Throughout its history, France has been fertile ground for architectural innovation. Gothic, renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, art nouveau and art deco designers have enthusiastically put their ideas into practice – and made a lasting impression on the landscape and skyline of the country. The 21st century is no exception.
Now France is seeing an explosion of dazzling contemporary architecture from some of the world’s greatest structural and landscape artists, both French and international, including Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Shigeru Ban, Elizabeth de Portzamparc and more. Among their creations of public buildings, they have conceived a new crop of outstanding museums that go beyond their historic role as custodian of the cultural and artistic heritage of the country to become works of arts onto themselves.
Quai Branly Museum – Paris
Inaugurated in 2006 on the left bank of the Seine, just a five-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower, the Quai Branly Museum is dedicated to indigenous arts and cultures from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Its collections include almost 370,000 works ranging from the Neolithic period to the 20th century, only a small percentage of which are on display at any given time.
Equally remarkable for its architecture and surroundings as for its collections, the museum sits behind a translucent glass enclosure that isolates its exuberant 18,000-square meter (4.5-acre) garden from the busy riverside drive. For the main building, which houses the exhibition galleries, world-renowned French architect Jean Nouvel created a 210-meter (690-foot) long bridge, anchored at both ends with concrete silos. Its center soars 10 meters (33 feet) above the garden, held by 26 columns concealed within the garden’s mature trees, giving the impression that the building is resting on the treetops. The entire 800-square meter (8,600-square foot) façade of the adjoining administrative building is entirely concealed by a lush vegetal wall of over 150 species of plants from all over the world.
Pompidou Center – Metz
This offshoot of the Pompidou Art Center in Paris, inaugurated in 2010, was especially designed to house semi-permanent and temporary exhibits of rarely seen large-scale modern works from its parent’s large collection – the largest in Europe – of 20th and 21st century arts.
In Metz, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban created a large hexagonal structure centered around a 77-meter (253-foot) central spire, with three rectangular galleries weaving through the building at different levels. Huge picture windows angled toward various historic landmarks around the city jut through the astonishing roof styled like a Chinese hat.
Louvre – Lens
The choice of placing the Louvre-Lens on a 20-hectare (50-acre) wasteland that was once a major coal-mining site in northern France is a successful example of using the decentralization of major cultural institutions to breathe new life into areas decimated the industrial shifts of the 20th century.
Inaugurated in 2012, this satellite of Paris’ Louvre Museum is as a low, ethereal creation of glass and brushed aluminum designed by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa to blend seamlessly into the flat landscape and pale skies of northern France. At its core, the 120-meter (400-foot) long Galerie du Temps (Gallery of Time) showcases 250 pieces representing five millennia of ancient and European art history. The displays are free-standing to allow viewing from all angles. The artifacts are arranged chronologically by themes to better illustrate the influence of earlier civilizations upon succeeding ones. In addition to two temporary themed exhibits per year, one-third of the semi-permanent collection is rotated back to Paris each year and replaced by different pieces.
MuCEM – Marseille
Inaugurated in the 2014, the Musée des Civilizations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (or MuCEM for short) focuses on European and Mediterranean civilizations. Its permanent collection traces the historical and cultural cross-fertilization around the Mediterranean basin from antiquity to modern times.
The museum is built on reclaimed land at the entrance of the ancient port of Marseille, next to the 17th century Saint Jean Fortress, which has been integrated the project. Designed by local architect Rudy Ricciotti, the new structure is a three-story, 15,000 square meter (160,000 square foot) cube of glass and steel exhibit space wrapped in a latticed veil of fiber-reinforced concrete that also extends over the roof terrace. The grounds of the fortress, the gardens and terrace afford a panoramic view of the Bay de Marseille. From the top of the Fort, a flying footbridge leads to the edge of the historic popular hillside neighborhood of Le Panier (the basket) with and its own glorious views of the old port and waterfront.
Louis Vuitton Foundation – Paris
Designed by the famed American architect Frank Gehry and located at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne on the western side of Paris, the artistic seat of the Louis Vuitton Foundation was inaugurated in 2014. And was immediately recognized as an emblematic example of 21st century architecture.
Constructed above a water garden created especially for the project, the building consists of an assemblage of white blocks (“the icebergs”) clad in panels of fiber-reinforced concrete and surrounded by twelve immense inflated glass “sails” supported by wooden beams. The sails give the structure its transparency and sense of movement, as its reflection of the water and surrounding natural environment continually change with the light. As visitors move through the 11 galleries dedicated to temporary exhibitions and artisic events, they can climb exterior stairways underneath the glass sails to access the roof-top gardens, enjoying along the way stupendous views of Paris in the distance.
The City of Wine – Bordeaux
More than a museum, the City of Wine is a dynamic playground for wine lovers. Open in 2016 on the west bank of the Garonne, in the old Chartrons neighborhood, the historic center of the wine trade, the bold golden swirl of a building doesn’t resemble any recognizable shape, but succeeds beautifully in suggesting wine at first sight.
Its designers, French architects Anouk Legendre and Nicholas Desmazière speak of finding inspiration in gnarled shapes of wine stock and the swirl of wine in a glass. To me, the sensuously rounded shimmery structure clad with a mix of silkscreen-printed glass and iridescent perforated aluminum evokes the soft curves of a decanter. Inside, a self-guided tour through 20 themed spaces takes visitors on a journey of discovery of wine through time, its influence in shaping civilizations around the world, and cultures from ancient time to the present. The itinerary ends with the top floor Belvedere and an invitation to taste wines from around the world.
Lascaux IV – Montignac
The cave paintings at Lascaux are twenty thousand years old. They are considered the most important known example of Paleolithic paintings in the world. Discovered in 1940 by four local boys and opened to visitors in 1948, the cave quickly became an international tourist attraction. But contact with the outside world soon began to degrade the paintings to the point where, in order to preserve it, the site had to be permanently closed to the public in 1963.
Now, with the opening of Lascaux IV in 2016, visitors can once again wonder at the legacy of our ancient ancestors. From a distance, the sprawling concrete and glass structure designed by Norwegian architectural studio Snøhetta seems little more that a natural cut in the landscape, unobtrusively wedged into the base of the densely forested hill containing the original cave. Once inside, using the latest advances in laser imaging and digital scanning technologies, the entire prehistoric cave and its overwhelming paintings have been cloned with perfect accuracy. Even the moist, chilly atmosphere, the muffled sounds and subdued lightings recreate the experience of the four teenagers who first stumbled upon the cave eight decades ago.
Museum of Roman Times – Nimes
Facing the beautifully preserved, 2,000-year old Roman Amphitheater, the Museum of Roman Times opened in 2018 to bridge the past and the present with its ultra-modern design by Franco-Brazilian architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc. Within its rippling façade made of thousands of shimmering glass tiles intended to evoke the folds of a Roman toga, visitors are immersed into 25 centuries of history of the city and its rich collection of local artefacts. At the rear of the museum, the vast archeological garden is structured into three strata corresponding to the major periods of Nimes: Gallic, Roman and Medieval.
Good to Know
- Quai Branly Museum, 37 Quai Branly, 75007 Paris. Contact: Tel. +33 (0)1 56 61 70 00.
- Pompidou Center – Metz,1 Parvis des Droits de l’Homme, 57020 Metz – Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 3 87 25 39 39
- Louvre-Lens Museum, 99 Rue Paul Bert, 62300 Lens. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 21 18 62 62
- MuCEM, Promenade Robert Laffont, 13002 Marseille. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 84 35 13 13.
- Louis Vuitton Foundation – Paris, 8 Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, 75116 Paris. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 84 35 13 13
- The City of Wine, Esplanade de Pontac, 134 quai de Bacalan, 33300 Bordeaux. Contact: Tel. +33 (0)5 56 16 20 20
- Lascaux IV, Avenue de Lascaux, 24290 Montignac. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 50 99 10.
- Museum of Roman Times, 16, boulevard des Arènes, 30900 Nîmes. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 48 21 02 10.