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French architecture through the ages

From Roman to Romanesque and Renaissance to Rococo

French architecture has a long and, needless to say, flamboyant history. As a consequence, wherever you travel in France there’s always a wealth of fascinating architecture to admire.

And when travelling on foot or bike you have the ability to pause and admire a stunning church or take a short detour to see an interesting castle at close quarters. A Belle France holiday is not just about some gentle activity, it’s about experiences that would usually flash past when you travel by car.

The Romans

From an early stage the Romans left a rich legacy of ingenious engineering, complex techniques and simple beauty that is unrivalled. Examples still exist for tourists to ogle over, including the Maison Carrée and amphitheatre in Nîmes and the Alyscamps necropolis in Arles. The incredible feat of engineering that is the Pont du Gard, a vast multi-span three-tiered aqueduct near Nîmes, is a perfect example of form meeting function.

Maison Carrée, Nîmes - Completed in 2 AD (Public Domain)
Maison Carrée, Nîmes - Completed in 2 AD (Public Domain)

Romanesque

Once Frankish tribes had been unified under Clovis in the 5th century, the construction of churches and places of worship became paramount and the pinnacle of architectural expression. Examples are rare, an exception being St Peter’s in Vienne, a place of vaulted ceilings and simple tranquillity.

The Romanesque style was typified by the Benedictine abbey of Cluny in the 10th century. Its influence spread far and wide across France with religious tastes helping shape, and pay for, cathedrals throughout the 11th and 12th centuries.

From the early days of ‘national’ architecture when it was recognised that important buildings could send powerful messages to one’s people, French architects were reliant primarily on the patronage of the Crown. The other significant influencer and bankroller of statement buildings was the Church and this remained the case pretty much until the 19thcentury.

Sénanque Abbey, Provence - Complete 1148
Sénanque Abbey, Provence - Complete 1148

Gothic

From the 12th century right through to around 1500, the French Gothic style took centre stage. It brought heightened drama and technical innovation with high ceilings, galleried arcades, flying buttresses and rose windows which were often features of exquisite craftsmanship and beauty, as at Chartres cathedral, Reims, Bourges and Amiens.

Notre Dame in Paris is probably one of the most famous Gothic marvels in the world, despite the devastating fire of 2019, and other notable examples include the Palais des Papes in Avignon, the outer walls of Carcassonne and the Hotel de Ville in Compiègne.

Notre-Dame de Paris - Complete 1345 (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Notre-Dame de Paris - Complete 1345 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Renaissance

Through the 16th century architectural styles in the fashion of the Italian Renaissance became prominent and de rigueur. The flamboyant, often frothy exuberance became synonymous with the lavish châteaux of the Loire Valley, where courtiers set up a country pad not too far from Paris and the centre of power but far enough from the odours and unruliness of the masses. Celebrated monarchs like Francis I and Henry IV created sumptuous palaces like Fontainebleau and the Louvre, culminating with Louis XIV’s extravagant masterpiece at Versailles in the 17th century.

Château de Chambord, Loire - Completed 1547
Château de Chambord, Loire - Completed 1547

French Baroque

Long associated with kings Louis XIII, XIV and XV, this architectural chapter was epitomised by the Palais de Luxembourg in Paris. The style created three wings with a central focus and used colonnades and cupolas to signify power and authority. The huge dome of Les Invalides in Paris is a wonderful example, along with the imposing proportions of the Place Vendôme and Place de la Concorde.

Palace of Versailles - Completed 1634
Palace of Versailles - Completed 1634

Rococo

With recurring motifs of stones and shells, the Rococo style brought a sense of fun and informality to grand designs. Its over the top ornamental approach, irreverent disregard for symmetry and love of colour was familiar to Louis XIV, the Sun King, whose reign and personal tastes were very much in the manner of the Rococo. To many it became an architectural byword for ‘poor taste’, with many linking its almost childish excesses to the failures and failings of the monarchy running up the French Revolution.

Galerie des Glaces, Palace of Versailles - Completed c1684 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Galerie des Glaces, Palace of Versailles - Completed c1684 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Neo-classical

A return to a more sober design was in order, and as client and architect distanced themselves from the excesses of Rococo, they drifted to the safer more understated symbolisms of the neoclassical. Long, blank walls were the order of the day, clean lines and of course liberal use of friezes and the columns of antiquity. These were Roman or Greek columns that supported or added cosmetic detail, each with their own style: Doric, Tuscan, Ionic and Egyptian, according to taste and preference.

Petit Trianon, Palace of Versailles - Completed 1764 (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Petit Trianon, Palace of Versailles - Completed 1764 (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Haussman

For many, Parisian architecture is all about Haussmann. Between 1850-1870 he was responsible for one of the great projects of radical urban planning, sweeping aside swathes of medieval Paris and constructing new avenues in their place. The new look was the mellow coloured apartment blocks with their grey mansard roofs that became the hallmark of Paris, lining broad avenues and elegant squares.

Haussman took a holistic approach to his architecture, planning in a sewage system, underground gas supplies and street lighting - even down to details like lamp posts, bandstands, railings and newspaper kiosks. This was civic architecture on a grand scale whose repercussions are still admired today.

The other important point of the Haussman era is that it finally represented the patronage and influence transferring from royalty to the bourgeoisie. This kind of architecture transcended the whims and desires of an individual like the monarch or a body like the church and became a tool of government. From now on an elected body could plan and implement civic architectural projects for the benefit of all.

Rue de Rivoli, Paris - Completed 1848
Rue de Rivoli, Paris - Completed 1848

The modern era

In many ways, modern French architecture emanated from Paris. The Eiffel Tower, built in 1889 for an exhibition and never dismantled, ushered in the modernist age, a pre-cursor to art nouveau and the austere Bauhaus movement of the 1920s and 30s.

This totemic structure kicked off a modernist trend that ran through to the late 20th century and the construction of the ground breaking Pompidou Centre (with many of its functional elements like escalators, pipes and technical equipment housed on the exterior of the building), the Grande Arche de la Défense, anchoring the new financial district, and the Louvre pyramid (a challenging juxtaposition of the old and new).

Louvre Museum, Paris - Completed 1989 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Louvre Museum, Paris - Completed 1989 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Philharmonie de Paris

This stunning structure is more than just a concert hall. With 200,000 bird-shaped aluminium tiles, it provides a wonderful aspect over the neighbouring Parc de la Villette and features undulating ramps and a spacious rooftop picnic area. Artistic spaces in the past were never this creative.

Philharmonie de Paris - Completed 2015 (CC BY 2.0)
Philharmonie de Paris - Completed 2015 (CC BY 2.0)

The Fondation Louis Vuitton

It’s possible to argue this is more architectural icon than art museum, such is its style and flair. Designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 2014, it features spinnaker-like glass canopies, sheltering terraces below that provide dramatic vistas over Paris.

Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris - Completed 2014
Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris - Completed 2014

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