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Weighty endowments, distinguished faculty members, and impressive international rankings are all very well and good, but a university’s architectural heritage plays an undeniable role in its public perception and in how the students who walk its halls and pull all-nighters in its libraries feel about being there. Taking into account buildings from the 13th to the 21st centuries, located in cities from Lille in the north to Nice in the south, we’ve selected the ten most stunning academic institutions that France has to offer its students, citizens, and tourists.
The École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts is the most prestigious fine arts university in France and is the successor of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, the legendary French Academy, founded in the 17th century by Louis XIV. The institution’s foremost mission is to educate and train students who plan to devote themselves to artistic creation; however, it also houses an impressive art collection, documentary archive, and regular cultural events. Most of the buildings that make up its two-hectare campus in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, on the opposite bank of the Seine from the Musée du Louvre, are from the 17th to 19th centuries. The restoration of the Cour Vitrée (pictured below) began in January 2007 and took just over two years to complete.
Université Lumière Lyon 2 constitutes one-third of the University of Lyon and has two campuses in the city; one in the center on the left bank of the Rhône and the other in the southeastern suburbs of Bron and Saint-Priest. It is the first of the two that is the most beautiful and earns the university a spot on this list. The university’s 27,500 students undertake three-to-eight-year degrees in art, humanities, and social sciences. Its most famous alumnus is the notorious Société Générale trader Jérôme Kerviel, whose misdeeds resulted in losses of 4.9 billion euros.
This section of the University of Bordeaux is responsible for education in the fields of medicine and life sciences. The university has a well-renowned oenology department – that’s the study of wine making if you didn’t already know it – and an attached hospital that carries out groundbreaking research in the area of space robotics. Its most beautiful buildings can be found at the campus on Place de la Victoire in the center of Bordeaux. The neoclassical architecture houses amongst others the departments of sociology, anthropology, and psychology.
The University of Burgundy’s main site is on the outskirts of Dijon, at the Campus Montmuzard, a collection of contemporary or repurposed buildings set in landscaped grounds along the city’s tram line. The university counts ten faculties, including humanities, sciences, law, medicine and literature, four engineering schools, three institutes of technology, and two professional institutes. Numerous notable French and international personalities are included in its alumni, including Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, the current President of Burkina Faso.
Toulouse 1 University Capitole is the second oldest tertiary education establishment in France, created in 1229 around four faculties: theology, canon law, civil law, and arts, with the medical school coming shortly after in 1257. UT1, as it is known to its 17,000 students, has three campuses in the city center of Toulouse. The Old Faculties and the Arsenal are just a few minutes’ walk from the Place de la Capitole, and the Manufacture des Tabacs is located between the Garonne River and the Brienne Canal.
This historic neo-Renaissance building, which forms just one part of the University of Strasbourg, was designed by the German architect Otto Warth and built between 1879 and 1884. Originally from Karlsruhe, the young Warth had just returned from a 12-month study trip to Italy when he was awarded this commission, a fact that can be easily recognized in many of the buildings’ Italianate features. Its most distinctive space is the Aula, or Grand Hall, which was modeled on the Villa Garzoni in Pontecasale, near Padua. In 2012, the Aula was dedicated to Marc Bloch, a former professor who was killed by the Nazis in 1944. The Palais today houses the faculties of history, art history, Protestant and Catholic theology and the oldest university press in France.
Another French university that can trace its roots to the early 13th century, the University of Avignon is today one of the smallest in the country, with a student body of under 7,000 members, from undergraduate to PhD. The university’s main site is the Campus Sainte-Marthe, which is contained within the walls of an old hospital in the center of Avignon. The building was constructed in 1354 with money granted by the knight Bernard Rascas and municipalized in 1482. The 175-meter classical façade, which was completed between 1667 and 1830, was designed be Jean Peru. The building fell into disrepair and was closed in the 1980s; however, after extensive renovations it was reopened to students in 1997.
Pantheon-Sorbonne University, also known as Paris 1, was formed in 1971 in the light of the May 1968 protests and the division of the University of Paris, which had a history stretching back to the beginning of the 13th century. The university is headquartered at the Place du Panthéon, and its many buildings make up a large part of the fabric of the Latin Quarter in the 5th and 6th arrondissements. A descendant of the historic Faculty of Law and Economics of the Sorbonne, it is today focused on three multidisciplinary domains: legal and political science, economic and management sciences, and arts and human sciences.
This university’s official name is actually the Lille and Polytechnic University Federation, but it more commonly goes by its nickname ‘Catho.’ It was established in 1973 with the merger of numerous Catholic-inspired institutions, but can claim a 141-year history back to when the first of these were formed. In its current form, it supports six faculties, 20 schools and institutes, research centers, and a hospital, as well as 25,000 students and 300 university associations.
The University of Nice was officially founded in 1965; however, its history goes back to the Collegium Jurisconsultorum Niciensium that was created by the Princes of Savoy in 1639. The distinguished lawyers were joined soon after by the doctors. The university has four campuses: Valrose for sciences, Trotabas for law, Saint-Jean d’Angély for economics and management, and Carlone for literature, arts, and humanities. The Grand Château of the Valrose campus is among its most beautiful buildings. Its location on the French Riviera, near the sea, mountains and Italy, make it a popular destination for French students.