Paris has seen her fair share of history and that history has made an impression on her. One of the best–and lasting–ways of seeing the history of the city is to pay attention to the varied nature of its architecture.

Just looking at buildings is interesting, but so is looking at an ice cream cone. Looking is the smallest part of experiencing it.

To fully experience Paris’ rich architectural heritage, we need to understand the place in history where those buildings belong. So, first, we need to know our architectural styles.

Classical (600 BC – 323 AD)


Classical columns - Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian: to know them is to impress others.

This is a very broad term for any of the architectural traditions that started in ancient Greece and continued through the Roman Empire. The elements of the Classical style are post and lintel, columns, triangle pediments, cornices, stone arches, and the such. It was all laid out in geometric precision and symmetry. These guys had perfected the idea of balance and solid grandeur. Early Paris (or Lutetia), was a Roman town, but you will not find any truly Classical buildings left in Paris because that was a long, long, long time ago. And, let’s be honest, not too many self-respecting devout Catholics are interested in preserving the Temple of Mars…or the Roman baths, for that matter. Don’t be sad, though. You will find some Neo-classical architecture. Beyond just imitation, those Greeks left an imprint on most of the architectural styles that would emerge for the next couple of thousand years.

Romanesque (1000 – 1300)

Saint Germain

Saint-Germain-des-Prés - Repunzel, Repunzel, let down your hair!

The first pan-European style of architecture, “Romanesque architecture is known by its massive quality, its thick walls, round arches, sturdy piers, groin vaults, large towers and decorative arcading. Each building has clearly defined forms and they are frequently of very regular, symmetrical plan so that the overall appearance is one of simplicity when compared with the Gothic buildings that were to follow” (source).

The thick walls had small openings, mainly because big openings would make the walls fall in. Builders made use of many arches, mainly because you had to do what you could to keep the ceiling up and the arch really was the best option available. It also looked pretty good.

The pier had replaced the columns of the classical period. Maybe that was easier. The interior layout of Romanesque buildings can often be seen from the outside because the form and function of the structure were so aligned.

“Church interiors were a complex and densely moulded material characterized by strong chiaroscuro contrasts that reinforced the plastic outlines of the columns and increased the sense of layered atmospheric density and spatial depth. (One Thousand Years of World Architecture, p 30.)

One of the few buildings in Paris that has retained some of its Romanesque shape is the Église de Saint-German-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris. Unfortunately, it isn’t all Romanesque because when a building lasts as long as that one has, you are bound to come across people who want to mess with it. 

Gothic (1144 – 14th century)

Cathedral of Chartres

Chartres Chathedral has been called the "true prototype" of the Gothic Cathedral...maybe that's why they needed two different spires.

Someone, or a bunch of someones, in northern France got really sick and tired of the thick and gloomy Romanesque buildings. Hey, don’t get me wrong, some of those buildings were really gorgeous, but–let’s be honest–they were also a bit big boned.

You might call them the Dark Ages, but they were really starting to get clever. They were starting to understand that a ceiling doesn’t just sit on a wall the way a boulder would sit on a mountain. They had figured out that the weight of the ceiling was pushing out on the walls. That force could be channeled into specific paths. When you do that, you can actually put a window that is wider than a lady’s crespinettes. Since you’ve figured out the engineering of it all, you might as well make it taller and add even more windows. Religious devotion is not about going half-way!

“Around the middle of the 12th century, a new artistic sensibility with new architectural principles began spreading from the cathedrals of northern France. The Romanesque church gave way to an organism that replaced the construction system based on thick load-bearing walls in favour of a structure — called a skeletal system — that freed itself of all superfluous parts by identifying the forces acting on the interior — the thrusts of the vaults and the weight of the roof and walls — so as to direct them along predetermined routes. This transformation tool place over the course of little less than a century and began in the Ile-de-France, where the desire to build very high naves resulted in close attention to the technical and formal aspects of construction…

“This agile and elastic structure frees the walls from their load-bearing function, making possible the broad expanse of windows with polychrome glass that brings rays of coloured light into the church interior, filling that space with its mutable shadings.

Sainte-Chapelle on the Ile-de-la-Cite takes the skeletal framework to extremes. It becomes a building of windows.

“This light, so different from the half-light of Romanesque churches, became the fundamental element in the figurative theory of Gothic architecture, which uses light physically and metaphorically to reveal the logical and constructive procedures — arranged in accordance with the scholastic thinking of the period — that support the construction of the cathedral. In the view of medieval theology, the Gothic cathedral was an expression of cosmic order and symbolic image of the immaterial substance of God reflected in the harmony of the building’s proportion and its luminosity. The spires, pinnacles, and towers of the facade — arranged according to the principles of the golden section — accentuate the prevalence of the vertical, symbolic of the tension toward the divine; the door of the sky is illuminated, and it illuminates the interior thanks to the insertion of a great rose window, a true mystical membrane between the light of God and the heart of the faithful.” (One Thousand Years of World Architecture, p 72.)

One of the very first Gothic buildings–or at the very least a transitional building between the movements–can be found in Paris in the form of the Basilique Saint-Denis.

Renaissance (15th – 17th century)

Hotel Carnavalet

Hotel Carnavalet

The Renaissance (“rebirth”) burst from the highly creative city of Florence which, both politically and creatively, wanted to resurrect the grandeur of the classical world. The wisdom and beauty of the classical period hit them like a shock. Sure they were pagan, but wow were they really great pagans!

It didn’t take them long to figure out how their Christian theology could comfortably co-opt classical beauty: order, rationality, symmetry, geometry, functionality, and the balanced life. Monumental harmony and proportion were driving principles that were augmented by a deeper understanding of linear perspective.

Furthermore, in contrast to medieval mentality, buildings were no longer meant to be a refuge from the environment. Now, they could interact with their surroundings. It could all fit together. It was the age where humanity felt empowered to exert its ability to craft the world to meet its needs. It was also an age of huge displays of power, both secular and religious.

Fountain of the Innocents

In France, the Renaissance found its strongest foothold in the chateau, but the imprint can be found all over the city.

“In the 16th century, the influence of Italian art gave birth in France to a taste for Antiquity. Everywhere there appeared channeled columns and pilasters, with Ionic or Corinthian capitals, curvilinear or triangular pediments, coffered ceilings, sculptures of worldly inspiration and statues of figures ever more bared, recalling mythology. The semi-circular arch came back into fashion. It was the time of the construction of the Louvre’s new wing, the Hôtel Carnavalet, the Hôtel Lamoignon and the delightful Innocents Fountain. Religious architecture won renown with the church of Saint Eustache or that of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont with its superb rood-screen. Their decoration is rich with the Renaissance, while their structure is still Gothic.” (source)

Baroque (17th – 18th century)

Palace of Versailles

Palace of Versailles - If you can find a place to rest your eyes, you're standing too close.

Those Renaissance buildings are pretty cool, but wouldn’t they be that much better if you just gave them a little flare. And, let’s be honest, if a little flare is good, a lot of flare is undoubtedly better. Adhering to that kind of logic would prove once and for all that a monarchy doesn’t have to answer to anybody but himself. Let’s be honest, would you argue with a guy who builds a 72,000 square foot palace that is entirely structured around the focal point of his own bed? Of course you wouldn’t, primarily because you can’t argue with delusions of that magnitude. Thus, the absolutist monarch is born!

“Toward the close of the 16th century a style came into being that expressed a new concept of nature and the world, of the relationships among people, and of the function of art itself in the realms of both secular and religious power and in the pricate realm dedicated to the enjoyment of beauty.” (One Thousand Years of World Architecture, p 176.)

The epicenter of the Baroque style was Rome and it was meant to overwhelm people with the splendor of its beauty as a way of combating the Protestant heresy. Naturally, the style was quickly adopted by absolutist monarchs throughout Europe as evidence of their secular authority and grandeur.

Les Invalides - An ornate dome standing as a symbol to the city.

“This architectural language used ‘rhetorical figures’ – the alteration of classical proportions, the effects of gigantism, the expansion of spaces, and the dynamism of forms – in the constant search for surprising and paradoxical effects. At the same time, the interaction between the arts was put to the service of a display that preferred theatrical and illusionistic effects because of their ability to turn the public into both spectator and participant at once.” (One Thousand Years of World Architecture, p 176.)

During the Baroque period, the dome became central to the urban landscape and authorities were beginning to execute urban planning that emphasized organized street systems and vast public squares. It was all part of showing who was the biggest, baddest king in Europe. Due to the immense wealth in France, no one could compete with Louis XIV.

The late baroque period is often called Rococo, which was a period where architects went waaaay overboard with the florid decorations and decided that the traditional symmetry of classicism was really just a rough suggestion.

Place des Vosges - Big is better.

“In baroque France, urban planning and architecture became the metaphor for absolute power. Place des Voges, Les Invalides, the completion of the Louvre, and the enlargement of the royal palace of Versailles are only a few of the more spectacular creations of the period. Over the span of a few decades, the coherence of these works, the financial and organizational efforts behind them, and their artistic qualities put France in a leading position in terms of European architecture…Thus architecture became the expression of a strongly hierarchical society, and it did so using two basic styles, on the one hand classicism, held as the most suitable model for celebratory buildings, and on the other the rococo, which was reserved for purely decorative uses.”  (One Thousand Years of World Architecture, p 190.)

Neo-classicism (18th – 19th century)

The Petit Trianon

The Petit Trianon in the garden of Versaille - Order, symmetry, and a whole lot of rectitude.

It was almost as though Ange-Jacque Gabriel looked around Paris and decided that it was time to sober up. Sure, we had a good run with the baroque style. Heck, we did it better than anyone. And no one can deny the French’s influence on developing the movingly dramatic Gothic architecture. What could possibly compete with these broad and dramatic styles?

Simplcity, order, and balance…that’s what.

You’ve got to hand it to Gabriel. He showed remarkable restraint in applying the classical simplicity.

“In France, the return to more classical forms confirmed the end of the baroque in the name of a single national style; rococo immoderation was rejected in the name of the ‘beautiful simplicity’ of antiquity…

“It was in the 1770s that French neo-classicism took hold with greater coherence, and it did so in buildings of a less traditional type than the palace and the church. Such was the case, for instance, in the public theatres, works unrelated to court patronage, such as the Grand Theatre in Bordeaux, designed by Victor Louis, the splendid internal stairway of which became the model for that in the Paris Opera.” (One Thousand Years of World Architecture, p 248.)

Eclecticism (1830 – 1920)

La Basilique du Sacré-Coeur - Is it a Byzantine mosque or a Catholic cathedral?

They were running out of ideas! We’ve been through classicism and neo-classicism…what is the point of starting up neo-neo-classicism. The excesses of the baroque was burned out when they went waaaaay over the top with rococo. It all seemed so, “Been there, done that!”

So, what’s an architect to do?

The simple answer is to jumble it all together. Heck, why couldn’t you put a byzantine dome on a Renaissance set of columns. The benefit to all that would be that you aren’t repeating yourself because no one has ever done that before.

The long string of history was an illusion anyway, wasn’t it? So long as the semantic elements work together in a pleasing (and maybe even fantastical) way, shouldn’t that satisfy the demands of architectural beauty?

“As its types became normalized, and the number of its forms reduced, neo-classicism gave way to a radical secularization of architecture; at the same time, however, it lost the ability to invent a new architectural language. To make up for this, recourse was made to a wider and wider range of historicist citations and to formal crossovers among the various styles of the past in the desire to break free of the compositional canons of the treatises of Vitruvius and the Renaissance. As early as the second half of the 18th century, the idea of a variegated and manifold past began to spread, a past that could not be recreated through the imitation of a restricted number of models…

“Through the integration of neo-classical, neo-Gothic, exotic, and utopian elements, the new age made use of the entire patrimony of styles elaborated in the past, stripping them bare of any historical connotations and reducing them to mere forms.” (One Thousand Years of World Architecture, p 266.)

As an example of eclecticism, the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur utilizes codes from the Byzantine and Romanesque traditions.

Art Nouveau (1890 – 1914)

Interior of the Grand Palais

The Industrial Revolution challenged people’s sense of self and nature. The factory slums, the smog, the incessant cry from the Luddites caused some to wonder whether humanity was losing its soul.

You couldn’t deny that machine-labor was driving down costs, but it was also driving down quality. Where were the handmade artifacts of life? Against this peculiarly modern angst, the traditions of the past seemed inherently incapable of answering man’s aesthetic needs. A sensibility emerged to revive the decorative arts as practiced by artisans. Lacking the foresight that it would forever be confused with the 20th century scrapbooking movement, they called it “the arts and crafts movement”.

Doorway at place Etienne Pernet, 24 (Paris 15e) - Did that door just grow there?

Architects started out rejecting the traditional architectural motifs. Not feeling that any of the styles of the past could address their need for a human calibration in the face of increasing mechanization, they looked to nature for inspiration. Ironically, modern building materials (like iron) gave them the flexibility to do it.

“The optimistic faith in the progress of modern industrial civilization on the one hand and the rejection of all eclecticism on the other caused the rise of a language drawn directly from nature, full of plant and animal references expressed with a dynamic line, decorative, agile, and flexible.” (One Thousand Years of World Architecture, p 276.)

Still, France was not about to follow Belgium and Austria headlong into the new style. Instead of committing to all the Art Nouveau architectural principles, she adopted them more as a decorative style that was often overlaid on functionalist structures.

Modernism (20th century)

Centre Pompidou - Beaubourg

Centre Pompidou - No, to answer your unasked question: That building is not under construction.

The Twentieth-century blew the doors wide open. With the expansion of sophisticated engineering and new building materials (like steel reinforced concrete), architects now had the palette to be limited only by their imaginations. But formal elements weren’t the only major shifts. Continued industrialization and the horrors of the Great War had opened a chasm between modernity and the past. For some, it meant freedom. To others, it meant the amoral affront of the International style and the insane impracticality of the post-modernism.

La Grande Arche de la Défense in the business district of Paris, France - It should remind you of the Arc de Triomphe

It is difficult to actually list the elements of modernism. How does one compare the icy simplicity of the International style with the varied richness of Frank Lloyd Wright? Can the wackiness of Expressionism really be grouped with the the boxy Bauhaus school? 

So much of modernism is about the rational or functional aspects of the building laid bare. Ornamentation was often shunned…or the building itself could become the ornament.


I am going to assume that you will have all of this memorized so that as you walk the streets of Paris, people can overhear comments like “An absolutist monarch without a Baroque palace is like a revolutionary without a guillotine” and “The rococo motifs are making my head swim; let’s go get a baguette.”