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Versailles, France Welcomes Contemporary Architecture, M...

Versailles, France Welcomes Contemporary Architecture, Minus the Brutalism

In Versailles, contemporary architecture is making timid forays into the city under the omnipresent eye of Louis XIV. This is an exercise with high risk for the city which is constrained by its imposing heritage. In some places, matte steel and sculpted concrete sit side by side with 300-year old gilded stone … a complicated marriage

Aerial View of Versailles, France including Palace

In Versailles, contemporary architecture is making timid forays into the city under the omnipresent eye of Louis XIV. This is an exercise with high risk for the city which is constrained by its imposing heritage. In some places, matte steel and sculpted concrete sit side by side with 300-year old gilded stone ... a complicated marriage that began a few years ago in this city which was created in its entirety by André Le Nôtre for Louis XIV. “We are in the largest preserved 18th-century sector of France. The city is marked by a powerful history, and urban planning rules are strict. The smallest faux-pas is taken as a catastrophe,” summarizes François de Mazières, a Mayor who often visits worksites in his commune while wearing a suit and sneakers.

The royal compound is the precursor to the “new city” and was a hotbed of building permits in 1779. Now, any contemporary intrusion in the historic center is scrutinized under a microscope by the “guardians of the temple,” the Architects of Buildings of France (ABF). However, the integration of building styles is not impossible in this sector, which remains sensible.

The machine-sculpted concrete bands that wave along the facade of the School of Fine Arts, just a stone’s throw away from the king’s abode, bear witness to this. In La Cour des Senteurs, just a few steps away from La Place d’Armes (the entry-square to the palace), the fragrance designer Guerlain has a boutique in a glass and black matte steel pavilion, designed by Philippe Pumain, architect of the renovated Louxor Cinema in Paris.

School of Fine Arts, Versailles, Modern Concrete Facade by 3d Pierre

Modernity without Disconnect

Since his election in 2008, Mayor François de Mazières, who previously presided over the City of Architecture and Cultural Heritage in Paris, has taken on a vast urban platform mixing historical preservation and contemporary development in small doses. New developments have involved architectural competitions for young talent and big names in architecture. The former general hospital has been transformed into a housing complex (as was recounted in Le Figaro several weeks ago), the Vauban Military Barracks were converted into student housing, and a minimalist garden was planted in the reservoirs of royal fountains.

As to the garish and futuristic, “We favor elegance and discretion,” explains the Mayor, speaking in particular about the recently inaugurated annex of the Saint-Louis neighborhood's cultural center.

The City entrusted Clément Vergely and the ALEP Architects agency with the construction of a clean and simple design with glass walls and metallic millwork, revisiting the style of an “orangerie." The annex is located in the interior courtyard of the Croÿ Barracks, former home to the king’s guards.

Versailles, France: Richaud Royal Hospital Renovation , front of building still covered in graffiti from years of abandon, scaffolding can be seen on right half of building for restoration

Several weeks earlier, the Richaud Royal Hospital (Versailles’ general hospital) was returned to its former splendor thanks to a renovation that stayed loyal to its original construction and was carried out under strict constraints by the famous architect Jean-Michel Wilmmotte. The complex contains a cultural center, a public garden in the French style, and housing quarters with smooth lines. With the design, the architect hoped to transplant a bit of the contemporary. In the end, “The city of Versailles has chosen to be a camelon. It is the architecture of compromise, but there is a rhythm to it, and it is unique,” he declared in September 2014 in Le Monde.

Trying to Avoid Going Around in Circles

The Mayor is moving forward with cautious steps. He wants to avoid, at all costs, a repeat of the “The Wart,” of a shopping center constructed in the 1970s near the Palace of Versailles.

Versailles, France Chantiers Train Station seen from Front

Hostile to heavy concrete, the Mayor has also fought to bury the idea of commercial flooring in the Chantiers Train Station development project, located beyond the protected zone of the city. As a compromise, the two architects of the moment, Portzamparc, will design a housing complex of 45,000 m2 with gardens and with greater liberty of design, promises the Mayor.

For a long time, the city has “gone around in circles ... constrained by its traditional image,” explains Frédéric Didier, head architect of historic monuments in charge of the palace and the city. Few architects or developers have risked going against their predecessors: who created the first Versailles, a village of 400 inhabitants that became a royal capital in 1650. The result: with few exceptions, modernity has been limited to " boring commercial architecture,” in the 20th century.

After its architectural wanderings, Versailles, an urban planning model that inspired Washington, “intends to show that she will continue to be a supporter of creativity, without brutal divergences,” according to the Mayor. It seems as if Louis XIV is still the king around here.

Should historic cities have a greater commitment to architectural contiguity than to modern innovation? How strictly is historical preservation observed in your community? What zoning codes exist to protect history and heritage in your community? Share your stories in the comments area below. 

Original article, originally published in French, here.

Credits: Image 2 used with permission by 3d Pierre. Images 1, 3-4, and data linked to sources.

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Katelyn Hewett recently graduated from St. Olaf College in Minnesota with a Bachelor of Arts in English and French. During her time at St. Olaf, she enjoyed playing the French Horn in the St. Olaf Band, working as a teaching assistant for first-year...

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