When you think of the architecture of Paris and France, you are likely to conjure images of classical French architecture that evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries, of which structures such as the Louvre, the Invalides and those found in the Concorde Plaza are iconic examples. If you have dug into what makes Paris unique, you may also think of how Baron Haussmann transformed the urban architecture of Paris between 1853 and 1870, under the instructions of Napoleon III to bring air and light to an unhealthy, squalid, if exotic, medieval city.
Paris and France are not usually thought of as rich in superb modern architecture, for which most people instead visualize other places in the West, such as admirable Chicago and the dramatic skyline of New York City. That is despite the proximity of the City of Light’s business suburb, La Défense, which is comprised almost entirely of modern high-rise architecture, a lot of which is forgettable, but it is sprinkled with some notable and worthwhile exceptions. Anyway, it is not in Paris and, unless you have business at one of its many corporate headquarters, you are not apt to see it up close.
There is, however, a remarkable amount of really interesting modern architecture that is scattered throughout Paris and France. You have to know where to look to find really exceptional examples of modern architecture, as they are spread out and isolated by the vast amount of some Roman, more medieval and Renaissance, and a great amount of Classical and Empire architecture of the previous two millennia. The sheer numbers of buildings erected in earlier eras, into which it is not easy to fit ultra-modern structures without provoking aesthetic conflict, is daunting. Finding a setting in which something ultra-modern will not conflict with what is already there is therefore not obvious and rare.
France is where the Swiss architect, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known better as Le Corbusier, installed himself and where he produced many of the revolutionary works that became part of the foundations of what is recognized throughout the world today as modern architecture today. I will soon provide in this space a separate article on his most recognized works in Paris and France, as well as to propose a private tour of his works in Paris, some of which we can visit both inside and out. To name a few, they include the Villa Savoye in Poissy, Villa La Roche in Paris and, outside of Paris, the Colline Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp and the Tourette Convent in Éveux.
Le Corbusier lived and worked at the same time as did some of the other icons of modern architecture, such as Mies Van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and Alvar Aalto. Collectively, their work is the core of what has become known as modern architecture, but, unlike those contemporaries, his affinity with France was so strong that he chose to become a French citizen and France is where many of his most notable works can be found.
It may be fanciful to say, but perhaps what appealed to him in the atmosphere and ambiance of France in the middle of the 20th century later attracted at the end of that century and in the beginning of the 21st, works of an impressive number of contemporary architects such as I.M Pei (the Louvre Pyramid in Paris), Frank Gehry (Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris) and Jean Nouvel (the Institute of the Arab World, the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, Le Philharmonie, and La Seine Musicale, all in Paris).
Of course, Nouvel did not need to be attracted: he was born here and studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. That helps to explain the extraordinary number of his major works in France, including the Branly Museum in Paris, the Opèra Nouvel in Lyon, Le Marseillaise Tower in Marseille and the Hekla Tower currently under construction in Puteaux.
I should also name other remarkable modern architects whose works are found in France, such as Renzo Piano and his Pompidou Center in Paris, or the City of Fashion and Design of architects Jakob and MacFarlane, also in Paris. In mentioning them, I have to say they are not personal favorites, as notable as they may be.
It is one thing to know that there are must-see structures of modern architecture in Paris and throughout France. It is quite another, if you are on a short visit in France, to get organized enough to see them comfortably and in a reasonable amount of time. Planning an itinerary in a way that proceeds smoothly is a lot of work, and it is then a challenge to find your way easily to each site. If that is something for which you would like help, please don’t hesitate to contact us to put together and propose an itinerary for a private tour to satisfy your unique personal requirements for seeing modern architecture in Paris or France. It is something we enjoy doing.