Very few buildings, especially churches, in France were built in one particular architectural style. These structures often took centuries to complete, during which time tastes would change and plans would be altered.
Ancient Roman period
As for the Ancient Roman period there are such buildings preserved in Nîmes as 20,000-seat amphitheater, a Corinthian temple called the “Square House,” a fine archaeology museum, and the astounding Pont du Gard, a 47m-long (158-ft.), three-story aqueduct made of cut stones fitted together without mortar.
The Romanesque style took its inspiration from ancient Rome. Early Christians in Italy had adapted the ancient Roman law-court buildings, called the basilica, to become churches. The Cathédrale St-Bénigne in Dijon was the first French Romanesque church, but of that era only the crypt remains.
The best examples in and around Paris of the Gothic are Basilique St-Denis (1140-44), the world’s first Gothic cathedral in a Paris suburb; Cathédrale de Chartres (1194-1220), a Gothic masterpiece with some 150 glorious stained-glass windows; and, of course, Cathédrale de Notre-Dame (1163-1250), which possesses pinnacled flying buttresses, a trio of France’s best rose windows, good portal carvings, a choir screen of deeply carved reliefs, and spiffy gargoyles.
The Loire Valley and Burgundy are home to many Renaissance châteaux (castles). Foremost is the Loire’s Châteaux de Chambord, started in 1519, probably according to plans by Leonardo da Vinci (who may have designed its double helix staircase). In contrast, the Château de Chenonceau, home to many French king’s wives or mistresses, is a beautiful structure built in the middle of a river. The best example in Burgundy is the Château de Tanlay, east of Chablis.
Art Nouveau style
During the late 1800s the new architecture style appeared in France, called Art Nouveau (French for “New Style”) was popularized by the famous Maison de l’Art Nouveau, a Paris art gallery operated by Siegfried Bing. It has such features as asymmetrical shapes, extensive use of arches and curved forms, curved glass, plant-like embellishments, mosaics, stained glass, Japanese motifs.
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 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).