La Serenissima

Monday, June 10, 2013

The architecture that saved Paris

Have you ever wondered why the Parisian built environment – itʼs architecture
and buildings – has such a consistent, integrated appearance? How come itʼs
elegant buildings fit together to create a harmonious and pleasing whole? Where
did the idea of arrondissments come from?

It wasnʼt always so. In fact, prior to the 1850ʼs the city had largely been
untouched since the Middle Ages. With industrial revolution in full swing, and
people moving into Paris from rural areas, drawn to the new opportunities for
work and life, Medieval Paris was overcrowded and disease was rampant.

Enter Napoleon III, with his keen interest in architecture and his desire to
modernise Paris and transform it into an organised urban centre. In fact it was
one of the largest urban renewal projects since the rebuilding of London after the
Great Fire in the 17th century. He chose Baron Georges–Eugene Haussmann to
head up the project and by the time it was completed his hand had touched every
part of Paris. Apparently Napoleon III was more interested in the new
technologies associated with architecture, engineering and building materials
whilst Haussmann focused more on the aesthetics. Put their ideas, artisans from
various fields and plenty of demolition and construction workers – and viola! – the
elegant landscape we all swoon over today.

I have a great interest in how the different architectures of many cities give
places their personality and appeal. My instinct is usually to take pictures of the
architecture before I start looking at what the people are doing. So, in thinking
about the Parisian landscape looks, I consulted various references. 

One stood out to me as particularly good, so I am including large chunks of it here. The text
was written by Emily Kirkman, “Haussmannʼs Paris – Architecture in the Era
of Napoleon III”
, 2007. The link to the article is:

I hope you enjoy reading and learning from it. The photos are by Julian Lippi and

Napoleon III and Haussmann

“During a time of industrial change and cultural advancement, Paris became the
new home for many, overcrowding the ancient districts and spreading disease.
The city, which had been untouched since the Middle Ages, was in dire need of
reflecting the new modern ways and putting an end to the spreading medical
epidemics. The tight confines of Medieval Paris were hindering the city’s potential
for growth and desire to transform into a well-organized urban center. Napoleon
III set about bringing order and structure to the chaotic, cramped city and putting
an end to its' identity crisis. Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, chosen by
Napoleon III to lead the project, created new roads, public parks, public
monuments, as well as installing new sewers and changing the architectural
façade of the city. With the aid of the public, Modernist Napoleon III set out to
undertake one of the largest urban transformations since the burning of London
in 1666.”

“Louis Napoleon III, who became emperor in 1852, had a great deal of interest in
developing Paris into a new modern city after the Industrial Revolution. Napoleon
had a keen interest in architecture and could often be found modifying the
blueprints of Paris to include the roads that he wanted to construct. This interest
in modifying the layout of the city would manifest itself into a project that would
encompass all aspects of urban planning, from streets to sewers, and completely
change the shape of Paris, as everyone knew it. As stated by Anthony Sutcilffe in
his book Paris: An Architectural History, the project “coincided with the first surge
of French industrialization, beginning in the 1840s and lasting until the Great
Depression of the 1870s.” 1”

“The Second French Empire, ruled by Napoleon III, had complete control over
the country, and he set out to begin construction on his plan that would bring
Paris into the modern era and establish its’ dominance as a western city. With
the induction of Baron Georges Haussmann as prefect of the Seine, Napoleon
had an ally in the government to carry out the modernization. While neither one
were trained in the arts, both men had ideas for how they wanted the city to look.
Napoleon had a greater interest in the techniques and new materials that were to
be used, while Haussmann paid more interest to the aesthetic quality of the
modernization project. Yet both men adhered to the classical style, creating a
metropolis of neoclassical wonder.2”

Road design for the new, modern Paris

“In 1853, Haussman had outlined and began construction on a series of basic
projects that had been planned since the decision had been made to modernize
the city. 

The projects included creating a north-south axis in the city, developing
the quarters around the Opéra, as well as “the annexation of the suburbs to
make them outer arrondissements, the sewer system, and the water supply.”3 In
the early 1860s it is to be known that upon the completion of the original projects,
new projects were put in to development, including annexing newer
arrondissements, and putting the city into debt.”

“Haussmann molded the city into a geometric grid, with new streets running east
and west, north and south, dividing Medieval Paris into new sections. His plan
brought symmetry to the city, something it was lacking beforehand. No Parisian
neighborhood was left untouched by Haussman’s hand. “The new streets were
also wider than most of their predecessors, for reasons of public health and
traffic engineering.”4 During a time when the city was filled to the brim with
people, disease was a large risk. The widening of the streets would relieve the
cramped city and allow for the people to get around more easily. It also allowed
for an increase in height of the buildings, providing more room for the people of
Paris to live and thrive in.

“Running alongside the new roads, which had been widened to accommodate
the rising number of people living within the city limits, were rows of chestnut
trees, which allowed Haussmann to maintain the geometric and symmetrical
aesthetic that he had created with the new roads. And where he struggled to
maintain his visual order, new public spaces and monuments were erected.5

“In David P. Jordan’s article “Haussmann and Haussmannisation: The Legacy for
Paris,” it is noted that Haussmann’s strict plan had its flaws. “Turn off any number
of his new streets and you will find the old Paris: the Avenue de l’Opéra or the
Boulevard Saint-Germain are good examples.”6 Despite his desire to create a
well organized and symmetrical city, his lack of skills as an urban planner got the
best of him and he was forced to work around existing streets in order to adhere
to his desire for symmetry in the city. The existing architecture in Paris proved to
be his greatest enemy when laying out the new roads. The respect for the
ancient monuments outweighed the need to unify the city completely and the
river Seine served as a natural barrier separating the two sides of Paris and the
roads that once had the ambition to link the riverbanks.7

“ His new roads have been admired since their unveiling. They not only served
as new roadways for general use, but also as streets leading to the center of
Paris from the train stations scattered throughout the city, as well as roads that
led to the monuments that were found throughout the city. He was also
responsible for isolating Notre-Dame from the city, emphasizing its’ importance to
the city.8”

The birth of Arrondissments

“The next step in Haussmann’s plan for the new Paris was to divide the city into
arrondissements, or districts. The decision to divide Paris into these new districts
came about in 1853, at the same time as the decision to modernize the city
completely. The plan “implied the destruction of the old, heterogeneous quarters
in the city center and the creation of large new quarters implicitly dividing the
population by economic status.”9 The original plan called for twelve districts, but
in 1860, Paris annexed surrounding communities and was divided into twenty
districts. The districts started inward, on the banks of the Seine, and spiraled

The new sewers and WCs

With the division of the city into arrondissements came the need for a new water
and sewer system. When construction on the new Paris began, “the city was still
served by a medieval network of sewers clustered around the city centre.”10
Aided by his chief engineer Eugene Belgrand, Haussmann developed and began
construction in 1857 on a larger sewer system that could handle the large
amounts of wastewaters coming from the growing city that would be funneled
into the Seine downstream from Paris.11”

Note – you can visit the Paris sewers today. Just google to find out about tours.
Suzanne D

“With the growing popularity of water closets, particularly in the richer Parisian
districts, came a need to funnel human waste into the sewer system as well. The
proposal to channel human feces into the sewers that would mix with the storm
water and flow into the Seine was an idea Haussmann objected to. To maintain
the order of the water and the urban space, Haussmann viewed it as necessary
to keep the clean water separate from the dirty water. “His objections to human
excrement entering the sewer system were not only related to the contamination
of the underground city; he feared that the dilution of human waste in water
would reduce its value as a fertilizer, and thereby disrupt the organic economy of
the city.”12

“By keeping the wastewater and contaminated water separate, the human waste
could be used as fertilizer for crops to help support the economy and allow for
agricultural employment opportunities for those moving to the big city. Also by
utilizing the new sewer system for human waste, the city would become cleaner
and more sterile, eliminating the smell of rotting waste and lowering the threat of
disease from living in cramped, contaminated quarters. Cleaning up the city also
led way to the cleaning of the people. Now that the people were living in cleaner
areas, they themselves also had to be clean, ushering in an idea of modern
narcissism. It would be uncivilized to live in such a clean environment when you
yourself are dirty and uncouth. The revamping of the sewer system was an
integral part of bringing the city of light out of the Dark Ages and into the Modern

The architecture

“Quite possibly one of the largest stages of the project, second only to the new
roads, was the architecture. To accompany the new streets and provide visual
unity to the entire city, Haussmann and his team of architects constructed a
unifying architectural façade that changed the shape of Paris. As well as coating
the city with a unifying style, they also constructed new public buildings, such as
L’Opéra, as well as many other buildings. During the 18th century and the time of
the Enlightenment, “architects were no longer content to see their buildings
glorify the state, the monarchy, or one specific stratum of society: they aspired to
create monuments that would celebrate human greatness, inculcate worthy
remembrance, teach moral values.”13 The buildings became expressive and
mimicked nature, ignoring the classical norms they once followed.”

“The Baroque and Rococo styles of architectural design were short lived, with
people once again wanting a return to the historical classical style that was so
prominent throughout Europe. By the end of the 18th siecle, neoclassicism was
becoming the dominant style in both painting and architecture.With the widening
of the Parisian streets, Haussmann and his crew were able to add an extra story
of height to the buildings that lined the roads. The additional height increased the
amount of living space within the city limits, easing up on the overcrowding, but
not changing the affordability of the housing.”

Apartment buildings

“The change in height can be seen best in the apartment buildings found
rampant throughout the city. They are noted by their simple decoration and
adherence to the classical style. An emphasis on the horizontal can be seen in
the façade, following the horizontal of the streets they sat next to, adding to the
symmetry and geometric unity that Haussmann wanted the new Paris to have.
By using a much more austere and “modern” style for the façade, the cost for the
buildings could be kept low and the buildings would appear timeless in a
changing city.15”

“The apartment buildings were typically five stories with the ground floor and the
in between floors having thick walls. The second story usually had a balcony with
elaborate stonework, while the third and fourth floors resembled the second floor
without the balcony. The fifth floor or top floor generally had an undecorated
balcony that traveled the length of the building. The facades were also
constructed out of large stone blocks, adding to the simplicity of the structure and
the lack of decoration made the building seem larger than it actually was.

Inspired by the Industrial Revolution, the new apartment buildings mimicked the
products produced by the factories. Each item was the same and could be built
quickly by those with only a small amount of knowledge of architecture or design.
Revolution, the new apartment buildings mimicked the products produced by the
factories. Each item was the same and could be built quickly by those with only a
small amount of knowledge of architecture or design.”

Useful references:

Here is a great site covering historical architecture, specific categories eg, monuments,
palaces etc,

“The most beautiful walk in the world”, John Baxter, Harper Perennial 2011

“Paris Tales”, stories translated by Helen Constantine, Oxford University Press,

“Quiet corners of Paris”, Jean-Christophe Napia, photography Christophe
Lefebure, The Little Bookroom, 2006

I took this photo on the end of Ile de la Cite, looking towards Musee d'Orsay; Suzanne D