Renowned for its historical heritage - its castles, cathedrals, abbeys and more -, France is also a haven for today's modern architecture. Cement, glass, metal... Architects have a boundless imagination when it comes to building sites that add value to their regions, showing off the best of not only cities but rural communities as well. Follow your guide!
In Paris, begin your tour between the Eiffel Tower and the Place du Trocadéro, at the Cité de l'architecture & du patrimoine located in a wing of the Palais de Chaillot. The Capital and its periphery boast a concentration of exceptional built heritage, with buildings like the Montparnasse Tower, inaugurated in 1973 and for years the country's tallest skyscraper, the Pompidou Centre, designed by architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, and the Grande Arche de la Défense, emblematic of the La Défense business district.
At the Cinémathèque française, admire the voluminous uninhibited curves dreamed up by architect Frank Gehry, then traverse the Seine to witness the rehabilitation of old general stores. Covered by a green silkscreened and undulating tubular structure created by architects Jakob+MacFarlane, the Docks, Cité de la mode et du design, houses the French Fashion Institute, regrouping boutiques and designer showrooms since 2012.
Then walk along the quays to have lunch at the Arab World Institute, where the restaurant terrace provides an incredible panoramic view of Paris and Notre-Dame. After, take in some contemporary art at the Cartier Foundation, located in a glass building designed by Jean Nouvel. This French architect also built the Quai Branly Museum, a long bridge on stilts surrounded by trees near the Eiffel Tower. Take a moment to admire its facade, which is covered in some 15,000 plants creating a fur-like effect, the work of botanist Patrick Blanc.
In Seine-Saint-Denis, the erection of a new city near Noisy-le-Grand, Marne-la-Vallée, attracted big names in contemporary architecture, like Spaniards Ricardo Bofill and Manolo Nunez-Yanowsky. The first is known for designing the Palacio d’Abraxas, and Le Théâtre and L'Arc; the second, for having constructed Picasso's Arènes.
Outside of the Capital
Twentieth and 21st century architecture is not only limited to Paris. Nominated European Capital of Culture in 2013, Marseille took this opportunity to inaugurate new venues designed by some of today's greatest architects and visionaries. Rudy Ricciotti, for one, conceived the MuCEM, or Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, at the entrance to the Old Port, a building that seems to float between sky and water. Two steps from there, the Mediterranean Villa is the work of Italian Stefano Boeri, who imagined this outsized building with a spectacular 40-meter cantilever overhang and functional spaces built under sea level. As for the new FRAC building, construction was entrusted to the Japanese agency, Kengo Kuma. With all of these modern developments, Marseille seems to be following the example of Lille, which, too, called upon the biggest names in contemporary architecture when nominated European Capital of Culture in 2004. From the Le Corbusier footbridge, take in a panoramic view of the Euralille district, where the Euralille Shopping Center designed by Jean Nouvel, Christian de Portzamparc's Lille Tower, and the Lilleeurope Tower conceived by Claude Vasconi and Jean-Claude Burdèse conglomerate.
Forty kilometres south of Lille, the new Louvre-Lens Museum was designed by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the Sanaa Agency, and this, in total harmony with the Museum's park, dreamed up by French landscape artist, Catherine Mosbach. A little farther east, the architecture of the Centre Pompidou-Metz, recently built by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and French Jean des Gastines, is a masterpiece in itself.
In Normandy, make your way to the Havre to discover the city rebuilt by Auguste Perret between 1945 and 1955, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While there, take a plunge in Jean Nouvel's aquatic centre, Les Bains des Docks, and admire Cattani Architects' Adock maritime containers now used as student residences. Lyon is another city that has taken on the great architectural challenge. Be charmed by the innovative buildings in the new Confluence district, such as the huge orange cube designed by Jakob+Macfarlane.
A little further south, Montpellier has also become a major destination when it comes to modern architecture, with big names like Ricardo Bofill and Paul Chemetov leaving their mark.
World records for contemporary bridges.
En route for the holidays, drive over and visit some veritable works of art, like the Millau Viaduct, which many refer to as the Pont du Gard of the 21st century. An architectural feat signed by Lord Norman Foster and conceived by engineer Michel Virlogeux, the Viaduct holds a world record for its height, with pylons rising 343 meters above the Tarn Valley. Along with architect Charles Lavigne, Michel Virlogeux also designed the Térénez Bridge in Brittany, inaugurated in 2011. This first curved cable-stayed bridge in France takes the world record for longest distance between two pillars (265 meters). Finally, in March 2013, Europe's tallest drawbridge was inaugurated in Bordeaux. With its 55-meter headroom, the Chaban-Delmas Bridge allows for cruise ships to navigate directly to the centre of the Port de la Lune, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.