Shock of the old: exploring France’s architectural highlights

Centre Pompidou Metz - exploring France's architectural highlights


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Begin your adventure in the port of Le Havre, which this summer celebrates the 500th anniversary of its founding by King Francis I with a giant birthday party. Look out for the giant puppets of the Royal de Luxe company, which will be marching through the town in a new show in early July.

The town itself doesn’t look a day over 70, thanks to the comprehensive rebuilding that took place after the second world war, under the supervision of the architect Auguste Perret – known as the “concrete poet”. The lighthouse-shaped Eglise St Joseph is the most visible and striking example of his work, which was recognised when the city centre was declared a Unesco world heritage site in 2005.

Giant puppet and pirate
Giant puppets will parade through Le Havre in July as part of the city’s 500th birthday celebrations. Photograph: Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

For a flavour of more traditional French design, head west to Rennes, the capital of Brittany. Take some time to soak up the atmosphere of the traditional market in the Place des Lices, a beautiful square surrounded by half-timbered medieval buildings. Have lunch here in one of the many charming restaurants in and around the square, and take some time to check out the innovative public art installations dotted around town.

Now head to Les Champs Libres, Rennes’ cultural centre. In a city composed of medieval and 18th-century buildings, you really can’t miss this futuristic monolith, which houses three impressive institutions: the Musée de Bretagne, the city library and the Espace des Sciences. Look out this year for a series of exhibitions devoted to railways and speed, from both a scientific and artistic perspective. The shows will mark a new era in rail travel this summer as Rennes joins an upgraded TGV network, bringing Brittany to within 90 minutes of Paris, on trains travelling at 320kph (199mph).

Rennes, Espace des Sciences PRpic©Nicolas Joubard
The Espace des Sciences in Rennes, based in Les Champs Libres. Photograph: ©Nicolas Joubard

Over on the eastern side of France, the latest developments in design and industry are celebrated in the lively city of St Etienne. Here, in 2010, a former armaments factory was given a new lease of life as the Cité du design, in an innovative building designed by Finn Geipel and Giulia Andi of the LIN architectural practice. The building, which has a modular skin so it can change its appearance, makes use of the old military facades, while creating exciting new exhibition spaces for regular events, such as the Biennale Internationale Design. Lovers of modernist design should take the opportunity to explore the work of pioneering architect Le Corbusier, whose vision for improved living conditions, on the Unesco world heritage list since 2016, can be seen at Site Le Corbusier. It’s the largest collection of his work in Europe.

Rainbow-coloured roof in museum
St Etienne’s Cité du design. Photograph: ©Marion Richez

Further north, the city of Metz is another historic beauty that has surrendered its soul to art. This is where Paris’s Pompidou Centre has, since 2010, housed its eastern outpost – in a striking modernist building. The museum draws on one of Europe’s largest art collections to stage intriguing exhibitions of its own, and holds a variety of cultural events and screenings. Look out for a major retrospective of Fernand Léger this summer.

The opening of the Centre Pompidou-Metz has reignited the art scene in Metz, and the city now boasts over 25 private galleries, which are becoming an attraction in their own right for both viewers and buyers. Individual guided tours and short-break suggestions are available from the local tourist office.

Don’t let the art distract you from the city’s glorious Imperial Quarter, built on the orders of Kaiser Wilhelm II while the city was under German rule. History buffs should allow themselves to be further diverted by the Musée de la Cour d’Or, which tells the story of this fascinating city from Roman times to the present day. Wind down your day with dinner by the river.

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