Rebuilding Paris: the work of Haussmann
‘I want to be a second Augustus … because Augustus … made Rome a city of marble.’ - Louis Napoleon (1842)
Have you ever wondered why central Paris lacks the dark and narrow passage ways you'd expect in a city old as she is? Or have you thought about how it comes there aren't any medieval houses left to see in the city center? You find it hard as me to imagine the uprising, the pursuits and the barricades as described in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables in the streets of Paris you know them today? Monsieur Haussmann is to thank - he completely changed the view of the city in less than twenty years.
The change of Paris's appearance started in the middle of the nineteenth century. Only being half as large as today, Paris already was a large capital, and it was heavily overcrowded. Life in the city was dangerous due to the small and dark passages - robbers could be lurking around every corner - and due to its unsanitary conditions. The Seine spread an awful stench because sewers were emptied into the river. There was no good-working water supply system, so that fresh drinking water was a rare good. The street plan had changed little since the Middle Ages, but the population had grown immensely. In the area that now roughly forms the first four arrondissements, the population density was one inhabitant on every three square meters. Diseases spread terribly fast in these conditions. In addition, traffic circulation was difficult because many streets were too narrow for carriages to move through them - an impossible state of being for the capital of one of the mightiest countries in Europe.
In 1848, Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected as the first President of France after the king was overthrown in the February Revolution of that same year. He was a born Parisian, but had lived in Switzerland, England and the United States. The open squares, the large parks and wide avenues of London had majorly impressed him, and when he compared Britain's capital to his own dark and narrow Paris, he decided it was necessary to bring more light and fresh air to the city. First of all, he ordered the completion of a broad boulevard, the Rue de Rivoli, the street which connected the Louvre with Hotel de Ville; a project that was started by his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte. Second, he began to build a public park, inspired by Hyde Park, at the west side of the city - the Bois de Boulogne. He couldn't complete both projects until the end of his official term, but that didn't matter much: in 1851 he staged a coup, seized power, and a year after he declared himself Emperor Napoleon III.
Since Napoleon III was not at all satisfied with the progress his Prefect of the Seine (the designation for the director of public works) had made in four years, he dismissed him and sought for a new candidate. George Eugene Haussmann was selected, who was vivid and original in solving problems. In June 1853, Napoleon directed him to open up the city, to connect the different neighborhoods into a unity and to make the city prettier. The first thing to do was to finally complete the two main boulevards that would connect north and south by the Boulevard Sebastopol, and east and west by the Rue de Rivoli, which was still not finished. The fast finishing of the Rue de Rivoli was especially important because the Universal Exposition was to take place in Paris in 1855. Three thousand workers were hired to work on the street day and night in order to complete the boulevard in time. The two large boulevards formed the Grand Croisee, 'the great cross', of central Paris, improving communication between all parts of the city. The north-south axis of the great cross was completed in 1859. In order to make room for these two impressive streets, many ancient buildings were torn down and several narrow medieval streets had to make way for the modern, wide ones.
Also the underground of Paris was renovated. Before Haussmann, drinking water was lifted by steam engines or brought by canals, but the quantity of fresh water was not at all sufficient for all the inhabitants of the city. Haussmann appointed Eugene Belgrand to renew the water supply. He constructed a system of aquaducts that could bring twice as much water into the city than the old system. Also, the sewer system was renewed - existing tunnels were widened and new tunnels were built under the sidewalk of the new boulevards. The tunnels now were large enough to carry away all rain and waste water.
The completion of the Grand Croisee, with the Place du Chatelet at its junction, the erection of two theaters on this square and the creation of a couple of more squares (the Place du Carrousel, the Place Saint-Germain-l-Auxerois and the Parvis D'Hôtel de Ville) concluded the first phase of Haussmann's renovation. His work had brought air and light to the city, improving circulation and health. Parisians were pleased by the results, but they were not enough for Haussmann. He wanted to build a network of boulevards that would connect the interior of Paris with the ring around the city. At incredibly high speed - and at much higher costs than estimated - Haussmann built and extended many boulevards, streets and avenues and constructed large new squares, among them the current Place de la Republique and the Place de l'Europe. The Île de la Cité was almost completely torn down and rebuilt - but he did preserve the historical Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Saint-Chapelle. The large buildings of the Commercial Court and the Prefecture de Police were built on the island, as well as two new streets crossing the island, and two new bridges. This second phase of Haussmann's renovation was partly welcomed, but also found criticism as the costs of his works were escalating. Also, the Parisians criticized Haussmann for taking large parts of the Jardin the Luxembourg to make room for his streets.
When building streets, Haussmann did not only lay new pavements, but he also erected the large apartment buildings that we still see everywhere in Paris, since he wanted to create a unified urban landscape. Indeed these apartment houses gave Paris the uniformity Louis Napoleon had wished for - their facades all had the same design, size and color.
In 1860, eleven suburbs of Paris were officially annexed to the capital, enlarging the city from twelve to the twenty arrondissements Paris is divided into today. To connect the suburbs to the center of Paris, Haussmann built several more boulevards. In 1867, another large set of renovations was proposed, and although the criticism was growing rapidly as people were getting tired of all the construction sites and many regretted that the historic city was destroyed to a large extent, Haussmann started to work out his plans. He could not, however, finish this third phase of changes, as the opponents of the Emperor grew stronger and Napoleon had to give in to the demands of his opposition. He asked Haussmann to resign, and as he refused to, Napoleon dismissed his prefect of the Seine in 1870. His successor, however, completed the works that were already in progress, including several boulevards and the Opéra Garnier.
Except for streets, Haussmann constructed four major parks and many buildings, many of which were designed by the city architect Gabirel Davioud. The new building included the two railway stations Gare du Nord and Gare de L'Est, six town halls, several markets including the modern glass and iron construction of Les Halles, and a railway bridge across the Seine. Nineteen churches and five lycées were renovated, the last wing of the Louvre palace was completed and the Hôtel-Dieu was enlarged. In the public squares and parks, Haussmann and Davioud built fences, kiosks, shelters and public toilets.
In retrospect we can conclude Haussmann did great things for Paris by improving the health situation when he improved the water supply, renewed the sewers, and by widening the main boulevards for better circulation and communication within the city. Also, the removal of narrow streets secured the city leaders for another civil war - the wider streets weren't suitable for erecting barricades anymore. On the other hand, the historical, romantic, picturesque Paris of Victor Hugo and Balzac was destroyed and lost forever - and only lives on in their works.
Haussmann's Renovation of Paris (Wikipedia)
Haussmannization in the Context of the History of Paris
Paris: Capital of Modernity? - Dr Chris Pearson