During a period of industrial and cultural advances in the mid 19th century, the population of Paris increased dramatically, overcrowding the ancient districts and spreading disease, killing tens of thousands. The city had remained unchanged since Medieval times, and its potential for future growth was being adversely impacted.
Emperor Napoleon III had a desire and vision to transform the city and chose Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the Prefect of the Seine, to lead this massive undertaking. Haussmann would later become known as one of the most famous and controversial urban planners in modern history.
Following his appointment, Haussmann was summoned to the Palace des Tuileries, where Napoleon III produced his plans for the city. These consisted of new roads, parks, public buildings and monuments. All of the Medieval neighborhoods, including 12,000 buildings, were to be demolished. The only surviving neighborhood today is the Marais, with the characteristic winding and narrow streets.
The plans also consisted of dividing the city into a unified geometric grid. The new neighborhoods, arrondissements, took the form of a clockwise spiral, starting at the center of the city. The original Medieval neighborhoods had previously been inhabited by both the nobillis and the working classes. The creation of these arrondissements resulted in districts only for the wealthy and different districts for the working classes and to a certain extent, this is still true today.
‘Street furniture’ was commissioned, including very ornate lamp posts, newspaper kiosks, intricate iron railings and bandstands. It was one of the largest urban development’s since the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. The entire reconstruction lasted 17 years.
The architectural façade of the city was completely transformed. A neoclassical style was used to provide visual unity, which was popular throughout the rest of Europe at the time. Characterized by stone buildings, usually 6 stories in height, they were proportional to the width of the avenues and boulevards.
The ground floor was for merchants and shop keepers, with a first floor mezzanine for housing and storage; the second floor had wrought iron balconies and elaborate stone work around the windows. This was the etage noble (noble floor) with the highest ceilings and largest rooms. Third and fourth floors had more restrained masonry with no balcony. The fifth floor had running balconies purely for aesthetic purposes. Finally the sixth floor was attic space with a very distinctive mansard style roof.
The interiors of the apartments were light and airy with several reception rooms. They are easily identified by the ornate panel work (boiserie), herringbone floors, double doors and full length windows.
Today France remains divided over Haussmann’s contribution to modern day Paris. He has been described equally as an urban planning genius and an imperialist megalomaniac. To the Republicans of the era, Haussmann was a vandal who demolished the city, driving the new boulevards through the slums to help the French army crush the frequent popular risings. Haussmann later resigned when the cost of the project – equivalent to 75 billion euros today – was revealed.
The French writer, Patrice de Moncan, writes:
“Haussmann was never forgiven or recognized in his lifetime in France and still isn’t. If I give a conference here, people groan when I talk about him. Right up until the 1980s, his buildings were dismissed as rubbish and as many as possible were destroyed, so that all those unlovely 1970s glass and concrete structures could go up.”
The Haussmannian apartments that do remain, and there are many, are very sought over today and are frequently published in design media.
In memory of Haussmann, a grand boulevard bearing his name runs off the Place de l’Etoile. There is also a statue on the rue de Laborde. And he still remains a popular topic of conversation around the dinner parties in Paris.
Sources: ‘Paris Reborn, Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City.’ Stephane Kirkland. ‘Le Paris d’ Haussmann.’ Patrice de Moncan.
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