Haussmann’s urban removal

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Rue du Jardinet, demolished to make way for Boulevard Saint Germain. (imgur.com)

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.

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Rue St. Nicolas du Chardonnay, near the Pantheon, circa 1850. (imgur.com)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Haussmann’s urban removal

  1. peterkellow says:

    The boulevards were necessary for hygiene if nothing else for they gave a route for the giant sewers necessary. And they were imaginatively executed with a great attention to detail. Haussmann was clearly emulating Sixtus V’s 17th century “cut through’s” in Rome but a more recent precedent were the cut-through’s in London eg Victoria Street, Shaftsbury Avenue, Kingsway, and so on. He was thus following precedent in “modernising” cities, but just doing it in a more wholesale way – mainly because it was so long coming to Paris. These boulevards were designed for public transport and the failure of mayor after mayor has been to let them clog up with private cars with only the occasional bus struggling to make its way. They are tailor made for trams. If the traffic lanes were reduced and trams and cycle lanes given the space then Haussmann’s boulevards could recapture their true spirit.

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    • Quite so, Peter. But it is important to remember that Corbusier also claimed hygiene and rationalized transport as excuses for his Plan Voisin. So it is vital to discriminate on the basis of style and beauty when assessing these various modernizations of cities.

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