Summary of Beaux-Arts Architecture
An imposing and often decadent style, Beaux Arts buildings combined many of the main features of classical architecture, particularly columns and symmetry, with eclectic and decorative elements drawn from other historical styles. Beaux-Arts Architecture was intended to be a French national style, but the approach also found prominence in the United States, and a handful of other locations throughout the world. It was most commonly used for public and civic buildings such as museums, art galleries, libraries, and university campuses.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Beaux Arts buildings tended to feature sculptural decoration and this could take many forms from statuary to relief panels and inscriptions. This decoration was carefully designed to communicate the purpose and identity of the building through details including the names and faces of famous individuals and relevant mythological references. Sculptural features were often complemented by additional internal and external elements such as murals and mosaics which also reflected the building's function.
- Technology and industry were very important to Beaux Arts architects and this reflected wider trends of the period, most notably the Industrial Revolution. Beaux Arts architecture pioneered the use of new materials such as cast iron, pairing it with large areas of glass to create light-filled spaces. Some of the most famous Beaux Arts buildings, such as train stations, also reflect the impact of technology of people's daily lives and these can be seen as a glorification of new machinery and knowledge.
- Classical details continued to be prominent within the Beaux Arts canon, but these were used in an increasingly eclectic fashion. Although notions of symmetry and the widespread use of columns remained important, these were paired with features such as arched windows and doors, rustication, and raised first stories.
Overview of Beaux-Arts Architecture
French Baroque architecture (sometimes called French Classicism) combined the scale and drama of Italian Baroque with Greek and Roman theories of harmony to create monumental buildings that demonstrated power and majesty. It developed under the patronage of King Louis XIV (1643-1715) whose reign marked a period of cultural and economic prosperity for France. The Palace of Versailles (1661-1770), designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and Charles Le Brun, is the most famous example of the style and the building and its grounds did much to promote ideas of national identity through architecture as well as the importance of uniting design and decoration to create a complete whole (a concept later given the name Gesamtkunstwerk). These ideas informed the development of Beaux-Arts Architecture, in that it promoted the importance of unified decorative schemes and was initially viewed as a uniquely French national style.
Important Art and Artists of Beaux-Arts Architecture
Facing an interior courtyard, the École des Beaux-Arts building employs horizontal and vertical symmetry to create a sense of elegant balance. The raised first story of rusticated stone features a central arched doorway with arched windows on either side. Copies of noted art works, including the Apollo Belvedere, and the Dying Gaul, are placed between each of the windows, and in the horizontal band between the first and second stories, the names of noted artists, including Michelangelo and Leonardo, are inscribed. Ionic columns with a Baroque-style capital frame the second floor's arched windows, while the third floor's rectangular windows are framed by square classical columns, and small panels containing cartouches. These details create a sense of variation and hierarchy, while the windows, placed with vertical symmetry, create upward movement.
The early work on the building (1819-32) was completed by François Debret, Duban's teacher. The two became working colleagues and, then, brothers-in-law when Debret married Duban's sister. Taking over the project in 1832, Duban pioneered the Beaux-Arts style with his innovative inclusion of decorative motifs within a classical form, based upon the proportionality and rational symmetry of Roman architecture. His use of decorative columns, arched windows, garlands, cartouches, and inscriptions became defining elements of Beaux-Arts architecture. He continued to work on the project for most of his life, designing the rest of the campus to frame the central building, shown here.
This monumental two-story building, built out of limestone, employs symmetrical columns and arches to convey a classical effect and these are combined with elements of a Renaissance palazzo. The building, occupying a wide but shallow site, is located on a hill directly across from the noted Neoclassical Panthéon (1758-90), and the garland band at the top of the first level of the library echoes a similar band on the Panthéon, mirroring and reflecting its surroundings. Inscriptions of the names of over 800 scholars on the façade help to communicate the building's purpose.
Visitors enter on the lower level through a central vestibule, which is decorated with murals of gardens and busts of French scholars, symbolizing the start of the search for knowledge. The reading room takes up the entire second level and unusually, the primary decorative elements of the building were placed here, rather than on the facade. The building was particularly innovative due to its internal cast iron framework, a new architectural material, and Labrouste's design pioneered the Beaux-Arts use of the latest technologies. In the reading room, this frame is celebrated, rather than concealed, with sixteen columns supporting a dramatic barrel-vaulted ceiling. This, in addition to the large windows, create an impression of light and space. Both Labrouste's use of new materials and the openness of the reading room also had a significant influence, not only on the Beaux Arts movement, but on the later development of modern architecture.
In the 1800s British architecture focused on romanticized styles such as Tudor Revival and Gothic. As a result, examples of Beaux Arts buildings were rare. A dramatic and noted example, however, was Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace (1851), designed for the Great Exhibition in London of the same year. Built initially in Hyde Park, it was later relocated to an area of South London called Penge Common, where it remained from 1854 until its accidental destruction by fire in 1936, an event that was described by Prime Minister Winston Churchill as, "the end of an age".
Based on the model of a greenhouse, Paxton used prefabricated glass and iron, built off site and then set on concrete footings, to design the massive but light-filled exhibition space. The design of the building drew upon Beaux-Arts monumentality and symmetry but at the same time was remarkably innovative in employing industrial materials and processes, particularly the use of a new sheet glass method which made the structure possible. When created, it was the greatest area of glass ever seen in a building and it was hugely novel in that it did not require interior lighting. It's influence on the modern era is noted by historian Dora P. Crouch who wrote, "it seemed a new kind of space had been created - an indeterminate space that would become characteristic of the next century".
Useful Resources on Beaux-Arts Architecture
- 70k viewsArchitecture 13 of 23 Charles Garnier The Opera Garnier
- 5k viewsArchitecture. Felix Duban "School of the Beaux ArtsOur PickArchitecture point
- 7k viewsArte, France Musee d'Orsay Les Films d'iciBibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve
- 452 viewsHow Paris shaped U.S. architectureOur PickTalk by David McCullough
- 3k viewsMcKim Mead & White And the Classical IdealOur PickTalk by Samuel G. White
- The Beaux-Arts and Nineteenth-Century French ArchitectureBy Robin Middleton
- Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York: A Photographic GuideBy Edmund V. Gillon Jr. and Henry Hope Reed
- Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to LightOur PickBy Neil Levine, Barry Bergdoll, Corinne Bélier, et al.
- Designing Paris: The Architecture of Duban, Labrouste Duc, and VaudoyerOur PickBy David Van Zanten
- McKim, Mead & White: The MasterworksBy Samuel G. White and Elizabeth White
- The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-ArtsOur PickBy Arthur Drexler / The Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Beaux-Arts Architecture on Capitol HillArchitect of the Capitol
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: An Architectural HistoryOur PickBy Morrison H. Hecksher / Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Mastering Tradition: John Russell Pope
- 6 of the Best Beaux Arts Buildings in ParisBy Beau Peregoy / Architectural Digest / January 1, 2017
- 5 of the Best Beaux Arts Buildings in Buenos AiresBy Beau Peregoy / Architectural Digest / December 9, 2016
- Beaux Arts Architecture: Toward a Classical MetropolisOur PickBy Eldis Sula / Artes Magazine / December 2, 2014
- McKim's legacy: 5 seminal projects by the Beaux Arts architect on his 169th birthdayBy Tomo Taka / The Spaces / August 24, 2016
- 100 Years of GrandeurBy Sam Roberts / New York Times / January 18, 2013
- Beaux Arts Architecture at the ModernOur PickBy Paul Goldberger / New York Times / October 29, 1975