Haussmann's renovation of Paris  

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"Historical conditions determine what is considered “useful.” Baron Haussmann’s urban renewal of Paris under the Second Empire, for example, was motivated by the desire to open up broad thoroughfares allowing for the rapid circulation of troops and the use of artillery against insurrections. But from any standpoint other than that of facilitating police control, Haussmann’s Paris is a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Present-day urbanism’s main problem is ensuring the smooth circulation of a rapidly increasing number of motor vehicles. A future urbanism will undoubtedly apply itself to no less utilitarian projects, but in the rather different context of psychogeographical possibilities." --Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, Guy Debord, tr. Ken Knabb


See also creative destruction, nineteenth century Paris

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

The Haussmann Renovations, or Haussmannization, of Paris was a vast public works commissioned by Napoléon III and led by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, spanning from 1852 to 1870.

The project encompassed all aspects of urban planning, both in the center of Paris and in the surrounding districts: streets and boulevards, regulations imposed on facades of buildings, public parks, sewers and water works, city facilities and public monuments.

The project was strongly criticized by some of its contemporaries, forgotten for a good part of the twentieth century, and then redeemed when post-war urban planning became discredited; however, it still has an influence on the everyday lives of Parisians. It established the foundation of what is today the popular representation of the French capital around the world, by changing the old Paris of dense and irregular medieval alleyways into a modern city with wide avenues and open spaces.

It also must be noted that the unsanitary quarters "cleaned" by Haussmann contained very few of the bourgeois class. Indeed, the parting of uprooting of established working class residential areas may have been another security measure, as a disrupted and scattered community will find it harder to unite and so will pose less of a threat. To modern ears this may sound odd, but the working classes were still known as "the dangerous classes" to Parisians, and the French in general, and the memories of the 1789 and 1848 revolutions where workers revolted against the state had left deep impressions on the Parisian psyche.

So was established a sort of "zonage" that still dominates the distribution of housing and activities in Paris and its nearest suburbs: from the centre to the west, offices and bourgeois quarters; from the east and outer rim, poorer housing and industry.

It should also be noted that when reports of the outbreak of the Paris Commune insurrection reached Haussmann he expressed his frustration at not having been able to carry out his reforms quickly enough to make such an insurrection futile.

Contents

Critics of Napoleon III's urban politics

Artists and architects (Charles Garnier) deplored the suffocating monotony of monumental architecture. Politicians and writers accused the spread of speculation and corruption (Émile Zola's "La Curée" ) and a few wrongly accused Haussmann of personal enrichment. Many of the criticisms targeted the base motivations of the venture and ended by felling the préfet.

Widening of streets: a tool for an authoritarian regime?

Many of Napoléon III's contemporaries accused him of hiding, under the guise of improving social and sanitary conditions, a project geared toward more effective military policing of the capital. Under this theory the wide thoroughfares were constructed to facilitate troop movement and prevent easy blocking of streets with barricades, and their straightness allowed artillery to fire on rioting crowds and their barricades. This interpretation has been widely repeated and accepted, notably in Lewis Mumford's writings.

The extent of the work itself shows that Napoleon III's aims were, at least, not solely security-oriented in nature. Beyond the spectacular piercing of the main boulevards, city transformations also included the construction of a modern underground network of sewers and freshwater, the installation of an efficient building plan on the surface, and the harmonisation of the architecture along the new avenues.

Yet it is true that Napoleon III was concerned with maintaining strict order. Haussmann never hesitated to explain that his street plan would ease the maintenance of public order when presenting his projects to the Conseil de Paris or local landowners. It should also be noted that when reports of the outbreak of the Paris Commune insurrection reached Haussmann he expressed his frustration at not having been able to carry out his reforms quickly enough to make such an insurrection futile. The strategic dimension is thus indeed present, but it is but one element among others; it is perhaps most important where there was question of joining Paris' main casernes between them.

It should also be mentioned that the police were not one of Haussmann's responsibilities. His mandate actually reduced the position of préfet de police, as it removed from this office problems such as city hygiene and the lighting and cleaning of its streets.

Social rupture

Many contemporary observers denounced the demographic and social effects of Haussmann's urbanism operations.

Louis Lazare, author, under Haussmann's predecessor Rambuteau, of an important "dictionary of Paris streets", considered in 1861 in the journal Revue municipale that Haussmann's works disproportionately increased State-dependent populations in attracting masses of poor to Paris. In reality, in certain respects Haussmann himself slowed the progress of his renovations in order to avoid a massive flood of workers to the Capital.

On the other hand, critics denounced as early as 1850 the effect that the renovations would have on the social composition of Paris. In a slightly oversimplified way, they painted a portrait of the pre-Haussmannian building as a synthesis of the Parisian social hierarchy: the bourgeoisie on the second floor, civil servants and employees on the third and fourth, low-wage employees on the fifth, house staff, students and the poor under the eaves. Thus one building was shown to represent and house all social classes. This cohabitation, of course varying from quarter to quarter, disappeared in its majority after the completion of Haussmann's work. This had two effects on the dispersion of dwellings in Paris:

  • The city-centre renovations provoked a rise in rents, and this forced poorer families towards Paris' outer arrondissements. This we can see in population statistics:
Arrondissement186118661872
1er89,51981,66574,286
6e95,93199,11590,288
17e75,28893,193101,804
20e70,06087,84492,712
  • Certain urbanism decisions contributed to a social imbalance between the Paris' west, wealthy, and its east, underprivileged. Therefore no eastern neighborhood in Paris benefited from renovations comparable to the large avenues surrounding the place de l'Étoile in the XVIe and XVIIe arrondissements. The poor were concentrated in arrondissements left aside by the city renovations.

As an answer to this, Haussmann presented the complex creation of the bois de Vincennes forest-parklands that would give working populations a promenade comparable to the bois de Boulogne. It also must be noted that the unsanitary quarters "cleaned" by Haussmann contained very few of the bourgeois class. Indeed, the parting of uprooting of established working-class residential areas may have been another security measure, as a disrupted and scattered community will find it harder to unite and so will pose less of a threat. To the modern ears this may sound odd, but the working-class people were still known as "the dangerous classes" to Parisians, and the French in general, and the memories of the 1789 and 1848 revolutions, where workers revolted against the state, had left deep impressions on the Parisian psyche.

That way, a sort of "zonage" was established that still dominates the distribution of housing and activities in Paris and its nearest suburbs: from the centre to the west, offices and wealthy neighborhoods; from the east and outer rim, poorer housing and industry.

See also




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