L’École Des Beaux-Arts

Stephen Bau
6 min readNov 18, 2022


I think I wrote this essay in a Grade 10 French class. This may be one of the reasons I decided not to pursue a career in architecture. The ultra-competitive, patriarchal and hierarchical culture seemed intimidating and repulsive.

Palais des Études in the Beaux-Arts — Bonaparte street, 14–6th arrondissement of Paris

On the Left Bank of the Seine River in Paris are the buildings of the École Nationale Supérieur des Beaux-Arts, a school of fine arts founded in Paris in 1671 by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of Louis XIV. The school had been transformed between 1793 and 1819 from the schools of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and the Royal Academy of Architecture. The École des Beaux-Arts had been particularly influential in the area of architectural design during the years in which architecture was taught in its Architectural Section between 1819 and 1968.

A student did not actually learn architecture in the school, but in an “atelier” or architectural studio. A young man who wanted to study architecture in the École des Beaux-Arts first found a master, the patron of an atelier. Having been accepted into the atelier he had chosen, the new member and the others who may have joined the atelier at the same time had to undergo an initiation, which might consist merely of dodging wet sponges and singing the “Boulanger March” while standing on a drawing board. More often the initiation was a duel in which contestants, naked, were each armed with a bucket of paint and a long brush.

The initiated members then enrolled in the school on the list of candidates. The structure of the hierarchy of the École was like a step-pyramid. The candidates for admission were at the bottom. Each climbed at his own speed as high as he could. To arrive at the second step of the pyramid, a candidate had to pass the entrance exams, which tested mathematics, geometry, history, drawing, and, of course, architectural design. Providing he was between the ages of fifteen and thirty and had passed the exams, the candidate was admitted to the school.

Upon admission, the candidate entered the second class. The curriculum of the class consisted of lectures and “concours” (competitions). There were two kinds of concours: “esquisses” (sketches) and “projet rendres” (rendered projects). An esquisse was one drawing submitted after twelve hours of study. A projet rendre was usually three larger drawings submitted after two months. To enroll in a concours, a student signed his name in a book of registration and received a copy of the program outlining the project he was to draw. The student then went into a small cubicle — in French one would say he went “en loge” — where he had twelve hours to study the program and, if he wished, draw a preliminary sketch of his architectural design. If a student wished to take part in the concours, when leaving the building he gave the sketch to the guard, who acknowledged receipt in the registration book. The student took a tracing of his sketch to his atelier where, with his patron’s criticism, he would develop his idea. If he wanted to, the student prepared his drawings for submission on the appointed date to the school for judgment. The jury compared these drawings to the preliminary drawing. If they did not reflect the same idea, the students was “hors de concours” (out of the competition).

Each student progressed at his own speed and enrolled for every concours he wished to enter. Promotion to the first class, the third step up the pyramid, was given after a student in the second class had fulfilled his various obligations and had collected enough of the numerical points (called “valeurs”) with which the concours were graded. The curriculum of the first class was much like that of the second but with greater emphasis on the six “esquisses” and six “projets rendre” that were the architectural concours. The programs were more complicated than those of the second class. Students in the first class also had to take part in one or two “grands concours” per year. These concours not only awarded prizes of “valeurs” and medals, but also of money.

The fourth step up in the pyramid was the competition for the Grand Prix de Rome. This prestigious concours was, in fact, three concours. The first concours, which began in early March, was an esquisse submitted after twelve hours en loge. This concours usually involved the designing of a façade, such as an addition to a palace. The second concours, a few days later, was another esquisse, which dealt with a complicated problem in planning, such as a building to house a University. This concours was limited to thirty competitors: those competitors from the third stage of the Grand Prix of previous years who wished to try again, plus those competitors whose designs were judged best from the twelve-hour trial a few days before. These thirty competitors went en loge twenty-four hours for this concours. Eight winners, chosen from the thirty competitors of the second trial, took part in the final concours, the competition proper, which began at once and lasted to the end of July. The program was usually for a monumental public building.

The competitors made a preliminary sketch from which they were not to digress too far or they would chance being declared “hors de concours” (out of the competition). In the ateliers, competitors for the Grand Prix were given close attention from their patron and a team of assistants, a group of the members of the atelier, became involved in producing the final versions of many of the drawings as the day of presentation approached.

The Académie Des Beaux-Arts made the decision for first prize and marked the winner as “the most promising architect of the year.” He was then sent to the French Academy in Rome for four or five years, at the expense of the government, in order to learn the lessons of antiquity (the architectural theories of Ancient Rome and Greece).

By 1968 the École had faced many problems, having been through two world wars and the Depression. The teaching in the school had been affected by these problems and many students were dissatisfied with their education. In 1968 a decree removed the responsibility for the teaching of architecture from the École Des Beaux-Arts and the concours for the Grand Prix de Rome was abolished. That was the end of architectural instruction in the École.

Drawing Matter

The Beaux-Arts Tradition

Learn more from this excerpt from Living with Architecture as Art, the recently published catalogue of Peter May’s collection of drawings, models and architectural artefacts. The catalogue is edited by Maureen Cassidy-Geiger and published in two generously illustrated volumes. The first volume includes essays by Maureen Cassidy-Geiger, Basile Baudez, Charles Hind and Matthew Wells.

Below are some images borrowed from the Drawing Matter article.

Fig. 7: Amet Georges Alexandre Pradelle, Prix de Rome competition drawing showing the elevation of a monument to Joan of Arc, 1890 (May Collection, 1987.61b;
cat. 12.34).
Fig. 8: Louis Charles Marie Varcollier, Prix de Rome competition drawings showing a plan of a monument to Joan of Arc, 1890 (ENSBA, PRA-312–1).
Fig. 9: Louis Charles Marie Varcollier, Prix de Rome competition drawings showing a cross-section of a monument to Joan of Arc, 1890 (ENSBA, PRA-312–3).



Stephen Bau

Designer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective. We are exploring how we imagine, design, and build the future together. https://bldrs.co