France, Architecture in

views updated


FRANCE, ARCHITECTURE IN. French architecture of the early modern period is characterized by three main tendencies: the survival of Gothic technology and form, the influence of Italian and ancient models of classicism, and the effort to form a strong French architectural language. Political and social overtones varied in the Renaissance, with ancient and Italian classical influences gradually merging with a lively Late Gothic tradition to express cultivation and splendor. In the seventeenth century, French kings elaborated universal principles and state institutions to express their political and cultural ambitions. Finally, in the eighteenth century, architecture itself was redefined as an instrument of social change.


After Charles VIII returned from his Italian military campaigns in 1495, strong Gothic traditions were given a new patina of Italianate structure and ornament. For example, on the court side of the Francis I wing of the château (residential castle) of Blois (Loire Valley, 15151524), a typically Gothic spiral staircase, disengaged on three sides, is covered with Renaissance ornaments such as medallions and balusters. Soon, a series of royal châteaus showed a more radical reorganization of plans and external forms, as seen in the château of Chambord (Loire Valley, 1519c. 1559) and the seven châteaus in the Île-de-France region (including Madrid, Fontainebleau, and St.-Germain-en-Laye) built during the last years of the reign of Francis I (15151547).

In the last projects of Francis I, from 1540, and during the reign of Henry II (15471559), the French digested Italian models and devised their own versions of them. Many French architects traveled to Italy, and some, such as Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (c. 1520c. 1585) and Philibert Delorme (15141570), produced books. Other publications on ancient architecture, Renaissance buildings, and idealized architectural designs were translated into French or written by Italian architects invited to the French court. As in Italy, the new model for the architect of this generation was no longer the medieval mason but the cultivated man of ancient learning. The portion of the Louvre by Pierre Lescot (Paris, c. 15461578) and Delorme's Anet (Eure-et-Loire, from 1547) are two of the most remarkable and exemplary châteaus of the times. Because of its fundamental changes, this period, which closes with the reign of Henry IV (15891610), is called the "Second Renaissance."

Until early in the seventeenth century, churches resisted all but the most superficial changes. The massive vertical paired bell towers and deep-set porches of the facade of St.-Michel of Dijon (15201560) are reminiscent of Late Gothic churches, despite their classical ornaments. The same can be said for the overall Gothic plans and structures of the churches of St.-Gervais (14941621) and St.Eustache (15321637) in Paris.

A pioneering hôtel (noble town house) called the Grand Ferrare (Fontainebleau, 15421546), completed by Sebastiano Serlio, set the standard for domestic architecture. Residences in towns and in the countryside were soon patterned on its biaxial symmetry and the en suite planning of its apartments. Classical forms became more prominent, as in Serlio's Ancy-le-Franc (Burgundy, from 1546), but medieval features persisted, as in the new design for the defensive towers, traditionally round but now squared into corner pavilions. The death of Henry II in 1559 was followed by a period of religious conflict (the Wars of Religion, 15621598) and economic strife during which little was built.


The reign of Henry IV launched a two-hundred-year building boom in the private sector to satisfy the social ambitions of a rising middle class. While the symmetrical Grand Ferrare remained the ideal in domestic architecture, in Paris the Hôtel Lambert (Louis Le Vau, begun 1641) and the Hôtel de Beauvais (Antoine Le Pautre, 16541660) demonstrate how natural features and the constraints of the site could be ingeniously masked and turned to advantage. Elegant places royales (royal squares) attracted private building around them (in Paris, the Place Royale, today the Place des Vosges, 1605, and the Place Dauphine, from 1607). Designed with uniform facades framing a statue of the king, several of these squares were built in Paris as well as in many other towns from the late seventeenth through the eighteenth century.

Two outstanding châteaus were built to express bids for political powerMaisons (Île-de-France, 16411660) for René de Longueil by François Mansart (15981666), and Vaux-le-Vicomte (16571661) for Nicolas Fouquet by Le Vau (16121670). Vaux-le-Vicomte imported from Italy the idea of one artist (in this case Charles Le Brun, 16191690) coordinating the décor, architecture, and garden design. Louis XIV (16431715) transplanted the entire artistic team, including the garden designer AndréLeNôtre (16131700), and even the very trees of Vaux to Versailles (Le Vau, 16681670; Jules Hardouin-Mansart, 16781689), thereby announcing the royal cultural hegemony from the outset of his personal reign (from 1661). The Sun King's authority radiated from the palace, the satellite palaces, extensive gardens, hunting grounds, and the newly built town that constituted the country's new administrative and cultural capital.

An upsurge of religious building, mostly during the reign of Louis XIII (16101643), saw revitalized religious orders rebuild numerous monasteries and churches. Church facades followed two models: the pedimented portico of the Pantheon of Rome or the two-story facade of the church of Il Gesù in Rome (Giacomo della Porta, begun 1571). These were emulated in the street and court entrances of Jacques Lemercier's Church of the Sorbonne (Paris, 1630c. 1648). In a more vertical French variation, the facades of St. Gervais (Paris, Salomon de Brosse, 16161621) and St.-Louis (Paris, today known as St.-PaulSt.-Louis, Étienne Martellange, begun in 1627) added a third level of orders (a system of proportions, columns, capitals and entablatures). Likewise, French domes were often more vertical than their Italian counterparts. They were placed closer to the facades, as in the Dome of the Invalides (Paris, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, 16761706), with tall drums and wooden beams raising the external profile.

Architectural historians traditionally contrasted the "baroque" "exuberance" and "persuasiveness" of Italian architects with the "classical" "reserve" and "rectilinearity" of their French counterparts. However, recently historians have pointed out the cross-fertilization and common agendas between the two. Palladian and Roman influences abound in Le Vau's work, as in the curved wings and loosely connected pavilions of the Collège des Quatre Nations (Paris, College of the Four Nations, today the Institut de France, 16621670). As Claude Mignot (1989) aptly observes, the long-spanned entablature supported by freestanding columns on the east facade of the Louvre (projects from 1657; attributed to Claude Perrault, 1667) was no less "persuasive" than Gian Lorenzo Bernini's curvaceous colonnade in front of St. Peter's.

In the years 1640 to 1690 Lemercier, Pierre Le Muet, Le Vau, François Mansart, and Jules Hardouin-Mansart together reestablished the French "grand style." They shunned mannerist excess of ornament and embraced a clearer expression of volume and the relation of the parts to the whole. New royal institutionsthe Royal Academy of Architecture, founded in 1671, and the offices of first architect to the king and the surintendant des bâtiments (superintendent of king's buildings), effectively a minister of cultureserved as forums for articulating these rules of "good taste."


The rococo style developed in the first half of the eighteenth century in reaction to the oppressive court life of Versailles in the latter part of the reign of Louis XIV. Primarily ornamental and used in interiors of domestic architecture, its forms were characterized by asymmetrical and sensual curves. Germain Boffrand (16671754) added a rococo masterpiece to the Hôtel de Soubise in the oval salons "de la princesse" and "du prince" (Paris, 17351739). Combining painting, gilding, sculpture, windows, mirrors, and multitudes of candles, he produced a bright and weightless effect. Here, all was sensual ease and luxury. Rococo set the stage for the rethinking of classical forms and the appeal to the senses on a deeper level that were characteristic of neoclassical architecture in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Neoclassicism sought to reform architectural taste through structural rationalism, an ethnographic interest in antiquity, the sensory power of architecture in nature, and social reform. Marc-Antoine Laugier (Essai sur l'architecture, 1753) argued for simplified structures and thus proposed a return to origins through imitation of a mythical "primitive hut." Antique-style trabeation and long, unbroken entablatures seem to structure the Pantheon, Giovanni Nicolo Servandoni's facade design for the church of St.-Sulpice (Paris, begun in 1732), and Jacques Gondouin's School of Surgery (Paris, 17691775). Empirical knowledge of Gothic construction, however, underlay Jacques-Germain Soufflot's (17131780) church of Ste.-Geneviève (Paris, known today as the Pantheon, 17571789). A more technical interest in structure and functional building types was fostered by the strengthened institutions of civil and military engineering, the École des Ponts et Chaussées and the École du Génie de Mezières, founded in 1747 and 1748, respectively.

Leading French artists spent several years at the French Academy in Rome (founded in 1666), a major international art center at the time. The new archaeological discoveries of Paestum, Herculaneum (1738), and Pompeii (1748) fanned their enthusiasm for reexamining classical architecture. Mid-century publications about Greek ruins, by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett and by Julien-David Leroy and about Roman ruins, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, emphasized visual poetry and powerful forms through light, scale, and setting. Leroy underscored how architecture existed in historical and ethnographic contexts, thus encouraging architects to invent appropriate forms for their times.

Architecture parlante, a term associated with the next generation and with the approach of the French Revolution (17891799), sought to mold form and ornament to express a building's purpose and thereby inspire social reform. Étienne-Louis Boullée's (17281799) striking project for a cenotaph to Newton (1784), in the form of an astronomical observatory, commemorated the scientist's genius. Its dramatic spherical form and lighting effects would awe the visitor who entered its orb via a long, dark tunnel. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (17361806) used classical forms in a more expressive manner in a ring of tollhouses (1784c. 1790) around Paris. Ledoux thought that new plans and building types would encourage social reform; a notable example of such a socially motivated project was his centrally planned industrial community, the Salt Works at Arc-et-Senans (17731779). New social agendas also meant that new building types emerged; one example was the freestanding monumental theater, such as Victor Louis's theater in Bordeaux (c. 17731780) and Marie-Joseph Peyre and Charles de Wailly's Théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris (17671782). Due to the Revolution, few buildings were built during the last decade of the eighteenth century.

See also Architecture ; City Planning ; Classicism ; Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas ; Mansart, François ; Neoclassicism ; Paris ; Rococo ; Versailles .


Bergdoll, Barry. European Architecture, 17501890. Oxford and New York, 2000. Includes an interesting discussion of theorists.

Blunt, Anthony. Art and Architecture in France, 15001700. New Haven, 1999. The seminal reference work in English.

Braham, Allan. The Architecture of the French Enlightenment. Berkeley, 1980. A solid survey book of the eighteenth century. Discusses foreign influence on France but omits rococo.

Hautecoeur, Louis. Histoire de l'architecture classique en France. Paris, 19431957. Still the authoritative reference work, if somewhat dated.

Mignot, Claude. "Classique (Architecture)." In Encylopaedia Universalis. Paris, 1989. A thoughtful discussion of terminology.

Pérouse de Montclos, Jean-Marie. Histoire de l'architecture française: De la Renaissance à la Révolution. Paris, 1989. An excellent survey of breadth and depth, which attempts to define a French national style.

Victoria Sanger

About this article

France, Architecture in

Updated About content Print Article