Architecture of France: remarkable modern architecture

Architecture lovers, draw up!

25 September 2019
CIté des Choux-fleurs, Créteil, is so-named because of the petal-shaped balconies
By Jane Hanks

When we consider France’s architectural heritage, we usually think of its beautiful historic buildings, such as the cathedral of Chartres, the Loire Valley Renaissance chateaux, and 19th-century Haussmann buildings in Paris.

France also has many remarkable examples of modern architecture.

More than 1,400 buildings have been awarded the Architecture Contemporaine Remarquable label by the Minister of Culture.

To qualify for the label, buildings have to be less than 100 years old and must be unique and innovative.

The aim is to show that there is a value in recent constructions and a link between the old and the new.

Included on the list are the public housing Tours Nuages in Nanterre in the suburbs of Paris, with 1,607 apartments.

They are made up of 18 cylindrical towers of varying height, covered in cladding made of frescos to represent clouds in the sky.

They were designed by architect Emile Aillaud, who was also responsible for designing the La Grande Borne housing estate (see photos below) on the southern outskirts of Paris.

The Tours Nuages, Nanterre

It has become associated with poverty, violence and drugs, but was built from 1967 to 1971 as a social utopia designed to imitate older town centres, with low, coloured buildings and winding roads.

The Cité des Choux-fleurs, Créteil (see photos above and left) is another Paris housing project, built from 1969 to 1974 by architect Gérard Grandval.

His vision was to produce balconies in the form of petals, which later earned the buildings their cauliflower name.

The Piscine du Rhône-Lyon, Lyon’s public swimming pool on the banks of the Rhône, was ahead of its time when it was designed in 1961-65 by Alexandre Audouze-Tabourin.

Its four concrete towers and modern structure are a well-known landmark.

SuperDévoluy is a ski station at Dévoluy, Hautes-Alpes, designed by architect Henry Bernard, and built from 1966-76.

The idea was to incorporate the buildings into the landscape as much as possible and give winter holidaymakers the best view over the mountains.

Roland Marques, national adviser for the Ordre des Architectes, the body which represents the profession, welcomes this positive view of recent architecture. He said: “The Architecture Contemporaire Remarquable label can only be beneficial to the work of modern architects.

La Grande Borne, to the south of Paris
La Grande Borne

“France has a particularly varied and diverse geography and this is reflected in the great variations in contemporary architecture throughout the country.”

But architects are not only interested in working on grand designs with Architecture Contemporaine Remarquable labels.

They are opening their doors to the public this month to remind everyone that contemporary architecture has an important place in our day-to-day lives.

Via the fourth Journées Nationales de l’Architecture, which runs from October 18 to 20, they want to show they provide a service for ordinary people as well as major corporations and public agencies – and that hiring an architect is likely to save money in the long term.

Mr Marques said the profession has realised there are many preconceived ideas about architects, meaning the general public often feel hiring an architect will be too expensive, and that they are only involved in grand, public projects that have nothing to do with private individuals.

“An architect is there to advise the client and give results to suit him or her, which can either be for a new-build, a renovation, or improvements to a building, which can include adding on rooms, or making it more energy-efficient,” he said.

“We have an  important role to play in the last category as we have an overall view of all aspects of a building and can advise which works should take priority.

“If someone comes to change your windows to improve insulation, you may not realise this could be a waste of money if you don’t focus on other aspects. A window supplier cannot give you the broader advice an architect can, which will mean lower energy bills in years to come.”

There are 30,000 architects in France. Most work in small firms, and the majority are more likely to work with private individuals than on large-scale public projects.

Around 2,000 firms will participate in the Journées Nationales and it is your chance to meet them, find out exactly what they do and tour some projects they have been involved in, all free of charge.

Some have been very inventive in attracting interest.

At Salleboeuf, Gironde, architects teamed up with winemakers to have both wine and architecture “tastings”; Christophe Le Moing has organised a car rally to discover the buildings designed by his team in the south of Brittany; you can visit a wooden house under construction at Béruges, near Poitiers, Vienne, and tour a modern house that makes the most of the available light at Varaville, Calvados.

Some architects are setting up stands in town centres to give you a guided tour of the local buildings and there are also several projects in schools.

You can find events near you on an interactive map by logging on to journeesarchitecture.culture.gouv.fr .

An event in Paris last year (2018)

Mr Marques said increasing numbers of the public are taking part every year.

Last year, architects welcomed 35,000 visitors to their events.

If you have an architectural project that needs a building permit, you have to take on an architect. He or she can be involved solely in drawing up the plans, or can also work with clients during building work.

The profession is highly regulated and has to be covered by professional insurance.

The architect must also adhere to a set of ethics, so his work must take account of the surrounding landscape and heritage.

An architect ‘open day’ event in Avignon

It takes five years of study to become an architect, and involves learning and understanding many areas of the building trade, including aspects of structural engineering, notions of electricity and plumbing, architectural history and design, building regulations, as well as drawing up plans and often turning them into 3D models.

An architect can work for a private individual, a building company, or a public authority.

Before drawing up any plans, they must study the land and its feasibility and understand the client’s needs.

Then they can draw the plans – taking into account different aspects, including the client’s wishes, legal aspects, technical constraints, and budget.

Once this is completed, the architect might also manage the building project, and be responsible for managing workers and companies involved in construction.

He or she is responsible for making sure the building is completed according to the wishes of the client.

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