Paris Architecture between Old and New
Visiting Paris is a chance to witness some of the world’s greatest architecture all in one beautiful city.
Because of its ancient roots and forward thinking people, Paris contains a wide variety of influences and grand narratives that thread through the city blocks. For many other places, a long history can be difficult, always having the potential of holding a city back. But Paris has made a conscientious effort throughout the centuries to balance its heritage with the latest ideas in beauty.
This is nowhere as clear as in its breathtaking architecture. From the Roman influenced grand monuments, to the Medieval survivals, to the Haussmann era, to the Eiffel Tower, to I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, the city constantly rejuvenates itself while always being uniquely Parisian.
That’s why I’m always encouraging people to reach out to Louise Renault, a fellow Paris tour guide who focuses on architecture. She offers an incredible experience to discover the wonders of the built environment, as well as all the stories that lurk throughout the alleyways and in the cafes of this romantic city.
If you are interested in taking an architectural tour of Paris, reach out to Louise today! In the meantime, let’s examine some of the wonders here and sketch the broad outlines of how the city evolved over time.
A History of Paris in Buildings
There’s just no getting around it — an enormous part of what makes Paris the most charming city in the world is its long heritage of beauty.
Being the center of France, a lot of effort is put into maintaining the inherent Frenchness of the city. And it has managed to keep its identity strong for thousands of years.
Today, you can visit some of the old Paris.
Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés
Not much survives of the Celtic or Roman eras in Paris history. But after it was conquered by the Romans in 52 BCE, their style of architecture had a long lasting influence.
They even lent their name to the “Romanesque” style. There are a few churches made in the style that still exist today. Perhaps most popular is the abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés and its iconic bell tower.
Though the Empire had fallen centuries before it was constructed, their architectural influence had not dimmed by 1000 CE. But shortly after this time, the Gothic style took hold and grew through Europe, and along with it a variety of new innovations pushed humanity toward modernity.
The Wall of Philippe August
In Le Marais, you can visit the remains of the wall that King Philippe-Auguste built between 1190 and 1202.
So much of the medieval Paris that survives comes from the state building protections from attack and the Catholic Church building grand cathedrals.
The wall was an integral part of an overall plan for the city that included the construction of the Louvre Palace — which would one day go on to become the most visited museum in the entire world. And another fun fact: the wall also encircled a temple that served as the headquarters of the much storied Knights Templar.
While not much to look at today, the surviving pieces of the wall give us a look at Paris as it once was. But the same city planning that went into building Philippe’s wall also gave us some of the most famous instances of Paris architecture.
Notre-Dame de Paris
This medieval cathedral sitting on the Île de la Cite contains beauty far beyond words. Its construction began in 1163, but it wouldn’t be completed for 100 years. In that time, some of the greatest achievements in Gothic construction and decoration were carried out under its flying buttresses and rib vaulted ceilings.
It survives as a beacon of architectural splendour. This is truly a can’t-miss sight for any visit to Paris. The fire in 2019 served to show us just how precious this old architecture is, and it reminds us that they will not be around forever.
But Notre-Dame also shows how Paris slowly became an important cultural centre for Europe as a whole.
Combined with Philippe’s wall, which was built around the same time, we get a snapshot of a country emerging from centuries of chaos after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Despite that instability, Paris had the means to defend itself and the vision to extend upward to the heavens like never before. And in the almost 1,000 years since these were built, the world’s greatest capital city took shape.
Beginning around 1500, the Renaissance made its presence felt in the architecture of Paris. With a growing wave of artistic and cultural achievement, the city found itself a thriving center of the continent.
But while the era was filled with style and sophistication for the rich, growing wealth inequality and a lack of forward thinking in city planning began to create problems that the city would not address for centuries. Examples like the Hôtel Carnavalet, completed in 1560 and now home to a museum of the city, stand as visual feasts from this time.
The Shadow of Versailles
During the Baroque and Rococo eras, the wealthy in Paris pushed the boundaries of architecture further than they ever had before. The goal was always more, and this is nowhere as clear as in the excess of Versailles.
Built under the grandiose eye of King Louis XIV, the palace is a monument to the growing power and economic strength of France.
And up through the French Revolution, it would continue to be the extravagant center to royal life, one that had a massive influence on the architectural tastes of France and the rest of Europe.
The city was in dire straits by the time Georges-Eugène Haussmann led his renovations of Paris. It was the second half of the 19th century. After revolution and counter revolution, after royal mismanagement and the instability of insurgent Jacobins, Paris was a shell of its former self.
Many areas had not been updated since the Middle Ages, and still others suffered such poor living conditions that they routinely inspired uprisings in the streets.
Haussmann was hired by Napoleon III to make drastic changes, and that he did. He opened up more of the city to sun and air, pursued an aggressive campaign to improve water and gas lighting (leading to Paris’s nickname the City of Lights), and improved the system of roads.
It is Haussmann who instituted the famous Paris apartments that line the large intersections. These famous facades gave the city a strong, updated identity when Paris needed it most.
The Eiffel Tower
You can’t think of Paris architecture without thinking of the once controversial and now universally believed icon of the city: the Eiffel Tower.
The Tower would never have been built before Haussmann’s renovations. Instead, it emerges from the transformed city in 1889 as a symbol for everything that Paris would become in the 20th century.
It finished construction as far and away the tallest tower in the world. And it generated deep disagreements in the public about its aesthetic merits. Nevertheless, it served as a centrepiece for the 1889 World’s Fair.
That entire event was an important moment for Paris — in the full swing of the Belle Époque — and so the moment crystallized the Eiffel Tower as the crown jewel of a people at the forefront of societal taste and scientific advances.
The Louvre Pyramid
One of the latest examples of great Parisian architecture, this stunning structure has remained as controversial today as it was since it was unveiled. In that way, it stands alongside many other great Paris wonders like the Eiffel Tower, Haussmann’s renovations, and the Palace of Versailles — all of which inspired both praise and loathing among the public.
The Louvre Pyramid construction began after President François Mitterrand announced in 1981 that the Louvre would undergo an extensive set of renewal projects collectively known as the Grand Louvre.
Part of this would be the construction of a new entrance that would allow visitors to access a level underneath the great outdoor courtyard, creating an entirely new space in the legendary museum.
I.M. Pei’s resulting Louvre Pyramid, completed in 1988, totally upended expectations and caused enormous controversy. Is it a stroke of genius that pushes the historic significance of the museum into the future?
Is it a travesty?
You’ll have to visit and see the architecture for yourself!
The Architecture of a Great City
The story of a city like Paris can be seen in its architecture. The way that the buildings are formed and how they speak to one another across time and space is a fascinating way to understand an area.
And because Paris has remained committed to staying modern while preserving the memory of the past, there is no better city to witness history fully alive in the same place where the future has already arrived.
If you would like to experience the exciting and stunning beauty of Parisian architecture, you must book a tour with Louise today!
Louise is also a professional tour guide and has qualification in Art History from La Sorbonne university of Paris.
She is one of the top tour guides for a Louvre and D'orsay Combo tour.
If you want to book with Louise or Flora, contact me here or use my email : firstname.lastname@example.org