Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann
Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, a Parisian who razed his own city, was one of history’s most well-known and disputed urban designers. 125 years after his death, France is still divided over whether the man who transformed Paris into the City of Light was a true master designer or an imperialist mad man.
Among the numerous elements of Paris that have made Haussmann famous around the world are the wide avenues lined by towering houses with intricate wrought iron balconies and well dressed ashlar.
To his republican compatriots, however, Haussmann was an arrogant, authoritarian vandal who wrecked Paris’ historic centre by cutting through its shantytowns in order to enable the French army’s repression of popular uprisings.
Paris: Before Haussmann
In the mid-19th century, Paris was a city in crisis, with overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions leading to rampant disease and poverty. It was against this backdrop that Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, an ambitious civil servant, rose to prominence. In 1853, Haussmann was tasked by Emperor Napoleon III to lead a massive renovation of Paris, which would come to be known as one of the most ambitious public works programs in history.
Haussmann’s plan was multifaceted and included the demolition of medieval neighborhoods deemed overcrowded and unhealthy by officials, the creation of wide avenues, new parks and squares, and the annexation of surrounding suburbs. He also oversaw the construction of modern sewers, fountains, and aqueducts, bringing clean water and modern sanitation to the city.
But perhaps the most ambitious aspect of Haussmann‘s plan was the literal reshaping of Paris itself. Haussmann’s vision called for the creation of a modern, hygienic, and segregated urban model, with wide streets and grand boulevards replacing narrow and winding alleyways. The new street plan and distinctive appearance of the center of Paris today are largely the result of Haussmann’s renovation.
Haussmann’s work, however, was not without controversy. Fierce opposition met his projects, and he was eventually dismissed by Napoleon III in 1870. Nonetheless, work on his plan continued until 1927. Today, the legacy of Haussmann’s renovation is evident in the grand boulevards, spacious parks, and iconic architecture of modern Paris.
Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris
Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s appointment in 1853 marked the beginning of a monumental transformation of Paris. Summoned by Emperor Napoleon III himself, Haussmann was presented with a plan for the city. With no formal training in architecture or urban planning, he embarked on a 20-year plan that transformed the city into a sprawling construction site. His grand plan was implemented in three phases, which involved demolishing almost 20,000 historic buildings and erecting more than 34,000 new structures.
Haussmann’s impact on Paris was nothing short of monumental. It included cutting through the cramped and chaotic labyrinth of slum streets in the city centre, knocking down 12,000 buildings, and clearing space for iconic landmarks such as the Palais Garnier and Les Halles marketplace. He also oversaw the installation of les egouts, the city’s complex sewage network, as well as reservoirs and aqueducts to bring clean drinking water to the city.
One of Haussmann’s most significant achievements was the creation of grand avenues. These wide, straight boulevards were characterized by rows of neo-classical apartment blocks faced in creamy stone, which replaced the city’s old, narrow streets. The avenues were also designed to accommodate the free movement of troops and goods, making them a boon for business.
But Haussmann’s vision extended far beyond just grand boulevards. He also engineered grand squares, city parks, a comprehensive sewage system, and a network of underground gas pipes for lighting streets and buildings. His bold new railway stations, including the Gare du Nord and Gare de L’Est, brought modernity to the city, while the Paris Opéra, new schools, churches, and grand public squares gave the city a sense of grandeur.
Despite the success of his projects, Haussmann faced criticism from Republican opponents, who saw his avenues as imperialist tools to quell civil unrest in working-class areas. They accused him of social engineering by destroying economically mixed areas and creating distinct wealthy and “popular” arrondissements. Critics also argued that he destroyed the city’s medieval treasures, such as the narrow winding streets of the Marais, which escaped Haussmann’s razing.
Regardless of the criticism, Haussmann’s renovation of Paris is still considered one of the most extensive public works programs ever voluntarily carried out in a European city. His work continues to shape the city’s distinctive appearance and vibrant culture today.
Île de la Cité is depicted in this 1852 image as seen from the Quai Saint Michel. The original Pont Saint Michel in the foreground was replaced in 1857. In the background, you can see a temporary pedestrian bridge being built.
The Théatre de L’Odéon is seen in the distance, while Rue Monsieur-le-Prince is the street that descends from the left. The building to the left with the rounded windows is still standing and is now a pharmacy. Le Hibou, a hip restaurant in the area, is housed in the structure to the right.
Several pavilions that had been under construction since 1847 served as the market’s home in Les Halles by 1866. After widespread criticism of its design in 1853, this original pavilion was abandoned unfinished. It was later replaced in 1867 with the enduring iron and glass structure that was in service until 1973. In the distance, the Saint Eustache Church is visible.The area has since undergone continuous reconstruction, with the most recent “canopée” design being exhibited in 2016.
Despite Georges-Eugène Haussmann significant contributions to modern Paris, he remains a relatively unknown figure in the city’s history. Today, a statue of Haussmann may be found in the 8th Arrondissement, but his essential contribution to modern Paris is still not properly recognized.
During his lifetime in France, Haussmann was never pardoned or recognized for his achievements, and this lack of recognition persists even today. His structures were criticized as being of poor quality, and many were demolished until the 1980s to make way for the modern skyscrapers that now dot the Parisian skyline.
Yet, what Haussmann accomplished was nothing short of extraordinary. He was the first contemporary urban developer and transformed Paris into a modern city with grand boulevards, beautiful parks, and impressive landmarks. Even Queen Victoria was astounded by the changes in the city during her visit to the universal exhibitions.
At a gathering of European architects held in Germany in 1867, Haussmann was lauded as an absolute genius and an outstanding proponent of modern urban planning. But back home in France, all that was said about him was that he was a thief.
Despite the lack of recognition, Haussmann’s legacy lives on in Paris, where his grand boulevards and beautiful landmarks continue to define the city’s distinctive character. It is a testament to his vision and tenacity that his work continues to shape and inspire generations long after his death.
A Paris With Uniform Aesthetics
Although Paris’s centre was primarily mediaeval prior to Haussmann, it now stood out for its homogeneity in terms of aesthetics. One of the forerunners of the legislation governing the appearance of facades was Haussmann. Both monumentality and order, especially social order, were his passions.
That explains why many façade are the same today. Through rules, Haussmann hoped to control the “good use” of space with his restorations. He attempted to plan how people met, for instance, but was unsuccessful. He destroyed 19,730 old buildings to do this, yet the exact opposite happened.
Wide avenues for speed
In terms of public space, Haussmann’s restorations involved tearing down the majority of the historic buildings in Paris in order to construct broad boulevards that would speed up and promote “free circulation.” The Seine’s riverbanks were included, but that has been fixed.
The Enlightenment planners believed that it was imperative to permit the flow of vehicles under all circumstances, prompted by William Harvey’s discovery of the human circulatory system. A century later, Robert Moses, who was in charge of building New York City‘s motorways and also responsible for their destruction, would emulate Haussmann.
From Place To Space, And Back To Place
Haussmann created a Paris for cars by converting livable areas into uncomplicated driving zones. Twenty years following the reconstruction, the first driver disputes and conflicts in metropolitan areas began to appear. The victims were people walking on the sidelines of the streets. This led to the then-isolated idea of “sidewalk” becoming more widespread.
Boulevards In The Paris Of Lights
Haussmann, a nobleman, could not tolerate the contrast between social strata. He agreed to do so as long as the underprivileged carried out their tasks quietly and diligently without making a scene. The extremely destitute were confined on the periphery of Haussmann’s Paris, and the middle class lived in attics without a lift.
It is contradictory and hilarious that the boulevards, which Haussmann created for quick trips and fluid mobility, were the birthplace of neighbourhood organisations with all kinds of people, street performances, and terraces.
The Waste Route Below The New Paris
Although it is rarely mentioned, the sewerage system was one of the few goals of Napoleon III and Haussmann that was accomplished, allowing the citizens of Paris to breathe more comfortably and with peace of mind. The city of Paris did actually have a health issue prior to its restoration.
Haussmann provided Paris with the necessary circulation system, but hundreds of metres below street level. The city is expanding this area while reversing the surface level so that pedestrians get priority.
He also provided Paris with a cutting-edge water supply system, albeit at an exorbitant expense. This system was superior to that of London’s after the Great Stink in 1859, but not to that of New York’s. (1849).
A quick and qualitative investigation reveals that Haussmann substituted broad environmental contamination with cholera. New paths opened up at the same time as (or as a result of) a shift towards a liberated type of mobility that is now polluting. (the latter for high income families).
In order to promote slow mobility and a walkable city, Paris is still working to roll back some of Haussmann’s ideas, give preference to walkers, take away authority from private automobiles, and more. Parisians dominate the metropolis of fifteen minutes.
But there is no denying that Haussmann fundamentally altered the character of the city. The fact is that Paris would not be Paris without him, despite the fact that many of the modifications were aporophobic and unethical.
No other big city has undergone such a drastic transformation in peacetime, either before or since. In addition to architects, engineers, and landscape gardeners, it employed a sizable number of trained and unskilled people. After long decades of typhus and cholera, it helped the city regain its health. It provided parks for Parisians of all socioeconomic strata to enjoy.
Its wide avenues should have allowed government forces unrestricted movement to keep the peace during barricades, riots, and other disturbances. It also provided Paris a sense of unity and an illusion of bourgeois affluence at a time when the city’s size doubled and its population tripled.
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