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The creation of modern Paris

The man who re-imagined Paris

Most of us flit between cities without thinking too much about the streets around us and how they were shaped. Who decided to put an intersection here? How did these three roads come to meet? Why is this road so much wider than the others?

New York is famously built on a straight-line grid system. So too is Milton Keynes for that matter but in a less iconic, less epic way. Paris is notable for its grand, spacious boulevards that sear through the heart of the city in arrow straight lines. But it was not always like this; Paris was not laid out in this way by the Gauls. 

The French Revolution of the late 18th century was a turning point, paving the way for the Second Empire of Napoleon III and a desire to smooth away the higgledy piggledy streets with their poor sanitation and ease congestion for the benefit of trade, national security and day-to-day safety of the populace.

Paris from above
Paris from above

Cometh the hour, cometh the man…

George-Eugène Haussmann was responsible for one of the great examples of radical urban planning. An imposing figure, he was the ultimate hatchet man, demolishing entire districts of medieval Paris and constructing new avenues in their place. Dispassionate and unsentimental, he even demolished his own childhood home on rue de Faubourg-du-Roule.

He was not a trained architect, nor even an urban planner. More a civil servant who was clearly skilled at pushing plans through, he was appointed Prefect of the Seine. In this role and armed with his plans he achieved an astonishing amount in a short space of time – and the work was consistently finished to a remarkably high standard.

Haussmann’s commanding presence was noted by the emperor who wrote in 1853, “I had in front of me one of the most extraordinary men of our time; big, strong, vigorous, energetic, and at the same time clever and devious, with a spirit full of resources”.

Despite plaudits from abroad, not least from Queen Victoria and illustrious German architects, his harshest critics were his own countrymen. In particular these were Republicans, often influenced by great figures of the day such as Victor Hugo. The great irony is that Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’ portrayed searing and desperate conditions that most common people endured, yet at the same time criticised Haussmann for destroying the ancient charm of Paris.

Destruction of Paris during implementation of the Haussmann plan
Destruction of Paris during implementation of the Haussmann plan

The master plan

Haussmann’s plan was in three parts and made Paris a building site for two decades. While he was forced from office in 1870 when the emperor came under fire for overly lavish spending, Haussmann’s works continued through to the 1920s. And within a year of Haussmann’s departure Napoleon III himself had been removed from power following French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war.

Some 20,000 ancient buildings were torn down and 34,000 new ones erected in their place. Typically these were the honey coloured stone apartment blocks that today are the neoclassical hallmark of Paris. They stretched along majestic avenues lined with trees, with imposing squares and carefully laid out civic parks (London's Hyde Park was an inspiration) and ornate fountains. 

More prosaically, but still innovative, were a sewage system, public toilets (chalets de nécessité), aqueduct and underground gas supply to buildings and street lighting. Haussmann even commissioned a striking collection of street furniture, including lampposts, bandstands, railings and newspaper kiosks, all helping create the new-look Paris, fragments of which remain today.

The all-important transport connections were provided by brand new railway stations at Gare du Nord and Gare de L’Est. And at the heart of the city the Place de L’Etoile (much later re-named the Place Charles de Gaulle), wrapped around the Arc de Triomphe celebrating the victory of Napoleon Bonaparte. The dozen avenues acting as spokes coming off it gradually became an international sensation, and an enduring nightmare for successive generations of hapless foreign motorists.

Arc de Triomphe
Arc de Triomphe

Other notable introductions were the gorgeous Opéra, an array of educational establishments, churches, theatres and the iconic Les Halles, the dramatic food market and something of a theatre itself. 

The Marais

This was one area largely untouched by the reforms and drastic reorganisation of Haussmann. The little passageways, courtyards and streets of this district in the 4th arrondissement are today a popular haunt among tourists, keen for a whiff of the romance of ‘old Paris’. The labyrinthine alleyways with their boutiques, cafés and galleries are a big draw but they do demonstrate how hard it would have been to go about one’s day to day life without clear thoroughfares, proper drainage and safe streets.

Radical change for the City of Light

The re-engineering of Paris represented the greatest transformation of an established international city. The vision provided work for countless labourers, as well as skilled tradesmen; it dramatically improved sanitation at a time when cholera and typhus were ever-present; and it introduced the populace to the notion of green parks in which to relax and promenade and play. 

The upheaval and its results were not universally appreciated. Haussmann’s vision had plenty of detractors, notably the statesman Jules Ferry: “We weep with our eyes full of tears for the old Paris… when we see the grand and intolerable new buildings, the costly confusion, the triumphant vulgarity, the awful materialism that we are going to pass on to our descendants”. To many he was an autocratic vandal who tore out the heart of historic Paris, his wide avenues ripping through ancient slums were primarily intended to enable swift crushing of popular uprisings. One historian claimed Haussmann’s work did more damage than a ‘hundred bombings’.

Map of Paris in 1867 showing the newly proposed arrondissements
Map of Paris in 1867 showing the newly proposed arrondissements

But Haussmann’s grand project had made its mark. The city had been transformed for the modern era. The blueprint for a global city with wide, sweeping streets, expansive green spaces, modern utilities and conveniences had been established. Urban development, civic architecture and public works would never be the same. Paris was the new benchmark and it has reaped the benefits for generations.  

A key moment arose in 1944. Hitler ordered the destruction of Paris in order to impose his authority on his newly conquered prize. He wanted every monument razed, including Notre Dame. His commander, General von Choltitz, refused to obey. The City of Light was just too exquisite to be demolished.