Preservationists and architects should be enemies: the preservation of any old building postpones work designing a new building to replace it. Baron Haussmann’s demolition and rebuilding of much of old Paris in the third quarter of the 19th century created many jobs for architects. He failed to upset preservationists – as a movement they did not exist then – or anybody, except for those who owned or occupied the buildings slated to be urbanly removed, or, perhaps, those who resented the enrichment of others whose property remained and suddenly increased in value. Haussmann created a Paris that many believe was a vast improvement over what existed before. Ever since, Parisians have bathed in the glow of the solid reputation of the City of Light as the world’s most beautiful city. (Romans and some others might plausibly disagree.)
Despite what Alistair Horne contends in The Seven Ages of Paris (2002), there is little debate today over the legacy of Haussmann and his boss, Louis Napoleon. But that was not always the case, at the time or later. The exiled nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte had overthrown the Bourbons after their return to Paris following his uncle’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. After Louis’s 1851 coup, loans started flooding in to complete or expand upon the urban program of the emperor. Try to imagine the narrow, stinking, dangerous streets of old Paris with their leaning, desiccated, centuries-old structures renovated into the sort of charming historic district common today. Well, it did not happen. The idea, rather, was to glorify Paris, not to spruce up its seedier quarters to please the wealthy in ways they would not understand for another century. Here, after listing many projects receiving credit, Horne describes the debate over the result:
Such was the breakneck speed of Louis Napoleon’s and Haussmann’s programme. Once again Paris became one immense building site, of mud, dust and rubble. The Hôtel de Ville [city hall] was besieged – not by insurgents this time, but by battalion-sized teams of masons and carpenters. The question remains, still hotly debated: was “Haussmannization” a net benefit for Paris, or the reverse? The financial cost was astronomical. There were several priorities: functional – to clear the congestion of old Paris; economic – to relieve the heavy pressure of rents; aesthetic – to create a city beautiful in her grandeur and architectural unity; and strategic – to lance the festering abscesses of the old city that had been, from time immemorial, the lairs of assassins and rogues, such as the Buttes-Chamount, and of riot and revolution in the east of Paris. Largely secondary were hygiene and social welfare – the amelioration of life for the poor.
Like his illustrious and insatiably restless uncle, Louis Napoleon was an unswervingly hands-on despot. And his technical know-how was often superior. He was passionate, and knowledgeable, about the use of industrial-age wrought iron and glass. “I just want huge umbrellas, nothing more!” he demanded of Victor Baltard when it came to reconstructing Les Halles. The result was seen not only in the new food market, until its removal out to Rungis a century later, but in the (old) Bibliothèque Nationale with its delicate iron pillars, in the Rhinelander Jacques Hittorf’s cathedral-like Gare du Nord and in the handsome remnants of Louis Napoleon’s Marché du Temple. In marked contrast to Prince Albert in London, who so favoured the neo-gothic, Louis Napoleon disliked the gothic style; consequently it was little used in public buildings of the period. Windows in the new Hôtel Dieu would be pastiches of Henri IV rather than Abbe Suger. Perhaps fortunately for Paris – given the horrors, such as the Centre Pompidou, perpetrated on it by modern architects in the latter part of the twentieth century – both he and Haussmann believed in classical, traditional forms, restrainedly adapted for the new era.
I’ll second that emotion! Nevertheless, as Horne quotes Haussmann as he himself put what he did in his own words:
We ripped open the belly of old Paris, the neighborhood of revolt and barricades, and cut a large opening through the most impenetrable maze of alleys, piece by piece.
What Haussmann and Louis Napoleon should have done versus what they did do – which I spare no ink adoring – would nevertheless make an interesting debate.