Architecture in France

Jean-Pierre Dalbéra /

View of Nantes

The average person rarely thinks about just how much work and creative energy is poured into the convenient environment of the dwelling around them. In the meantime, the comfortable setting does not spring up by itself. It is the result of the work and sustained efforts of architects and urban planners.

The particular architectural image of France was formed over centuries. In the past decades, it has experienced a revival owing to a combination of successive policies of the state, participation of citizens, and the country's innovative architects. This extends to more than Paris, but also  to its regions.


General de Gaulle once said, "How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?" His words are often recalled in a humorous light, that the French are ungovernable, and can't even agree on a single kind of cheese. However, the general knew what he was talking about. The main point of his statement was not about cheese, but governance and decentralization. The program was sequentially put into effect at the start of the 1980s.

These reforms involved the development of architecture and urban planning directly: local taxes were sent directly to the budgets of local authorities and could be spent on community projects, such as roads, schools, sports centers, swimming pools and parks. Today, urban renewal or revival, or Renouvellement urbain, is a main component of local authorities' duties.


French architects in Russia

Recent Work and Projects:

• Jean Pistre (Valode & Pistre) — author of the project for Hyatt hotel and the Iset tower in Yekaterinburg’s new business district.
 • Philippe Panerai (Panerai &  Associés) — lead concept designer for the International Financial Center in Rublevo-Arkhangelsk.
 • Christian Deviller (Devillers et Associés) — project development and reconstruction of Kaliningrad. Awarded second place at the “Heart of the City” competition.
 • Michelle Pena — concept development for urban and public spaces in Krasnodar.
 • The French Federation of Landscape Architects, Fédération Française du Paysage (FFP), created a page written in Russian on the social network site, Facebook. The page tells the story of various architects’ work in the field of urban development and proposes cooperation with Russian colleagues.
 • It was recently announced that French landscape architects are beginning to develop a concept for the reconstruction of a park in the center of the city of Yekaterinburg. Jerome Vergen and landscape architect Bruno Kreme will guide the project.
 • In Voronezh, the green area of ​​the Dynamo park is being reconstructed. The renovated park will be renamed Voronezh Central Park. The following reconstruction of the park will be divided into three areas for walking, sports, and family oriented recreation. There will be games, bicycles and playgrounds, places for basketball and volleyball, as well as footpaths and comfortable benches. Frenchman Olivier Dame designed the reconstruction project.
 • At a competition for development projects for the Moscow metropo­litan area, “Big Moscow” in 2012, 10 design teams were selected from a pool of 67 competitors to enter into project contracts. Three of the teams are French or with French participation: Architectural bureau Ostozhenka (in participation with Yves Lion Associés), Wilmotte-Grumbach, and AUC. The concept proposed by Wilmotte-Grumbach architect Antoine Grumbaha and urban planner Jean-Michel Wilmotte has been recognized as the best project in the categories for the development of the Moscow metropolitan area, and the development of “Big Moscow,” which includes historic Moscow and its affiliated areas.

As the head of Devillers &  Associés, architect Christian Devillers, explains, until serious decentralization took place in France all responsibility for urban planning projects was exclusively carried out by the state, that is, the center. "But for the last 30 years or so, the regional capitals, municipalities, and agglomerations play the biggest roles," he said. "They are loaded up with solving urban problems, such as infrastructure, transport, and so on. Cities decide themselves what and how to build."

In general, the financing of urban development projects is carried out jointly with state (local) authorities and private developers. Entirely private projects are relatively few. Government agencies do not place orders directly. Projects are put up for tender. The guiding regulations for these tenders are stipulated in specialized laws, which have existed for many years.   

Nantes and the Surrounding Region

One of the clearest examples of the successful implementation of a long-term program for the revival of an old industrial center is that of Nantes, the capital of the French "Great West." The Grand Ouest region has a population of 900,000. By the 1960s, Nantes and the surrounding region (the Department of Loire-Atlantique) were in decline as a result of a crisis in shipbuilding and fisheries. A combination of state financing and decentralization, civil activism and long-term urban planning led to a gradual revival of one of the largest metropolitan areas in all of France.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Nantes once again became a center for shipbuilding (the wharf in Saint-Nazaire is where both military and civilian vessels are built) and for aviation manufacturing. Time magazine named Nantes as the most convenient European city, and the European Commission presented it with the 2013 European Green Capital Award.

As it has for 100 years, Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne stands in the city center. The castle of the Dukes of Brittany, complete with a drawbridge and a moat, was built when Nantes was the capital of Brittany. Key to the development of the city and the surrounding industrial zone was a mass transit system. A tram network and a bus rapid transit line, the so-called "tram without rails," was completed in 1985.

These logistical improvements gave employees access to quick and stress-free travel to and from factories and plants outside the city, reducing air pollution within Nantes. Less congestion in the city enabled more space to be allotted for parks and squares, including the botanical gardens at Stalingrad Avenue (receiving 1.5 million visitors each year).  

Le Havre

A slightly different example of the transformation of an old industrial city is that of Le Havre, the second most important French port after Marseille, and the country's largest container transport hub.

Le Havre's dockyard district had long been a semi-abandoned industrial wasteland. It was decided the site would become home to a large aqua park. The project was to be carried out by Jean Nouvel, recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize — equivalent to the Nobel Prize for architecture. The aqua park opened in 2008. It gave a fresh, new look to the river view of Le Havre — a view from which one of the city's most famous natives, Claude Monet, painted his 1872 "Impression, soleil levant" — "Impression. Rising Sun". This very painting gave the Impressionist movement its name.

After five years of operation, the park was upgraded. It was closed for renovations in January 2013, and by summer of the same year it reopened for the peak holiday season.

Grenoble, Streets and Zoning

In urban planning, until only recently an idea persisted that large residential areas should be fixed to the outskirts of a city. "Bedroom communities" with hundreds or even thousands of multi-story apartment buildings expanded outward from cities throughout the second half of the 20th century. For a long time the practice seemed modern, up-and-coming, and convenient.

However, the problems associated with this approach were increasingly apparent. Cities began to suffocate from traffic problems. In addition, they formed into rich and poor areas. In 2005 when dozens of French cities erupted in violent unrest, there was clearly an urban planning dimension to the problem. A search began for new solutions.

Renowned architect and urban planner Philippe Panerai, of the company Panerai &  Associés, explaining the new approach emphasized, "One of the negative aspects of regions dominated by prefabricated panel-housing is huge swathes of vacant space. On these abandoned wastelands there is nothing to do, and in the absence of what can be called social control, crime flourishes." In the opinion of the French architect, the Modernism of the second half of the 20th century led to the disappearance of the street as a way of organizing life in the city — a system of promenades and squares filled with cafes and shops to which you could always reach on foot. "One of our tasks, the tasks of our generation of planners is the rehabilitation of the street, to bring back to life those guidelines that for so long created the urban environment."

Grenoble was among the first sites for testing the effectiveness of these new ideas. The city sits at the foot of the French Alps, and was where the 1968 Winter Olympics took place. It is a mid-sized city (with a population of 155,000 people), but as in any historical, industrial, scientific and cultural center, problems existed there common to any other city. "We tried to change this situation," Panerai said. "To begin with it is necessary to clearly isolate residential area and then public space."

Another important principle received both a trial run and support in Grenoble, namely taking residents' opinions into consideration. Part of the work process involved conducting consultations with residents. If there were differences of opinion, they worked together with the municipality to hold additional meetings to lay out participants' limits and to reach a compromise.

"At first, residents didn't take it seriously," says Panerai. "They did not believe change was possible. But after a few months of work, they became convinced of the feasibility of our undertaking." The Grenoble project ran for a period of 12 years. Now, the principles tested there are being applied in other regions.

Historic Center and Modernity

Preserving the historical image of French cities, many of which have centuries-old, and not infrequently thousand-year histories, is a special task of architects and urban planners. The approaches are various, and dictated by the needs of urban development and the particular historical circumstances.

The medieval city of Carcassonne in the Languedoc region in the south of the country, with its walls of white stone and narrow streets all carefully restored and preserved, is nearly intact. Saint-Malo, an old port-city in Brittany with its own "Kremlin," was badly damaged by bombing during World War II. In the postwar years, however, it was meticulously restored. This, together with a modern international conference center, has garnered global attention to the city.

During the Allied D-Day landings in 1944, the city of Caen in the northwest of the country was severely damaged. But in a twist of fate, the resulting damage in the city center cleared its main square of the dilapidated old buildings. Moreover, the city's destruction took place in such a way that the castle of William the Conqueror was spared. Now, this castle has become a city-forming cultural center, and around it stand modern structures, including the campus of a large university and a harbor for yachts, all surrounded by elite residential buildings.

Centers of Regional Development

Another regional center is Rennes (with a core of 300,000, and metropolitan area of 680,000 people), the capital of Brittany. Already for many years, the city has been part of a comprehensive program of sustainable development. It involves the more densely "loaded" central regions of the city being simultaneously "unloaded" by efficient transportation. Rennes has earned a reputation as a green, livable city with a vibrant social and cultural life, with prestigious universities and research centers, high-tech manufacturing and a developed public transport system, which includes an automated metro (i.e. without drivers), bike stations, and an extensive system of bike paths.

Urban planners place special emphasis on eco-friendly sustainability. The author of the development program, Christian Deviller (Devillers &  Associés), explains that although the program is not a flashy one for architects, it presents wide possibilities for experimentation and innovation.

"In Rennes, we did an Éco-quartier project," said Deviller. "Currently, the city is a low density development. So, we decided to "strengthen" its center. The new quarter is like a small town. It is based on the principles of sustainable development, with a metro and fast buses. In fact, the buses are even faster than the metro."

For the design of metro stations in Rennes, the city attracted internationally acclaimed leading architects.

Nice — All Manner of Solutions

Even in pre-revolutionary times, Nice and all the Cote d'Azur was popular among both French and Russians. These places are known as favorite haunts of the super-rich to entertain themselves and relax.

The most prestigious locations, such as in the Principality of Monaco, enjoy the legal protection of France. Land is scarce, and for the first time since the 1980s, architecture has surged skyward. Monte Carlo is home to one of the tallest buildings on the Mediterranean coast, the 170-meter, two-towered Tour Odéon. The chief architect for the project was Alexander Giraldo. There are 82 luxury apartments in the building, at a cost of 50,000–70,000 euros per square meter. Interestingly, among the first buyers were French.

The top five floors belong to the Pearl Tower Odeon. This "apartment," among other conveniences, has its own swimming pool. One of the bedrooms has an access chute, through which you can be taken down to the pool directly as you "arise from sleep." The estimated value of this property is 300 million euros, making it the most expensive "apartment" in the world. For comparison, the London residential complex, One Hyde Park, has apartments starting at £20 million.

All the same, at Côte d'Azur in Nice, the project EcoCity Nice Meridia is being implemented. It will provide more than 2,000 residential units for students and employees of research companies.

The First phase of the Nice Meridia project involves the reclamation of 24 hectares. This area will be the heart of the future EcoCity Nice, not far from the Grand Arena (which when completed will be the largest business center in southern Europe). Two thousand one hundred houses, designed primarily for students and employees of research companies, will be built on the reclaimed land. Philippe Panerai, objecting to those who have questioned the cost-effectiveness of environmental projects, says: "You say such projects are more expensive? Not at all. On the contrary, such developments enable economizing. Even before the start of construction. For example, the cost of development is less. When you build 'eco-communities,' you design smaller roads, fewer gas stations, and smaller transportation networks. This reduces the cost of the project."

Clearly, French solutions in the field of urban planning are a diverse and interesting experience.

Russia - France 2015
Russia - France 2015
Welcome to Russia-France business supplement, devoted to strengthening bilateral relations between Russia and France.
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