The Evolution of French Architecture

We can admire the French for many things – their cuisine, their fashion, their wine, their art, their artists and a vast number of major art movements – but let us not forget their flamboyant architecture. Throughout history, French architecture played a few seminal roles, giving birth to some of the most famous architectural styles and presenting itself as a role model for the rest of the world. As for the most recent period, a few starchitects are immediately associated with France, such as the world-famous Jean Nouvel and Dominique Perrault. Even the father of Modernism, Le Corbusier, is a bit of a Frenchman himself, although he was born in north-western Switzerland (but still only 5 km away from the French border). Let’s explore how the French architecture changed throughout history.

Early Beginnings – The Romans in Gaul

The story of French architecture begins in the Roman period, when the region of Gaul was under the rule of the Roman Empire. The remnants of some notable Galo-Roman designs in France have fortunately been preserved, such as Maison Carree and Amphiteatre 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. Furthermore, one can find the remains of some interesting pieces of ancient infrastructure across France, such as the aqueduct Pont du Gard in Nimes and Barbegal mill near Arles. All of the typical characteristics of Roman architecture were made manifest here as well – the emergence and deployment of concrete, and the utilization of arches and vaults.[1]

Religious Buildings from Pre-Romanesque Period

After all the Frankish tribes were unified under the reign of a single ruler, Clovis I in the 5th century, a greater emphasis was placed on the building of churches and monasteries. Naturally, architecture responded to these needs and served the purpose of the mediator and translator between the secular and the sacred, by the principles of the Merovingian church. In this period, the church building plans were extending upon the Roman basilica tradition, but they were also influenced by other types of architectural innovations, some of them originating in the East (Syria and Armenia). Besides the apparent cultural legacy of the Romans and other sources of impact, it is believed that the French had a few seminal inventions in this pre-Romanesque period that were not seen before. Such is the altered position of the sarcophagus, raised to be visible.[2] Unfortunately, since most of the major churches were re-built once they became stylistically outdated, we are only able to learn about the French architecture of this period from archaeological reconstructions and writings. A rare surviving church from this era is Saint Peter’s church (Saint-Pierre-le-Bas) in Vienne, Lyon.

Romanesque Architecture – French Either Way

The first unified style to arise in Europe in the Middle Ages was Romanesque style. Incidentally, the name literally means “descended from Roman”, which comes as a paradox since it is the first big thing to emerge after the fall of the Romans. Even though we take the context of the 10th century as the precursor of Romanesque architecture, it is hard to discern the exact date and place of its origin. There are many examples of buildings in northern Italy and France dating from the period between the 8th and the 10th century that have some Romanesque features and this is called First Romanesque or Lombard Romanesque.[3] They were nonetheless designed before the style was more widely recognized and established, when most of the Romanesque architecture was influenced by the Abbey of Cluny. Do notice that France is associated with this style either way, which makes it inseparable from the story. Both the early and the late Romanesque style is characterized by thick walls and piers from which the domes arose, reductive approach to decoration and sculpture and a rhythmic repetition, both on the facade (through identical windows and arches on the facade) and in terms of structure (arches that constitute the nave). A typical feature is the use of three portals that lead into the nave. In the later period, from the early 13th century onward, the constructions were increasingly decorated by pinnacles and long spires. These features gave impetus to the recognizable Gothic style later.

Gothic Architecture, Previously Known as French Work

From the mid-12th century until 1500, French Gothic architecture was a predominant one in Europe. Even to this day, it stays one of the most typical French architectural styles with a unique, distinct character. Interestingly, the term was first used in the Renaissance, and was before known as Opus Francigenum which means french work. Gothic architecture is historically divided into separate styles, including Early Gothic, High Gothic, Rayonnant and Late or Flamboyant style. Just like it happens with its predecessor, there are still debates over this strict segregation. The Early one was a direct successor of Romanesque architecture, with an adoption of the pointed arch as an element and an emphasis on the height of the walls and ceiling. In order to achieve this, architects combined arcades with a gallery, a triforium (a shallow gallery located in the inner wall of a church) and a clerestory, another line of arches placed above the original arcade, usually with windows providing light and/or fresh air. To make the structure stable, the builders invented flying buttresses, also called counterforts, that were used to support the high walls. As it turned out, this structural element became one of the most characteristic emblems of Gothic architecture, often even seen as an object of beauty or decoration. Another significant invention was a six-ribbed, sexpartite vault, which was later replaced by the four-ribbed vault. High Gothic style followed the initial canons, aspiring to achieve greater building heights, but with a tendency to make the structure lighter. This is one of the reasons why the four parts of a wall were reduced to three, and gallery was eventually dropped out. As a result, clerestory progressed from having a single window in each segment to a pair of windows, conjoined by a rose window in the middle.

The two other styles of French Architecture of the period, Rayonnant and Flamboyant, are both derived from High Gothic architecture, but its builders were more concerned with the two-dimensional, decorative aspects than the structural aspects and the actual use of space. The latter is supposed to be the stylistic “child” of the former, although the actual point of transition was never made entirely clear. The desire to display a light, yet complex and tall structure and to play with illumination was further explored during this period. The Rayonnant period coincided with several innovations related to glass and window glazing, which affected the subsequent change in window design. They used larger windows and introduced a glazed triforia, as well as a significant change in the window tracery design – the windows were no longer framed by plates but appeared as if they were gently touched by thin bars.[4]

Renaissance in French Architecture

After it started spreading from Italy, the Renaissance left a mark on almost every corner of Europe, or at least the Western part for sure. In France, it became the prevalent type of architecture used mostly for designing chateaux and typically affiliated with the royals. Quite soon after its initiation in the late 15th century, it transformed into French Mannerism. This style of French architecture was better known under the name of Henry II, who worked with Italian architects and artists to help him design the Palace of Fontainebleau. They also founded the First School of Fontainebleau, which is one of the two schools that marked the era of taught artistic production in France during the 16th and early 17th century.

The French Baroque

During the reigns of three famous similarly named French kings, Louis XIII, XIV and XV, an era of French Baroque blossomed. One single building, the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, was proclaimed the “role-model” for all other baroque structures in France, as it became the embodiment of the open three-wing layout, with a revolutionary twist. The building designed by Salomon de Brosse was the first one to explicitly emphasize the entry, e.g. the middle wing, and to make the two side wings seem inferior to the central one. This later became a recognizable feature of Louis XIII style.[5] The same manner was successively deployed by other architects in constructions of similar kind, such as Château de Maisons designed by Francois Mansart or the Palace of Versailles, designed by three masters who joined forces to create a hallmark of French architecture, the architect Louis Le Vau, designer Charles Le Brun and gardener André Le Nôtre. For this occasion, the concept of the French formal garden, in which symmetry and order take over nature, was introduced. It complimented the building that was inspired by the Baroque villas, but done in a more classical French manner.

Rococo – Golden Stones and Shells

Whereas the Renaissance and Baroque were both originally associated with Italy, Rococo (sometimes spelled Roccoco) was more of a French thing from the start. The name is probably a coinage made out from the words rocaille (stone) and coquilles (shell), both of which are its recurring motives. It has great similarities with Late Baroque, with which it is sometimes interchangeable, in terms of a more humorous and open approach to composition and architectural design. While the Baroque was generally more playful than the rigorous Renaissance, Rococo has taken this to the extreme, offering an explicitly non-symmetrical, colorful, curvilinear and excessively ornamental approach. This overabundance of ornament typical for Rococo is the one we would usually attribute to the thriftless reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, and this is not an accident, as they are both connected to it. However, Rococo soon became an international style, as it spread out to other parts of Europe, Vienna, Prague, Lisbon, etc.

Neoclassical Movements in French Architecture

Rococo was soon replaced by Neoclassicism, and although this happened during Louis XVI’s reign, it could be associated with the significant changes that happened in France at the end of the 18th century. Rococo was condemned both by the people who linked it to the monarchy and the historians who had no understanding of the “playful” character, describing it simply as bad taste (which is not to say that this matter shouldn’t be revisited today). Neoclassicism, then, came as a return to order. Several streams were notable in this period, one of them being the Greek Revival that lasted until the end of the 19th century, when it was finally seen as counter-modern and counter-progressive. It coincided with Romanticism and Gothic Revival. Interestingly, Greek Revival was never a popular style, neither among the ordinary people nor the state – as if the orderly, rigorous architecture simply does not correspond with the French taste.

Paris and France in the 19th Century

In the second half of the 19th century, France was under the regime of Napoleon III, which is when Paris was practically refurbished by Baron Haussmann. Proclaimed the most beautiful city in the world by many, Paris owes most of it to this period, during the Second Empire. New monumental constructions were made in an impressive, tall manner, many of the old ones were embellished, the streets were accompanied by lines of trees and street fronts became unified by cream-colored stone tiles. In this period, a trapezoid-shaped rooftop was popularized, called a mansard. This boxy roof has become a symbol of French architecture.[6]

On the other hand, the 19th century saw the beginning of a new era in architecture everywhere. In 1889, Paris was the host of an important international exposition, the Universal Exposition, during which the French unveiled their latest engineering achievement – the Eiffel Tower. This was a symbol of the Belle Epoque but also a way of showing that the Parisians are stepping up with the modern world, alongside the British and their Crystal Palace. The 1889 Expo was followed by the emergence of Art Nouveau, which was embraced for a short period by the French, and was soon replaced by Art Deco, right before the outburst of World War I.

Modernism and Contemporary French Architecture

The 20th century was the era of major changes, and so it happened in France and their architecture as well. After the First World War, there were two opposing streams – the tradition-based Beaux-Arts and the Modernists, centered around Le Corbusier and Robert Mallet-Stevens. As we all know today, both streams found a way to coexist, even with Le Corbusier’s radical urban plans that scared the Parisians. For better or for worse, he never got a chance to actually erase half of Paris’s historical core, but his architectural designs marked the rest of France – one of the most famous being the iconic Villa Savoye in Poissy, the suburbs of the French capital. The influence of Le Corbusier and his contemporaries is quite evident today, even when seen with a harsh critical eye. In today’s era of post-postmodernism, we have the privilege to enjoy the glamorous architecture of Jean Nouvel, built all over the world, and also to re-interpret the meaning of glamour through all of his peculiar designs. Moreover, the French have given us a few post-structuralists, namely Derrida and Deleuze, who have inspired world’s most famous architects, such as Peter Eisenmann. That is to say that the French still play a key role in the history of architecture, even in the most unexpected ways.