How Haussmann cleaned up the ‘dangerous’ Paris of old and established the bases of modern urbanism
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How Haussmann cleaned up the ‘dangerous’ Paris of old and established the bases of modern urbanism

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Author | M. Martínez Euklidiadas

Ancient Paris was an infected place, in both the literal sense, with dreadful diseases, and in the metaphoric sense, through the contagion of ideas among different social classes. When Georges-Eugène Haussmann was commissioned by Napoleon III, he was clear about the changes he was going to make in the city of light (Ville lumière), immersed in darkness. And they were not all good.

"Paris is an immense workshop of putrefaction, where misery, pestilence and sickness work in concert, where sunlight and air rarely penetrate,", wrote Victor Considerant, also a social reformer, but contrary to Haussmann’s ideals, in Social Destiny (1837). A phalanstery enthusiast and with a love of social harmony, he saw how Paris was changing to a much more hygienic…and segregated urban model.

Enemies of Haussmann and Napoleon III

Georges-Eugène Haussmann was not an urbanist, or an architect, he did not have specific training in urban design. In fact, he studied Law. But Haussmann was, mainly, a baron at the service of the emperor Napoleon III, who gave him his blessing (at least at the beginning). In order to understand the Paris renovations after 1850, one has to understand Napoleon III Bonaparte and Haussmann.

Napoleon III was the nephew of Napoleon I and cousin of Napoleon II. He was, and with good reason (he would be the last French monarch and would die in exile), concerned by the revolutions of 1789 to 1794, that of 1830 and particularly that of 1848. The French Revolution of 1799 had put the Bonaparte in power, so he was aware of the power of the underclasses. And Napoleon III was afraid of it.

Haussmann shared a number of his ideas about society. Specifically, the submissive role without barricades. "Traditionally, a great deal of importance was given to the enclosed fortification of a city", explained Richard Sennett in Building And Dwelling: Ethics for the City (2019), who then goes on to say that "Haussmann’s enemy, on the other hand, was already inside". It was an enemy shared with the old president of the republic (self-proclaimed emperor).

The renovation of Paris

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When Napoleon III commissioned Haussmann to renovate Paris, the latter opted for large avenues in which it was not possible to become entrenched or fight the authorities, he flanked them with Haussmannian buildings full of unsuspicious middle classes and sent the workers out to the neighborhoods on the outskirts. The rich, previously ‘relegated’ to the suburbanism of the Faubourgs, returned to the center, which was now clean.

A Paris with uniform aesthetics

In terms of aesthetics, Paris now stood out for its uniformity, although before Haussmann its center was mainly medieval. Haussmann was one of the precursors of the laws on the appearance of facades. He loved order (including social order) and monumentality.

That is why many of the facades today are identical. With his renovations, Haussmann intended to regulate the ‘good use’ of space through regulations. For example, he tried, unsuccessfully, to arrange the way in which people got together. He demolished 19,730 historic buildings to achieve this, but he achieved the complete opposite.

Wide avenues for speed

In terms of public space, Haussmann’s renovations consisted of demolishing most of the buildings in ancient Paris to build large avenues to enable speed and ‘free circulation’. Including the riverbanks of the Seine, but that has now been corrected.

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The Enlightenment planners, influenced by the discovery of William Harvey’s human circulation system, thought that it was essential to enable the flow of vehicles no matter what. Robert Moses, the man responsible for the construction of expressways across New York City (and the man behind the destruction of the same), would imitate Haussmann a century later.

From place to space, and back to place

By changing places where one can live into simple spaces in which to drive, Haussmann designed a Paris for automobiles. Twenty years after the renovation, the first urban conflicts and disputes emerged among drivers. The victims were pedestrians, relegated to the sides of the avenues. This saw the consolidation of the then isolated concept of ‘sidewalk’.

Boulevards in the Paris of lights

As baron, Haussmann could not bear the mixture of classes. He did so, provided the poor did not cause bother and performed their duties quietly and with diligence. In Haussmann’s Paris, the very poor were kept away on the outskirts and those that were not so poor, in attics without a lift.

It is paradoxical and ironic that the boulevards, which Haussmann designed for fast journeys and fluid mobility, were the breeding ground for street shows, terraces and neighborhood groups made up of all types of people.

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In fact, the authority of the police, which one would imagine was to come with the wide avenues, faded away amid the slackening of the municipal police prefect in favor of the regional Paris prefect.

And the emperor did not see the completion of his commissions. His regime ended in 1863, and the works in 1870. It is funny to think that the new green areas emerged when he fled.

The waste route below the new Paris

Although it is not often highlighted, one of the few objectives of Napoleon III and Haussmann that were completed, was something that has allowed the residents of Paris to breathe more easily and with peace of mind: the sewerage system. Before this renovation, Paris did indeed have a health problem.

Haussmann gave Paris the circulation system it needed, but not at road level, dozens of meters below. This part of the city is being extended, while the surface level is being reversed in favor of pedestrians.

He also gave Paris, although at an astronomical cost, a state-of-the-art water supply system, which came before that of London in 1859 after the Great Stink, but not before that of New York (1849).

A clean, yet dirty Paris

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A simple and qualitative analysis shows that Haussmann changed cholera for a general environmental pollution. The emergence of new avenues coincided (or led to) a change towards a form of mobility that is now polluting and was then liberating (the latter for high income families).

Haussmann had to leave France for an entire year after ruining the capital. In 1865, when this reformer no longer had the blessing of Napoleon III, the city had to ask for 250 million francs (a colossal amount), and a few years later, in 1869, another 260 million francs.

When the old prefect of the Haute-Marne region, Émile Olivier, had sufficient power, he dismissed Haussmann. Although it was not solely a financial issue: Olivier was against most of Haussmann’s urban development measures, such as the social isolation of the classes.

Today, Paris is still trying to reverse a number of Haussmann’s initiatives, giving priority to pedestrians and withdrawing powers from private vehicles, promoting slow mobility and a walkable city. The 15-minute city is chiefly Parisian.

However, it is undeniable that Haussmann transformed the city forever. Although it is also true that many of the renovations carried out are not considered to be ethical and were aporophobic, the fact is, Paris would not be Paris without him.

Images | Florian Wehde, Alexander, Siyuan, Maksim Shutov, Dewang Gupta

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