The French photography project that captures architectural curiosities throughout France

Atlas des Régions Naturelles (ARN)’ captures architectural curiosities throughout France and it will eventually contain 50 photos of each of France’s 50 ‘régions naturelles’

A singular photographic adventure, unique in terms of both its scope and its duration. Launched five years ago, its objective is to document, in equal measure, the 450 natural regions or ‘lands’ constituting the territory of France.

Focusing on these small geographical and cultural entities such as Artois, Morvan or Béarn, Eric Tabuchi and Nelly Monnier patiently and meticulously describe our ways of occupying the landscape, inhabiting it and shaping it. The roads, houses, shops, and activities, the typography of road signs, the names of villages: they seek out both the perpetual, the commonplace, and the anomalies – which, intersecting, define a physiognomy of our ways of life and our identities.

What does France look like today?

At a time of low-cost flights for flash tourist destinations, TGVs that cut through the fields at full speed, GPS that remotely guide motorists, advertising images on TripAdvisor, 3D visualisation on Google Street View, which is therefore concerned really about the topography of France, that of the departmental roads and cross roads, that of the enclosed regions and quality crossroads, that of the villages and the urban outskirts? If you take the time to explore it, France is nevertheless full of astonishing singularities, unusual buildings, aesthetic curiosities, endearing shops, historic farms, bizarre signage, historical vestiges… Both graceful, pitiful and fragile, these buildings are the soul and the heart of the territory, as shown in the first part of the breathtaking album by Nelly Monnier and Eric Tabuchi, the ARN, or Atlas of natural regions.

First Volume of the “Atlas des Régions Naturelles”

Les régions naturelles

The term “région naturelle” or “pays” designates small territories whose limits referring to their natural characteristics are – in contrast to the administrative departments resulting from the Revolution – difficult to draw. If it is impossible to define their forms exactly, their borders, first physical and geological but also historical and cultural, continue to draw, in a kind of oral tradition, the contours of a geography whose liveliness remains very real. Thus, Semur-en-Auxois, Sucy-en-Brie, Bourg-en-Bresse or Verdun-en-Lauragais have retained the name of their former region in their place names. Their number varies depending on whether or not certain sub-entities are grouped together, for our part we have defined 450 of which you can consult the list which appears in the “index of regions” tab.

To sum up, the term “region naturelle” is a rather vague notion that designates territories with equally uncertain boundaries. This imprecision, which tempers the authority of conventional maps, seemed to us to be conducive to describing the territorial continuum which is more a succession of shades sometimes punctuated by clear breaks – if a comparison had to be found, one could say that the “region naturelle” are alternately water color tints whose contours blend together and flat areas of gouache drawing distinct areas. By allowing this descriptive finesse that mixes the blur and the sharp, the diffuse and the accentuated, the frame of the natural regions provided, in addition to a scale, the flexibility that we were looking for.

www.archive-arn.fr contains more than 12000 photographs taken since 2017, start of the ARN project. This first part, which mainly covers the north of France, is located halfway through our project. From this point, additions will be made as they travel – so it will be possible to consult the existing archive but also to follow the progress of the work in real time.

Example of a search for “Artois” (“Région naturelle” of north of France)

Many of the photographs in the Atlas are already online and can be searched in a variety of ways. Obviously it is possible to search by region and by category of construction.

But intriguingly, it is possible to search for colours or shapes. If you search for green, you not only find green buildings, but also a large green water-slide. If you search for ‘2000’, you will find a whole selection of shop fronts containing 2000 in the name of the shop (“Once, 2000 was the future,”)