Why you should care
Because even people who hate Paris love Paris.
Contagion and rebels flourished in the clogged, crooked streets of 19th-century Paris, until one man — dubbed the Demolisher — cleared the path to a modern, industrialized France.
Georges-Eugène Haussmann preferred to be called Baron, and while he made no friends among poor Parisians in the 1850s, he’s the reason behind the City of Light’s archetypal wide avenues, romantic wrought-iron balconies and blue-gray roofs. And 165 years later, another Parisian leader seems to be using Haussmann-like inspiration to conceive of a brighter tomorrow.
He enabled a majestic new Paris to rise from the city’s medieval ashes.
Haussmann was charged with tearing down and rebuilding the city by Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of the notorious Napoleon Bonaparte. The emperor had assumed power after a coup d’état in 1851 and was hell-bent on reinventing the capital — then a dirty, crowded and disgruntled metropolis plagued by cholera outbreaks and civil rebellion. Seeking glory and peace of mind in the creation of a state-of-the-art urban hub, he chose the ambitious Haussmann, a loyal civil servant with flair, as prefect of the Seine in 1853, handing him the reins for a radical makeover.
Haussmann boldly attacked city planning while accounting for a host of urban woes, including a rapidly increasing population, surging industrialization, traffic congestion, overcrowding, poor sanitation and social unrest. From his efforts over a 16-year period, a majestic new Paris rose from the city’s medieval ashes, giving Napoleon III a capital he could proudly showcase, and forever changing the infrastructure of an ancient city that was home to more than 2 million people.
The Baron — a nickname that stuck — introduced huge boulevards, the likes of which Paris had never seen before, to improve transportation and give residents more space to breathe. The wide avenues were also strategically designed to quell uprisings, affording authorities a greater expanse to chase insurgents who would hide in the crooked, narrow passages. The new plan brought in more light too, brightening the dark, cramped hovels Parisians had endured for centuries. And at the end of every boulevard stood an impressive national monument, placed in the center of a rounded intersection anchoring the arterial roads in a star-like formation. This provided unfettered views of the city’s treasures from all angles. The best example? The famed Arc de Triomphe, which presides over the Place de l’Étoile and can be seen more than a mile away from the other end of the Champs-Élysées.
But the makeover consisted of more than a complex network of Haussmann’s luxurious boulevards, says Laurent Alberti, who works in the department of history for the city of Paris. He “also equipped the city with schools, hospitals, etc.,” Alberti notes, providing “equipment the city lacked.”
Haussmann’s grand vision may have introduced much-needed modernization, but it suited wealthy Parisians’ — and the emperor’s — tastes more than the working class’s. The fancy boulevards required razing entire neighborhoods, with Haussmann himself estimating that he’d displaced some 350,000 people. Tenants later returned to find ivory buildings covered by slanted roofs two shades bluer than the overcast sky. Now considered distinctly Parisian, these apartments lined the new avenues to address a dire housing shortage and to establish the avant-garde neoclassical style for which Napoleon III is known. But the new units were far too costly for the displaced workers, whose numbers continued to grow. The bourgeoisie slowly took over, forcing the former tenants farther and farther from the city center.
Today, Paris faces another housing crisis — which proved to be a focal point during Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s campaign, with pledges to add 10,000 housing units to the city each year for both low-income and middle-class families. She’s also facing pollution concerns and a call to reduce the city’s carbon footprint. While Hidalgo’s urban agenda is more considerate of salary levels than Haussmann’s, she too has lofty plans for updating the city’s transportation and housing infrastructure in unprecedented ways.
For example, she wants to extend Metro lines outside the city and is holding contests for designs to convert unused office spaces, historic buildings and plots of land into apartments, green spaces and even skyscrapers. She believes building up is more environmentally friendly than building out. It sounds progressive, à la Haussmann, but not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of high-rise structures jutting up from the city’s periphery. Hervé Rattez, a professor at the National School of Architecture in Normandy, is among the many who are concerned.
Haussmann’s ambition was “to construct the ideal, most functional city of the 19th century,” Rattez says. He questions the need to mar Parisians’ lovely views with “vertiginous towers” in search of a similar goal today.