The City of Light: Haussmann’s Paris

From the rubble of medieval Paris rose Haussmann’s Paname – a city of light shining along the banks of the Seine. Napoleon’s boulevards cut through the dense fabric of 15th Century Paris, casting the city’s darkest corners into light; breathing air into its narrowest alleys. Une étoile, a star, was born around the Arc de Triomphe on Paris’s west side – serving as a beacon for the mighty city.

The following is an excerpt of From Paris to New York: Towards a City Beautiful

In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte made himself emperor of France and set out on an ambitious project to make Paris the most beautiful city in the world. It was during Bonaparte’s reign that the Arc de Triumphe and many other monuments were built atop what had been, at the time, the outskirts of Paris. In 1851, Bonaparte’s nephew, Napoleon III, assumed the role as the country’s emperor and by 1852 he had hired Baron Haussmann to complete Bonaparte’s goal. Haussmann was commissioned to take the existing medieval city of Paris and modernize it for the rapidly changing contemporary world of technological advances.


Map of Paris c. 1850

Inspired by the mid-17th Century design of Versailles and Baroque city planning in cities such as Rome, Baron Haussmann quickly transformed Paris in the decades following his hiring. Large swaths of medieval Paris were demolished to make way for wide avenues, new buildings, and upgraded infrastructure. The city was also expanded, most noticeably to the west where new avenues were extended from the Arc de Triumphe. Baron, being trained as an engineer of sorts, approached the project from the perspective of improving the city, not only aesthetically, but structurally. He wanted to make the city run smoother and work better for modern times.


Map of Baron Haussmann’s new boulevards and avenues.

This modernizing project, known at the Grands Travaux, succeeded in improving the city’s water supply, upgrading the sewer systems, accommodating railroads and stations, and making Paris a beautiful place to be. New sewers and water supply systems were laid under newly cleared land, some of which was developed with buildings and some of which were reserved for avenues. The creation of wide streets helped to reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality, and accommodate multimodal traffic with separate facilities for walking, horseback riding, and carriages. Clearing out medieval building stock also allowed for land to be opened up for new building typologies like department stores.


Depiction of Paris under construction during the Second Empire.

Older, narrow buildings were difficult to adapt for a changing consumer and production economy and this massive reconstruction project provided the opportunity to change the networks of commerce in the city. Not only did large department store buildings line these new avenues, so did new apartment blocks that had better access to light, ventilation and space, in addition to central courtyards.


Avenue Bosquet in 2011.

Many new monuments were also built and displayed in homage to the planning principles established in places like Rome during Sixtus V’s Baroque rebuilding period. Triumphal Arcs, statues, and obelisks were erected at intersections, in squares, and used to create terminating vistas. Unlike Rome, however, these monuments were somewhat more civically inspired as seen in the new opera houses and other public buildings. Remarkably, the modernization project under Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann did not cost the Parisian citizens anything, in terms of money. The entire project was not completed with taxes, but rather by anticipating the rise in property values that would result from these improvements. The value of land lining these new avenues made up for the costs for the demolition and infrastructure construction.

All these improvements, however, were not without their sacrifices and hardships. Medieval Paris was home to thousands of people at the time of this project. There were established networks of commerce, social relationships, and communities that were destroyed almost overnight. The under-classes in Paris, fed up with dictatorships, frequently held uprisings against the nobility of Paris and the emperor. Instead of addressing these grievances, Napoleon III decided to clear away the problem and prevent them from reemerging. The wide avenues were a way to prevent the blockade of roads by protesting citizens, which was much easier on the narrow medieval streets than these new monumental boulevards.


Quai de Jemmapes at Rue Alibert in 2011.

The new housing apartments also displaced many poor residents who could not afford to live in these new buildings, or if they did, it was in the cramped attic spaces, which were often up as many as seven flights of stairs. Furthermore, there is an issue with the loss of medieval urban fabric and building culture that can never be reclaimed. While vernacular, artisan buildings were not classically designed, today there is much appreciation for the craftsmanship that created these humble dwellings over the course of centuries. Although much of the demolished material was reused for new buildings and streets, the destruction of an entire piece of history cannot be overlooked.


Place de l’Opéra in 2011.

With that said, it would be difficult for anyone to look at Paris today with its beautiful Neoclassical architecture and pleasant sidewalk cafes, and wish that it could be replaced for the old medieval city. The architecture that replaced the medieval city was of the highest quality and it helped to unify the city under a single design character. And while poor residents were displaced, new housing did accommodate people at each end of the social spectrum, albeit with contrasting large apartments on the bel étage for wealthy families and cramped attic apartments for servants.


Detail of the Academie Nationale de Musique

Today the building stock of the Grands Travaux has proven to be extremely adaptive for changing needs. For example, the 10th arrondissement of Paris, Enclos-St-Laurent, is home to a large population of recently-arrived North African immigrants in search of a better life. Furthermore, it is difficult to defend the urban form of medieval Paris that facilitated the rapid spread of disease. Ultimately, the Baron Haussmann plan is a flawed masterpiece of planning and execution that resulted in one of the most functional and inspirational design projects in the world.

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