture through the ages. [online] Available at: https://bellefrance.com/blog/french-architecture-through-the-ages/

Author

A recently graduated architect, Mohit has a quest to understand the Art and Architecture of our cities. He believes in designing things by understanding the larger context and blending them into the larger environment.

Write A Comment