French Architecture – Iconic Buildings Worth Visiting

You would definitely need to spend a lot of time in this magnificent country and admire its representable architecture. France is the cradle of famous and historical structures that stem from centuries ago and withstood the test of time. It’s rich in amazing places worth seeing and each part of the country has to offer something different. The rich history has left grand structures, which have their own story of love, wars, and revolutions.

Paris, the capital, or as some would say the City of Lights, or if we go by its Latin name Lutetia – the Midwater-Dwelling – can take up to more than a month of your time just to visit the most significant sites. Whether we are talking about the Palace of Versailles or the Arc de Triomphe, Paris carries the architectural magic of centuries ago and still is breathtaking with places that cannot be found anywhere else.

French architecture has evolved over the ages and today we will have a look at its splendid history and a handful of the most notable French buildings.

Evolution of French Architecture

When one thinks of France, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is the Renaissance period. But the country has had some architectural transformations and crucial periods, each with its own characteristics and values. Let’s take a look at some of the French periods.

The Romans

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France was under the occupation of the Romans for nearly 500 years. Julius Caesar invaded Gaul (or France) in  58 BC., with them departing or merging into the local population in the 5th century. They ruled France for more than 500 years, therefore, there are a lot of Roman sites across the country. Some remnants of the Galo-Roman designs have been preserved, especially in Paris, Lyon, Reims, Rennes, and others.

One of the most impressive designs is the Maison Carree and the Amphitheatre in Nimes or the Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière in Lyon. This is the period when the concrete emerged, and arches and vaults were used.

Romanesque

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The Romanesque style means “descended from Roman”, and it’s an interesting fact that it appeared after the Romans’ fall. It’s presumed that the origins of this style date from the 10th century by the Benedictine abbey of Cluny, and its influence spread around Europe during the Middle Ages. Architects during this period were turned to the patronage of the Crown, which remained dominant until the 19th century.

The Romanesque style has specific features, such as thick walls and domes arising from the piers, the decorative elements, on the façade and the structure, as well as sculptures being reduced.  rhythmically repetitive. The structure constitutes the nave which is approached by three portals, a specific characteristic of the style. Some of the most popular constructions preserved are the Périgueux Cathedral, the church of Saint-Étienne, the Abbey of the Men of Caen, etc.

From the 13th century on, the main decorations of the structures were pinnacles and long spires, which are the first signs of the remarkable Gothic style.

Gothic

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From the 12th century to around 1500, the popular French Gothic style was deeply infiltrated in Europe, and until nowadays it still is one of the most unique architectural styles. It was first known as Opus Francigenumin Latin or a French work. It can be divided into four stages of design: Early Gothic, High Gothic, Rayonnant and Flamboyant.

Gothic architecture is characterized by high ceilings, galleried arcades, flying buttresses or counterforts to support the high walls, and rose windows. The thick Romanesque walls were replaced with thin ones, and the windows proliferated. Another important feature is the six-ribbed, sexpartite vault which was replaced by the four-ribbed one at a later stage. Building heights, glass, and window glazing were predominant in this magnificent style. The interiors were filled with light, great buttresses, and spires. The region was rich in limestone, which was used at different grades depending on the construction.

Important Gothic symbols are the Rocamadour Shrine, The Strasbourg Cathedral, the Clermont Cathedral, and many more, but the most picturesque one is the Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris.

Renaissance

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The Renaissance originates from Italy and it later spread on the European territory, with the West being under the greatest influence, and in the late 15th century it appeared in French architecture. Lots of chateaux were built and this style remained among the royal circles of France. The influence was also due to the presence of Italian architects, artisans, and artists, one of the most important ones is Leonardo da Vinci, who were all invited to live in France by King Francis I.

The basic structure of the French Renaissance consists of sized and shaped windows, a façade divided by pilasters, round arches, classical motifs and figures, a pavilion. The main point is the large chimneypieces, as well as the doors and windows. The details kept the classic and gothic details followed by a coat of arms, while the decoration is focused on the walls, floors, and ceilings.

Ones of the most popular sites from the period are Château de Chambord, Château de Fontainebleau, Château d’Anet, and many more.

French Baroque

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French Baroque, or even known as French classicism, was flourishing under the reign of Louis XIII (1610–43), Louis XIV (1643–1715), and Louis XV (1715–74). In the 17th century, inspired by the Italian Baroque, the architecture transited from the Renaissance to the French adaptation of Baroque. It was in the period of Louis XIV when this style had colossal order of the facades, implementation of domes and colonnades to show the power of His Majesty. But at the end of his reign, the style became lighter and less colossal. Place Vendôme and Place de la Concorde are among the many urban squares being built in Paris and other cities.

The first building that had implemented the Baroque features on its façade was the Church of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais in Paris, but the Luxembourg Palais was the role model of this style. It consists of the remarkable three-door entry, where the central one is more accentuated than the other two wings. Other architects managed to use the similar characteristic in other structures, such as the Palace of Versailles, which was inspired by the Baroque villas, with a more classical twist.

Magnificent examples of the French Baroque architecture are Château de Choisy, Château de Saint-Cloud, Château des Rohan, and many more.

Rococo

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In the 18th century, a more secular adaptation of the Baroque emerged known as the Rococo, which is a humorous derivation of the French term “rocaille”, which involved the usage of little rocks and seashells in decorative arts. It is mainly a reaction of the formal and geometric style of Louis XIV which accentuated the grandeur, while the Rococo includes an extremely ornamental and decorative style of architecture. The Rococo style was first represented with interior design and decorative pieces focusing on French salons where the aristocracy entertained itself. It soon spread across Germany, Italy, Austria, and other European countries.

Although the similarities between Rococo and Baroque architecture, the Rococo is a symbol of asymmetric, pastel designs, it’s more playful and light highlighting the asymmetry of forms, and the Baroque is more serious. Walls and ceilings are abundant with curves and counter-curves in the shape of the S and C using more natural forms. The exterior of Rococo structures is simple, while the interior is highly ornamented, theatrical with interlocking ovals. The aim of the style was to impress others with grand staircases and detailed ornaments with shells, leaves, birds, flowers, angels, and other remarkable and specific details.

Hotel de Soubise and Salon de Monsieur le Prince in Chantilly are typical and popular representations of the Rococo.

Neoclassicism

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In the 18th and 19th centuries, Classical architecture was revived, which started in Italy to be later used in England, France, the USA. Neoclassicism was a return to order after the extravagant Baroque, and the lightness of the Rococo. It was mainly due to the presence of French designers at the Academy of Rome that the style was actively used in France. The first signs of appearance were at the end of the reign of Louis XVI and continued during the first Empire of Napoleon.

The base of the Neoclassical architectures revolves around forms of Greek and Roman architecture with modern engineering advances and materials of the contemporary period of the time. The structures were supported by Doric, Ionic or Corinthian pillars with Renaissance domes on top. The aim was for the structure to gain in height, and the facades to be embellished with colonnades, rotundas, and porticoes.

The grand stairway of the Luxembourg Palace and the façade of the Church of the Madeleine are made in this recognizable style, as well as one of the nowadays characteristic sites in Paris, the Arc de Triomphe.

Haussman

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The Haussmann architecture or rather known as Haussmannian is actually the architecture of present Paris. In the 19th century, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, a man without experience in architecture, changed the looks of the city. Napoleon III wanted to implement some changes and Haussmann was entrusted the project, which was later popular as the Haussmann Renovation of Paris and lasted from 1853 to 1870.

A lot of streets and medieval structures were removed and the city got a network of boulevards and new buildings. Les Halles and Palais Garnier, new sewage system, fountains, and viaducts were built in this period. What catches the eye are the uniformed apartments with avenues that make Paris enchanting.

The Haussmann architecture meets some standards, such as buildings were no more than six floors high, and the ground floor was usually meant to be for shops with lower ceilings than the upper floors. The first floor had the highest ceilings and was the most ornamented one since the aristocracy lived there. The servants lived on the sixth floor, but because they offer different views of Paris nowadays are the most demanded ones. The windows are at an angle of 45 degrees to allow the maximum entrance of light. The interiors were also elegant as the exteriors with large rooms, tall windows, marble fireplaces.

The Modern Era

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Modern architecture stemmed from Paris. The Eiffel Tower, constructed in 1889 is the precursor of the modernist age, followed by art nouveau and the Bauhaus movement in the 20s and 30s of the 20th century. It was an era of changes, especially with Le Corbusier who had radical urban plans but didn’t manage to erase the history of Paris. His influence and his contemporaries are present even nowadays. After World War I, the organic forms of Art Nouveau boosted the industrial age and followed the Art Deco style. Le Corbusier’s studio was considered to be the birthplace of modernism. After World War II, the design industry became practically dead, but it reinvented itself in the 1950s when great housing projects were launched and architects played with concrete, plastics, and aluminum.

Remarkable structures from the period include the Pompidou Centre with its escalators and pipes and technical equipment placed on the external part of the construction, the Grande Arche de la Défense, the Louvre pyramid, etc.

Famous Buildings

Mont-Saint-Michel

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Mont-Saint-Michel is a famous sanctuary in the region of Normandy. With its medieval walls and towers, it is one of the most popular attractions in the country. The ancient abbey of the village crowns the mount. It is surrounded by enormous sandbanks most of the time and only becomes an island when the tides are extremely high.

The Eiffel Tower

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The Eiffel Tower is undoubtedly the most famous landmark in France. It is named after the engineer who built the tower between 1887 and 1889, Gustave Eiffel. Also known as “La dame de fer” (French for “Iron Lady”), this magnificent iron building is the tallest building in Paris. It has a modern shape, distinctive from the usual styles popular in the past.

Nîmes Arena

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The arena of Nîmes, located in the city of Nîmes, is an amphitheater constructed in the typical Roman style. It is a symbol of this city’s prestige and it is a very well preserved structure from the ancient past. It has an elliptical shape with a central ring and can accommodate around 20,000 people.

Grand Mosque of Paris

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The Grand Mosque is located in the Latin Quarter in Paris and aside from its main purpose, praying, it is also a place for relaxation. With its magnificent minaret and picturesque patio, it is one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. It was constructed between 1922 and 1926, and its style is influenced by the Hispano-Moresque buildings.

Strasbourg Cathedral

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The famous Strasbourg Cathedral is yet another remarkable landmark in France. With a height of 142 meters, it is the sixth-tallest church in the world. Entirely built in the Middle Ages, it is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture and a must-visit place for tourists.

Chateau de Villandry

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Chateau de Villandry is a magnificent country house known for its splendid gardens. It was built during the Renaissance and it is still owned by the Carvallo family, who purchased it in 1906 and restored it later on. Today, this avant-garde building is one of the most visited places in France.

The Dôme des Invalides

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The Dôme des Invalides is part of the complex of buildings named Les Invalides in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. It is one of the most significant monuments in Paris. Its exterior is just as amazing as its interior. It features a golden dome outside and remarkable artwork inside. It is also the place where Napoleon I was buried.

Notre Dame de Paris

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Located in the heart of Paris, Notre-Dame de Paris (“Our Lady of Paris”) is one of the most notable examples of Gothic architecture in France. The cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It features massive colorful windows and beautiful ornamentation. With its three pipe organs and enormous church bells, Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the most beautiful Catholic cathedrals in the world.

Louvre Museum

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You won’t be wrong if you say that the Louvre is the most famous museum in the world. It is also the largest museum in the world that houses the most impressive art collections. This grandiose building is a perfect example of the Baroque style and one of the biggest tourist attractions in Paris.

Palace of Versailles

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The Palace of Versailles is yet another opulent representative of French architecture. It houses more than 60,000 artworks, illustrating 5 centuries of French history. Formerly a royal residence, this beautiful building remained in the public eye for years. Its grandeur and rich political history make it one of the most important buildings in the world.

Pantheon

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The architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot started the construction of the grandiose Panthéon in Paris in around 1757. Primarily, it was supposed to replace an older church, but during the French Revolution, it was secularized and received the name Panthéon. With its stone dome and painted ceilings, it is truly one of the most amazing architectural masterpieces.

Arc de Triomphe

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As the most iconic symbol of the national identity in France, The Arc de Triomphe is another magnificent monument of French architecture. It took almost 30 years to build and it is one of the most important landmarks in the country and a perfect example of Neoclassical architecture.

Basilica of the Sacré Cœur

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The Sacré-Cœur Basilica is a Roman Catholic church located in the highest point in Paris, Montmartre. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, this site exists since pagan times, lasting through the Middle Ages and the French Revolution and it is one of the most-visited landmarks in France.

L’eglise de la Madellaine

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L’église de la Madeleine (Madeleine Church) is a Catholic church located in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. With its neoclassical façade and the Corinthian columns, this majestic building looks like an ancient Greek temple and it’s one of the most beautiful churches in France.

Sainte Chapelle

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The Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) is a royal chapel that used to be the residence of the French kings. It is a perfect example of the Gothic style of architecture and one of the most ornamented and picturesque buildings in France. The 1,113 stained glass windows depicting 1,113 scenes from the Old and New Testaments will dazzle everyone who visits it.

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