5 Places every architect/urban designer must visit in France!

Be it the flamboyant Romanesque styles, the revolutionary city planning initiatives by Haussman, the magnificent steel structures from industrial revolution, the 20th century modernist who redefined Architecture or the 21st century star-architects shaping the global future. France has been setting examples in Architectural Design, Urbanism and Structural Engineering since ages forgotten.

The urban fabric of Paris from the Eiffel tower.

It’s almost a dream for every Architect since the days of his/her education to walk upon the stone cobbled streets of medieval French towns, to be enthralled by the magnanimous grandeur of Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals, to actually experience the city planning principles taught in schools, and to sense the scale and proportion of Architectural marvels often seen on a 5 inch smartphone screen. If you’re a person with an eye for design and if you wish to experience France more than just a typical tourist here are 5 places besides Paris (being a bit overrated) which will surely be a feast to your senses.

1. Mont Saint Michel, Normandy

Approach towards Mont Saint Michel | Source: Author

The UNESCO world heritage site sitting atop a 400 hectares island surrounded by sea on all sides is a mystical destination straight from the classic novels of Jules Verne. A perfect translation of the feudal society constructed with the God on top as the abbey and monastery followed by great halls, stores and houses of fishermen towards the ground. The winding stone cobbled, narrow streets with antique shops and cafes on both sides, maze-like organic planning of buildings and the spectacular Romanesque Architecture of monastery does take one way back in time. What’s inspiring for an architect are the exemplary conservation efforts that went into preserving it after world war bombings and the severe weathering impacts from surrounding high tides. With more than 3 million tourists every year it’s now the most recognisable landmarks in France with commendable efforts towards heritage conservation.

Cloister within the Mont Saint Michel

Read more at: Le Mont Saint-Michel: A Mystery Maze in Isolation

2. Bordeaux, Gironde Southwest France

Cite Du Vin Wine Museum | Source: Author

A city famous for its wine industry since the medieval eras holds countless marvels both historical and contemporary for an architect looking beyond context. The rustic and antique aura of this heritage city is reflected in each and every urban element from the building facades, the art nouveau balcony railings, the street lamps, bollards, signages, street furniture, the grand gateways, sculptures highlighting plaza, urban parks and many more. Moving away from the historic city centre and into the outskirts one comes across contemporary mixed-use developments integrated within the same traditional city layout such that the modern Architecture establishes a dialogue between the past and the future of this city. The ‘Cité du vin’ wine museum is famous for its dynamic and bold curvaceous form as an evocation of the soul of wine between the river, Garonne and the city.

Gateways in Bordeaux | Source: Author
Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas Bridge | Source: Author

Read more at: Bordeaux, the city smells of wine.

3. Strasbourg, Alsace, Northeast France

Cityscape of Strasbourg as seen from Strasbourg cathedral | Source: Author
Rivetoile Urban Port in Strasbourg | Source: Author

This 2000-year-old city lying at confluence of Germany and France blends the two cultures and so the Architecture styles. It’s an amalgamation of Medieval, Renaissance and Art Nouveau eras with half-timbered houses with slate clad roofs reminiscent of fairy-tale and fables. The extensively ornamented Strasbourg Cathedral, once called by Victor Hugo as ‘the prodigy of the gigantic and the delicate’, is the historic landmark of the city. The city’s peculiarity lies in how this landmark character is now reflected in the Contemporary Architecture of the parliament building, the Rivetoile urban riverfront, cyclable and walkable neighbourhoods and of course the tram network.

Ornamented Strasbourg cathedral | Source: Author

4. Marseilles, South France

Unite d’habitationby Le Corbusier | Source: Author

The second largest city in France after Paris, this multicultural port city has witnessed a coexistence of iconic Romanesque-Byzantine Architecture and signature styles of globally renowned modern architects: Le Corbusier, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Norman Foster.  The influential CitéRadieuse Complex with the famous Unite d’habitation was built by Le Corbusier as his first housing project to provide communal living for post war inhabitants. It’s a must visit for every Architect not only to admire the brutalist style or the aesthetics but to comprehend the proportions, the innovative placing of corridors, space optimization, mixed use integration and passive strategies using Brise Soleil. It’s said that there has been no such successful venture in social housing simply because of his modular proportions. Jean Nouvel’s 135 m high skyscraper known as La Marseillaise stands beside the CMA CGM tower by Zaha Hadid and portrays a contextual identity, an identity imbibed into the facade inspired from the colours of the port city and a feeling of belonging to the atmosphere around. Yet another marvel is the MuCEM museum building by Rudi Riciotti designed as a perfect cube with a mesmerizing entrance route passing through the city, then mid-air and then over the rooftop with expansive views of the horizon and beyond. The prefabricated concrete screen envelopes the entire built mass and mimics the ripples of sea waves within the corridors. Yet another Architectural marvel is the Vieux Port Pavilion by Norman Foster which is a minimal intervention of a polished stainless-steel panel supported by four slender columns transforming into a mirror that reflects the activities and pedestrian movements encouraging everyone to linger on. The urban efforts mostly centred along the old port side has been a recent effort to transform it into a public civic space which almost every urbanist across the world should be inspired by.

Vieux Port Pavilion by Norman Foster | Source: Author
MUCEM by Rudi Ricotio | Source: Author

5. Nantes, Brittany, West France

Machines of the Isle of Nantes Urban project | Source: Author

Yet another port city on the Loire River in the upper Brittany region of West France has been home to the dukes of Brittany and the birth place of the famous Jules Verne and his adventurous tales. The prominent architectural marvels to visit and admire here are: Castle of the Dukes of Brittany converted to the Nantes History Museum; Passage Pommeraye, a unique Renaissance inspired shopping mall; Art Museum of Nantes, an amalgamation of a heritage museum with a contemporary art museum with collections dated back to 13th century; and Machines of the Isle of Nantes, a cultural, touristic and artistic urban project with designs inspired from Jules Verne and Leonardo Da Vinci depicting innovative retrofitting solutions to old warehouses transformed into public social infrastructure.

Passage Pommeraye Shopping mall Nantes | Source: Author
Castle of Dukes of Brittany | Source: Author

Read more about my travel in Nantes: Nantes, A city full of accidental encounters.

Obviously there are a ton more places in France which any designer would love to explore but what’s important is to understand the quality of urban environments these places have to offer and the innovations in not only erecting massive skyscrapers with no regards to the context but in weaving the contemporary with the heritage urban fabric.

Article originally published by author at Rethinking the Future, the largest web platform for architects.