Beaux-Arts architecture denotes the academic classical architectural style that was taught at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, the home territory of this style. The style “Beaux-Arts” is above all the cumulative product of two and a half centuries of instruction under the authority, first of the Académie royale d’architecture, then, following the Revolution, of the Architecture section of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The organization under the Ancien Régime of the competition for the Grand Prix de Rome in architecture, offering a chance to study in Rome, imprinted its codes and esthetic on the course of instruction, which culminated during the Second Empire (1850-1870) and the Third Republic that followed. The style of instruction that produced Beaux-Arts architecture continued without a major renovation until 1968.
The Beaux-arts style influenced American architecture in the period 1885–1920. Other European architects of the period 1860-1914 tended to gravitate towards their own national academic centers rather than flocking to Paris. British architects of Imperial classicism, in a development culminating in Sir Edwin Lutyens’s New Delhi government buildings, followed a somewhat more independent course, owing to the cultural politics of the late 19th century.
Palais Garnier (1861-74) is a cornerpiece of Beaux-Arts architecture characterized by Émile Zola as “the opulent bastard of all styles”.
The Beaux-Arts training emphasized the mainstream examples of Imperial Roman architecture between Augustus and the Severan emperors, Italian Renaissance and French and Italian Baroque models especially, but the training could then be applied to a broader range of models: Quattrocento Florentine palace fronts or French late Gothic. American architects of the Beaux-Arts generation often returned to Greek models, which had a strong local history in the American Greek Revival of the early 19th century. For the first time, repertories of photographs supplemented meticulous scale drawings and on-the-site renderings of details.
The last major American building constructed in the Beaux-Arts style, the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, completed 1932
Beaux-Arts architecture depended on sculptural decoration along conservative modern lines, employing French and Italian Baroque and Rococo formulas combined with an impressionistic finish and realism. In the facade at right, Diana grasps the cornice she sits on in a natural action that is typical of Beaux-Arts integration of sculpture with architecture. Slightly overscaled details, bold scuptural supporting consoles, rich deep cornices, swags and sculptural enrichments in the most bravura finish the client could afford gave employment to several generations of architectural modellers and carvers of Italian and Central European backgrounds. A sense of appropriate idiom at the craftsman level supported the design teams of the first truly modern architectural offices. Some aspects of Beaux-Arts approach could degenerate into mannerisms. Beaux-Arts training made great use of agrafes, clasps that links one architectual detail to another; to interpenetration of forms, a Baroque habit; to “speaking architecture” (architecture parlante) in which supposed appropriateness of symbolism could be taken to literal-minded extremes.
Beaux-Arts building decoration presenting images of the Roman goddesses Pomona and Diana. Note the naturalism of the postures and the rustication of the stonework.
Beaux-Arts training emphasized the production of quick conceptual sketches, highly-finished perspective presentation drawings, close attention to the program, and knowledgeable detailing. Site considerations tended towards social and urbane contexts.
Characteristics of Beaux-Arts style
Though Beaux-Arts style embodies an approach to a regenerated spirit within the grand traditions rather than a set of motifs, the principal characteristics of Beaux-Arts architecture may be summarized:
Hierarchy of spaces, from “noble spaces”—grand entrances and staircases— to utilitarian ones
More or less explicit references to a synthesis of historicist styles and a tendency to eclecticism. An architect was expected to work fluently in a number of “manners”, following the requirements of the client and the architectural program.
Precision in design and execution of a profusion of architectural details: balustrades, pilasters, panels of bas-relief, figure sculpture, garlands, cartouches, with a prominent display of richly detailed clasps (agrafes) brackets and supporting consoles.
Subtle use of polychromy
At the eve of World War I, the style began to find major competitors among the architects of Modernism and the nascent International Style. The prestige of the École gave the style “Beaux-Arts” a second wind in compromising the new manner with the traditional training. All architects-in-training passed through the obligatory stages, studying antique models, constructing analos, analyses reproducing Greek or Roman models, “pocket” studies and other conventional steps in the long competition for the few desirable places at the Académie de France à Rome (housed in the Villa Medici) with traditional requirements of sending at intervals the presentation drawings called envois de Rome.
French Beaux-Arts architecture
Pont Alexandre III and Grand Palais in Paris.
École des Beaux-Arts
LeFuel wings of the Louvre
Palais du Trocadéro.
Grand Palais, Petit Palais and the Pont Alexandre III.
Palais de Chaillot.
American Beaux-Arts architecture
The first American architect to attend the École des Beaux-Arts was Richard Morris Hunt, followed by Charles Follen McKim. They were followed by an entire generation. Henry Hobson Richardson absorbed Beaux-Arts lessons in massing and spatial planning, then applied them to Romanesque architectural models that were not characteristic of the Beaux-Arts repertory. His Beaux-Arts training taught him to transcend slavish copying and recreate in the essential, fully digested and idiomatic manner of his models. Richardson evolved a highly personal style (Richardsonian Romanesque) freed of historicism that was influential in early Modernism.
The “White City” of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago was a triumph of the movement and a major impetus for the short-lived City Beautiful movement in the United States. Beaux-Arts city planning, with its Baroque insistence on vistas punctuated by symmetry, eye-catching monuments, axial avenues, uniform cornice heights, a harmonious “ensemble” and a somewhat theatrical nobility and accessible charm, embraced ideals that the ensuing Modernist movement decried or just dismissed.
Marks Scout Resource Center, Philadelphia, designed in 1929 by Charles Klauder
Beaux-Arts architecture, in spite of its insistence on exterior symmetry, was generally user-friendly. It embodied more sophisticated patterns of circulation and differentiated usage than its modernist critics allowed. Grand entrance and stairway sequences, borrowed from Baroque palace designs, had functional clarity: though visitors were impressed, they were rarely trapped or disoriented by ambiguities.
The Beaux-Arts style was also flexible. Steel-frame construction and other modern innovations in engineering techniques and materials, like structural Guastavino tile, were embraced by Beaux-Arts trained designers: splendid examples are provided by a string of Beaux-Arts urban railroad stations that combined many of these features within a triumphalist civic presentation. (Chicago’s Union Station is a famous American example of this style.) Two of the best American examples of the Beaux-Arts tradition stand within a few blocks of each other: Grand Central Terminal and the New York Public Library.
American architects working in the Beaux-Arts style
In Ottawa, Canada the Government Conference Centre was originally designed by Ross and Macdonald and built as a railway station in 1912.
The following individuals were seminal in the assimilation of the Beaux-Arts style in the US:
Richard Morris Hunt
Charles Follen McKim
John Russell Pope
Henry Hobson Richardson
^ The phrase Beaux Arts is usually translated as “Fine Arts” in non-architectural English contexts.