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It’s exactly 170 years since Baron Haussmann began his radical transformation of Paris, and the city is marking the occasion with a wide range of lectures and events. Although he had his critics, Haussmann had an enormous impact on Paris, perhaps more than any other individual in history. Surely this anniversary year is a moment to pay tribute to his work.
It’s difficult to overstate how different the city was before his era. The roads in mid-19th century Paris were narrow and dark, travel through the city was difficult and living conditions for most Parisians were grim. The cholera epidemic of 1832 had hit the city especially hard. When Louis Napoléon Bonaparte returned from exile in London in 1852, one of his very first priorities was to oversee vast improvements in the capital.
So, in 1853, just a year after declaring himself Emperor, Napoléon III engaged Georges-Eugène Haussmann as his chief planner and, having been so impressed with London, explained his vision: “Let’s make this city beautiful and improve the life of its citizens.” He wanted rid of the crowded little streets, which, as he commented “lack air and daylight”; he wanted wide new avenues to open up the city. Soon 80,000 workers were engaged to make it all happen.
Haussmann certainly had his critics, some objecting to the costs involved, others to the demolition of parts of medieval Paris. But, between 1853 and 1870, the year of his resignation, he transformed the French capital, enlarging it, modernizing its infra-structure, and adding many stunning new avenues, parks, squares and public buildings. Now 170 years on, it’s easy to get lost in the detail, but here are 10 fundamental changes made as Haussmann, following his Emperor’s instructions, sought to “beautify” Paris.
1. Enlarging the city
Napoléon III annexed whole new areas to the city of Paris – including Montmartre, Passy and Belleville – added eight arrondissements, making a total of 20, as is still the case today. These new Parisians brought in extra taxes which helped with the costs being incurred, for example for the wide new roads needed to connect up all the different areas of the city.
2. New avenues, new boulevards and squares
Haussmann oversaw the building of the grande croisée, ensuring easy east-west travel through the city via the Rue de Rivoli and the Boulevard Saint Antoine, which crossed over a north-south axis of two new boulevards named after Strasbourg and Sébastopol. Countless more avenues were built, opening up the city and providing clear routes to the new railway stations like the Gare du Nord and the Gare Saint-Lazare. The area around the Arc de Triomphe was completely redesigned, creating the Étoile of 12 avenues radiating out from the center and a number of imposing new squares also emerged, including the Place du Château d’Eau, now the Place de la République.
3. The restoration of Île de la Cité
Here in the heart of Paris, many of the old streets and neighborhoods were destroyed, so that wider roads could be built. But some ancient treasures were preserved and renovated. The square in front of Notre-Dame was enlarged and the cathedral spire – a casualty of the revolution – was restored. Careful maintenance work was done on the Sainte Chapelle, the Conciergerie and the Palais de Justice, and the imposing new Préfecture de Police was built.
4. New water and sewage systems
Cannily, Haussmann realized that building so many new roads was an excellent opportunity to modernize and extend the pipes and sewers underneath. The engineer Eugène Belgrand was appointed in 1855 and he was to spend the next 15 years transforming the city’s water supply, enlarging the underground pipe system sixfold, to ensure that the water supply would meet needs of a fast-growing population. Four times as many homes now had access to running water, and public health was further vastly improved by the installation of new sewer tunnels under the boulevards.
5. Lighting up Paris
Haussmann oversaw the creation of a company, Compagnie parisienne d’éclairage et de chauffage par le gaz, to provide enough gas for heating and lighting the city. Thanks to this new enterprise, streets, courtyards and the staircases of new buildings could all be made safer by the introduction of gas lamps. When the new Opera Garnier opened in 1875, Haussmann was no longer in charge, but the gorgeously lit-up building so admired by Parisians and visitors alike still owed him a great debt.
6. Four new parks
Haussmann made sure that each corner of Paris had access to a huge new park, developed on the authority of Napoleon III himself. West of the city, the Bois de Boulogne was created and to the east, the Bois de Vincennes. To the north there would be the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and to the south, the Parc Montsouris. Thousands were employed to add water features and grottos and to plant lawns, flowers and thousands of trees, all of which meant that Parisians had access to open spaces for walking and relaxation.
7. City center parks and garden squares
Existing parks such as the Parc Monceau and the Jardin du Luxembourg were redesigned and many more trees planted. Each of the 20 arrondissements had four quartiers and it was Haussmann’s dream that all 80 should have their own neighborhood park or square. He himself created 24 new squares, ranging from the Square du Temple in the 3rd arrondissement, a family park with a pond, adventure playground and plenty of benches, to the Square Louis XVI, created in 1865 around the Chapelle Expiatoire where the remains of Louis and Marie Antoinette lie. Each square is unique, and each helps fulfill Haussmann’s intention that no one in Paris should be more than 10 minutes’ walk from somewhere to relax outside.
8. Buildings: the grand and the less grand
Some of the city’s grandest buildings were conceived as part of Haussmann’s plans, most prominently the Opéra, which he commissioned Charles Garnier to design. It was begun in 1862, although not finished until 1875, after Haussmann had ‘retired.’ He oversaw other grand projects, such as the renovation of Les Halles, and also many less prestigious, but very useful ones: town halls, schools and hospitals in the new arrondissements for example.
9. Street furniture
It was Haussmann who first introduced the Colonne Morris to Parisian streets, the cylindrical advertising columns still seen all over the city today. And he was nothing if not practical. The wonderfully named chalet de nécessité, or public toilet in plainer English, which was built near the Champs Élysées, was also his idea. Necessary, yes, but also beautiful, for the sculptor Émile Guadrier was commissioned to create its decorated façade.
10. Haussmann’s grand apartment buildings
Who doesn’t love the graceful apartment buildings with which Haussmann lined the new avenues and boulevards? Their beauty was very much by design: elegant proportions, suitable for the wide roads in which they stood, and a harmony dictated by quite a number of “rules.” The buildings in a street were to be of the same height and all fashioned from the same local stone. They would typically be six floors high, plus a garret, and uniformity was further enforced by the design of the balconies, which had to be perfectly aligned all across the façade.
The use made of each floor was not left to the owners either. The ground floor was for shops or the concierge’s apartment. The second floor, known as the “noble” floor, was for fine apartments suitable for aristocrats or other well-off people who would pay a premium not to have too many sets of stairs to climb. Here, the ceilings would be higher and each front room would have a balcony. Further up were more floors of cheaper apartments, with a balcony spanning the width of the building on the fifth floor. The garret rooms, which would have dormer windows, were for servants’ quarters.
Surely even those who felt nostalgic for the parts of old Paris which disappeared under Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s modernization of the city had to admit that he created much that was beautiful, yet also very practical. Napoléon III showed his personal recognition of all that was being achieved when he awarded his master-planner the honorary title of “Baron” in 1857. Today, there are still multiple reasons to admire the way Haussmann fulfilled Napoléon III’s instruction to “embellir la ville,” to make the city beautiful.
Lead photo credit : Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891). Author unknown. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Wikimedia Commons