Baron Haussmann's Paris

The modern capital we know today, with its wide boulevards and harmonious buildings, was born under the Second Empire. It was the work of two men: Baron Haussmann and the emperor himself. Paris, embellished, modernized and sanitized, had to compete with London. But there were other reasons for these transformations too: the wide avenues were supposed to prevent barricades during uprisings.


Embellishing, cleaning up and controlling Paris

Look at these buildings in Berlin, London and Paris. Do you recognise the Parisian building? Yes, it has a very particular style. First of all, it is a stone building, its façade is often richly decorated with mythological statuary, fantastical animals or exotic fauna and flora and it has six floors.

Let's take a look at them: the ground floor, normally used for shops; the first floor or rather the basement; the second floor, called the "noble floor", with a balcony, reserved for the richest households; the intermediate floors: 3rd and 4th without a balcony; the 5th floor, also with a balcony. And the sixth floor under the roof, formerly inhabited by the servants, with its maids' rooms which offer a beautiful view and where one suffocates in summer.

If you are a Parisian, you know of course that this is a Haussmann building, like more than half of the buildings in Paris. Haussmann! That's right, after the famous Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann, who came from a family from Cologne that had been established in Alsace for six generations. He was prefect of the Seine, the former department of Paris, from 1853.

Paris before Haussmann: an unhealthy city

In the middle of the 19th century, Paris was a labyrinthine city, both picturesque, with private mansions, but above all unhealthy and dangerous, with narrow, overcrowded streets that were difficult to navigate. In short, a capital that has not changed much since the French Revolution.
Napoleon III, who had lived in London, thought that Paris had everything to envy its rival across the Channel, which had been transformed by the industrial revolution, with its wide avenues, parks and railway stations.

It is definitely time to modernise the French capital. His motto? Everything must circulate: air, people, money. To satisfy his ambitions, Napoleon III had to find a strong man capable of carrying out large-scale works. Baron Haussmann would be his man. A man of order. He liked nothing less than straight lines, hygiene and authority. His mission: to aerate, unify and beautify the city.

A gigantic project

This highly efficient duo transformed Paris in record time. In less than twenty years, 70 new roads were built. Nine bridges were created or widened. Forty thousand buildings were constructed. 585 km of sewers were dug. Twenty or so squares and large parks were planted: the Buttes-Chaumont and Montsouris parks, the eighty thousand trees in the streets, not to mention the Bois de Vincennes and the Bois de Boulogne.
In terms of embellishment, everything had to be aligned: cornices, balconies and facades. And the urban furniture was unified: the kiosks, the famous Morris columns, the lampposts, the benches and even the grills that protected the base of the trees. To improve traffic flow, Haussmann created new thoroughfares: the Champs-Elysées, the boulevards of Saint-Germain, Saint-Michel, Magenta, the Avenue Foch and the Rue de Rivoli, along which he laid water pipes and a sewer system. Each breakthrough opens onto a monument. Moreover, at inaugurations, the perspectives are hidden behind large canvases that are lifted up. The view opens up onto a church, an opera house, an equestrian statue or one of the newly built railway stations, emblems of industrial modernity. And yes! Haussmann, a man of finance, was also thinking about the circulation of capital and the stations served as gateways for the goods that would come to supply the new Bon Marché and Printemps department stores, the real commercial showcases of Paris.

Better control of Parisians

It is clear that the town planner's project is driven by a great modernist and hygienist impulse. However, some people denounce less avowed security objectives. Indeed, after the uprisings of 1830 and 1848, Haussmann had to protect himself against the possibility of a new civil war and make it impossible to build barricades in the streets of Paris. To this end, he widened the streets and drew straight lines between the working-class districts and the fire stations.

To carry out these major works, Haussmann destroyed, and not just a little. The Paris of the 16th and 17th centuries was practically wiped off the map, to the great displeasure of heritage conservationists. Even the house where the Baron was born disappeared. Very little of the old Paris remains today, like the Marais or the Faubourg Saint-Germain.
To gain time, Haussmann took advantage of a new law that allowed expropriation for public utility and hygiene, forcing part of the working class to leave the city centre, which had become too expensive, for the suburbs.

All this, of course, came at an exorbitant cost. Haussmann did not hesitate to put the city heavily into debt, through loans and dubious real estate operations, which led to his disgrace in 1870 just before the fall of the Second Empire.
Today, all these problematic aspects have been forgotten. Haussmann's work is widely admired and attracts tourists from all over the world. Haussmann's work has been emulated in Europe, especially by James Hobrecht, the Prussian town planner who redesigned and rehabilitated Berlin at the end of the 19th century. But unlike Paris, not much remains of this work in the German capital, which was destroyed and rebuilt over the last century.


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