A Guide to the Diverse Styles of French Colonial Architecture

French colonial architecture encompasses the distinct building styles the French used during colonialism worldwide.

You can find French colonial architecture all over the world, from Asia to the Americas. Each region’s climate and geography impacted the style that developed.

Characteristics of French Colonial Architecture

French Colonial Architecture -Saigon Central Post Office

French colonial architecture is distinct according to location. For example, early French colonial architecture in the Americas differs significantly from later French colonial architecture.

Exterior Elements

  • Steeply pitched and wide-hipped roofs to shed water and snow
  • Elevated flooring with a ground-level basement
  • Symmetrical facade
  • Large verandas and porches to create shade
  • Large door and window openings complemented with side shutters
  • Exterior stairs
  • Use of brick, stucco, and concrete in later French colonial buildings
  • Wide, overhanging eaves
  • Wrought iron railings

Interior Elements

  • High ceilings to help keep the interior areas cool
  • Ornate interior decorations like plasterwork and molding
  • Interior columns and arches to provide support and decoration

Development of French Colonial Architecture

Early forms of French-style architecture exist in the Americas, including the Caribbean. You can find later and more developed forms of French architecture throughout Asia in countries like Vietnam and Cambodia.

Early French Colonial Architecture

Some of the earliest French colonial architecture is in Canada. French explorers first appeared in Canada in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

The first architecture of these early French colonists consisted of heavy timber log frames resting on the earth called poteaux-en-terre. French builders used a mixture of mud, moss, and animal hair called bousillage or a limestone, clay, and pebble mixture called pierrotage to fill between the logs. The builders might later replace this infill with more permanent bricks.

As French colonists moved south into warmer and wetter climates, they adapted their architecture to meet the demands of their new area. For example, the builders began to place homes on piers to protect them from flooding and to provide ventilation. They called this style poteaux-sur-sol, which means post on sills. The builders also incorporated wide, wrap-around porches to provide shade during the hot summer.

Most early French colonial houses have steeply pitched roofs to shed water accumulation.

French settlers moved into the Louisiana and Caribbean area and developed a French colonial house style called the Louisiana Raised Cottage. Architectural historians also call this house style a Creole Cottage and West Indies Planter, among other names.

As this French colonial-style house grew in size, it developed grander names like a Louisiana Plantation House. These French colonial homes all feature the same basic structure: a ground floor basement with a brick or dirt floor and the living quarters above. The living quarters consisted of two rooms across and two to three rooms long.

Later French Colonial Architecture

French colonists moved into Asia much later than to the Americas. They created colonies in the 19th century, first in Vietnam and then in Laos and Cambodia.

The architectural style in France had changed, and the new French building styles in Asia reflected this change. The French colonial buildings also featured many indigenous characteristics and adaptations to the local climate and geography.

French colonists in Asia had the most impact on large cities throughout the region. French colonial buildings consisted of government buildings and grand villas for administrators. Many of the buildings were representative of the prevailing architectural style in France, the Beaux-Arts style but also featured traditional French architecture.

In Vietnam, many French colonial houses feature symmetrical facades with columns and pediments, relief sculptures, friezes, tiled roofs, and shutters. Yet, they also incorporated traditional Asian design motifs and modifications for the warm climate. These architectural modifications include using verandas, porches, and internal corridors.

The modern and traditional elements of French architecture and the indigenous features of Asian architecture form a unique French colonial style in Asia.

Notable French Colonial Buildings

The French settled in many parts of the world, and their architecture developed regional characteristics.

Laura Plantation

Laura Plantation - French Colonial

Laura Plantation is a traditional Louisiana Creole plantation built between 1804-1805. It features a raised basement with a brick floor and an upper floor.

The upper floor features two rows of five rooms with no interior hallways. Preservationist Norman Marmillion spearheaded the restoration of this house. Visitors can tour this restored house furnished by the museum with a large collection of family antiques and treasures.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi

St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi - French Colonial Architecture

Gothic Revival architecture inspired the design of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi, Vietnam. The French colonial government in Hanoi constructed the cathedral from 1884-1886.

The exterior features granite stones and has a symmetrical design with two square bell towers. The interior of the church features both Neo-Gothic and traditional Vietnamese designs.

Royal Palace, Luang Prabang

French Colonial - Royal Palace, Luang Prabang Architecture

The Royal palace design is one of the best representations combining traditional Laotian architecture with Beaux-Arts French architecture.

The roof is a traditional Laotian design and topped with gilded spires. It has a symmetrical facade with a tall center and wings on the right and left sides. Above the entrance is a three-headed elephant crest representing the three kingdoms of Laos. French, fleur-de-lis symbols decorate the pillars on either side of the front door.