French architecture

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

French architecture

French architecture, structures created in the area of Europe that is now France.

Early Architecture

The earliest surviving architecture in France dates to the Stone Age, as a number of prehistoric sites in Brittany attest. Classical architecture was introduced into the south of France during the Roman conquest in the 1st cent. AD Well-preserved examples of Roman architecture include the Maison Carrée and the Pont du Gard near Nîmes. Scant traces remain of the early development of Gallic architecture, including Early Christian, Merovingian, and Carolingian buildings. The Roman basilica form predominated and, during the Carolingian period, was greatly enriched by design innovations.

The Flowering of French Architecture

Innovations manifested in Carolingian buildings gave rise to the architecture of the Romanesque period, when many fine works were executed in France, and to the great cathedrals of the Gothic style, of which France was the principal center (see Romanesque architecture and art, Gothic architecture and art). Many superb medieval monuments are still extant, including St. Sernin, Toulouse (1080–1120) and Chartres Cathedral (begun 1194).

The Renaissance

The revival of classical art and architecture during the Renaissance spread from Italy to France in the 15th and 16th cent., giving rise to the majority of the famous French châteaux, primarily in the Loire valley. During the first half of the 16th cent., Francis I established his court at Fontainebleau outside Paris, where he employed numerous Italian architects and artists, including Sebastiano Serlio, Il Rosso, and Francesco Primaticcio (see Fontainebleau, school of). At the same time native architects came into favor; they included Pierre Lescot, who built parts of the Louvre (begun 1546), and Philibert Delorme, who designed the Château of Anet (1547–55).

The Seventeenth Century

The Italian baroque style spread to France in the early 17th cent. A refined classicism distinguishes the French mode from its more exuberant Italian counterpart. This is revealed in the Château de Maisons (1642–46), Seine-et-Oise, by François Mansart, who added a steeply pitched roof of the form associated with his name. A turning point in French architecture occurred when Louis XIV rejected Giovanni Bernini's curvilinear design for the east facade of the Louvre in favor of Louis Le Vau and Claude Perrault's more classicizing design with its celebrated colonnade (1667–70). On a more colossal scale, Louis XIV commissioned Le Vau, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, and Charles Le Brun to remodel a hunting lodge outside Paris into the Palace of Versailles (begun 1669). The vast formal gardens and fountains were planned by André Le Nôtre.

The Eighteenth Century

After c.1700 the rococo style dominated interior decoration, with its characteristic curving forms and its gilded and mirrored surfaces. Architects who worked in the rococo style included Germain Boffrand and Juste-Aurèle Meissonier, whose published designs were instrumental in disseminating the rococo throughout the continent.

Jacques Ange Gabriel's Petit Trianon at Versailles (1762) signaled a return to the more restrained, rectilinear forms of classicism. The neoclassical style of the late 18th cent. transcended the period of political upheaval that was ushered in by the French Revolution and culminated with the rise of Napoleon I and the Empire style. J. G. Soufflot's Roman-inspired design for the church of Ste. Geneviève (now the Panthéon; 1755–92) emphasized the structural role of the column. Many important neoclassical monuments were erected in Paris under Napoleon, including Charles Percier and P. F. L. Fontaine's Arc du Carousel (1806–8).

The Nineteenth Century

In the mid-19th cent. the Gothic revival was ardently championed in France by the architect and theorist Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, restorer of many of the country's most cherished monuments, including Notre Dame in Paris (1842–68). During this period, the city of Paris was extensively remodeled under Napoleon III, who commissioned Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to drive new boulevards through the heart of the city. At the head of one of these new boulevards stands the sumptuous neobaroque Paris Opéra (1861–75) by J. L. C. Garnier.

The French preference for classicism was institutionalized in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, whose curriculum was emulated around the world. Following a functionalist course, Henri Labrouste designed buildings utilizing cast-iron construction, such as the Bibliothèque Ste Geneviève (1843–50). French technological prowess culminated in the erection of the Eiffel Tower (1889; see under Eiffel, Alexandre Gustave).

Modern French Architecture

Engineers and architects, including François Hennebique, Auguste Perret, and Tony Garnier, pioneered the use of reinforced concrete construction in the late 19th and early 20th cent. The Swiss-born architect, Le Corbusier, applied the modern machine aesthetic to French architecture in such buildings as the Villa Savoye (1929) outside Paris.

Recent postmodern architecture in France ranges from Piano and Rogers's high-tech Centre Georges Pompidou (1970–77) in Paris to Ricardo and Emilio Bofill's sprawling neoclassical housing development in Marne-la-Vallée (1978–83). Under President François Mitterrand, several new cultural monuments were commissioned for Paris, including I. M. Pei's new pyramid-shaped entrance pavilion at the Louvre (1987–89) and Dominique's controversial Bibliothèque nationale (opened 1998).

Bibliography

See F. Kimball, The Creation of the Rococo (1943); P. Lavedan, French Architecture (tr. 1956); A. Blunt, Art and Architecture in France, 1500–1700 (2d ed. 1970).

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