Paris, Haussmann and the difficulties of cultural conservatism

“Hausmann strove for everything, for everything in Paris to be “embellished… expanded… rehabilitated”. […] He expressed a wish that was for the above and below ground, for the beautiful and useful, and from overall picture down to the smallest detail.”

Here we have the paradox of the archetype of the architect and town planner: the overarching authoritarian who can bless a city with beauty, attention to detail and efficient provision of public transport, nearby facilities and access to parks, who is also the overarching authoritarian who can curse a city with ugliness, shoddy design and communities isolated by major roadways. Planners can bestow logically designed spaces for living but can also wipe out architecture and street layouts, erasing history with a strike of a pencil. It is the most tangible and common form of hubris. Urban planners created the glories of civilisation but also destroyed cultural heritage – on a scale second only to the ravages of war.

Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891) was Prefect of Seine Region from 1853 to 1870, appointed by Napoleon III to modernise the centre of Paris. In a campaign of demolition and building, that included the alteration of the street plans and infrastructure, Haussmann’s boulevardisation of certain arrondissements changed the face of Paris and is still today – in central Paris – the predominant aspect of the physical structure the capital. A map showing the buildings constructed between 1840 and 1910 reveals that the majority of central Paris consists of buildings erected during this period.

Paris faced serious problems. Narrow medieval street layouts entailed lack of light and airflow, as well as absence of roadside trees to reduce noise. The irregular and narrow streets constricted traffic and made laying of water and sewage pipes difficult. Crime, overcrowding and disease were endemic, partly attributable to the physical fabric of the old quarters.

The question arises as to what ends was Haussmann’s grandiose zeal directed towards. Was Haussmann someone who was set on improving the lot of the average Parisian and razing slums or was tyrannical utopian bent on making Paris more governable? Famously, new boulevards laid out in radial fashion allowed the military direct lines of access and fire on demonstrators, making Paris easier to control the army and forestall potential popular uprisings.

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Paris – Haussmann is a reprint of a 2017 Venice Biennale exhibition catalogue. It presents in visual form the work of Haussmann on the rebuilding of Paris. There are plentiful street plans, morphologies, typologies and other designs. Architectural plans of typical house façades show Haussmann’s preferred styles. Haussmann wanted a degree of architectural congruency without requiring uniformity. Congruency with variation allows a pleasing sense of familiarity to his quarters without ever becoming oppressively monotonous. There are designs of benches, kiosks, streetlamps, and street profiles. Included are modifications from later periods, showing façades in beaux-arts (1882) and Art-Nouveau (1902) styles. The 1902 Art Nouveau door design of 29 Avenue Rapp is hugely extravagant. Catalogue designs of optional ornamental railings, doors, friezes, door panels, louvres, balustrades and balconies allowed investors to select their preferred stylistic touches.

Haussmann used a classic grid format for streets, with radial hubs around circuses or plazas and diagonal thoroughfares. Below ground, water, sewage and gas mains were laid. Blocks were modal in structure, with standardised layouts, materials (especially local limestone) and building methods for efficient, speedy and cost-efficient construction. Plans included open spaces and parks. Wide straight streets allowed easy cut-and-cover construction of metro lines following roadways.

Most of the buildings were six-storeys high, faced in stucco, with a ground floor area for commercial use and a tall but irregularly shaped loft – often used by servants. Floors 1 and 2 were sometimes adapted as office space. Storey heights varied, with the ground floor being 4-5m, with other floors 3-3.6m. Most buildings were financed by the investment of a single owner, who would own the house and rent premises and residences. Floor plans are illustrated for whole blocks. The designs proved strong, attractive and durable. “Designed from the outset to host diverse usages and populations, the Haussmann investment property also demonstrated considerable aptitude in terms of changing its configurations and usages, a capacity for transformation and reversibility. It is through the building and its assembling logic within the block that Haussmann’s urban fabric reveals its extraordinary resilience in spatial, climatic, structural, and technical terms.”

Despite Hausmann’s plan, Paris remained the most densely populated city in Europe (excepting suburbs). Paris employment is 70% higher than Barcelona and two and half times higher than Berlin. In age when planners are concerned about sustainability, Haussmann’s Paris is a case study in effectiveness. Paris is 66% built over, compared to Brasilia’s 16% rate of land use. Other data included measure efficiency, connectivity and walkability of Paris compared to other cities. Analyses of volumetric compactness, thermal inertia, distribution of openings and other metrics will be use to architects.

Franck Boutté and Umberto Napolitano write “The reality before our eyes today tells us that the problem lies not with the quality of each individual architecture, rather in the lack of a vision of the whole. […] What is in doubt today is not our aptitude for building and dealing with all sorts of quantitative restrictions, rather our ability to “make the city” and to “make any sense”.” This seems a central contradiction in the grand plans of architects today. It is a lament that they cannot use vast sums and compulsory purchase orders of existing buildings to enact huge schemes that will reshape cities in their image. Yet it also at odds with the prevailing view of conserving resources by maintaining and upgrading existing buildings, driven by environmentalist beliefs. The unbridled utopianism (and, dare one say, egotism) conflicts with the fetters of Malthusianism and environmental alarmism, whilst considerations of preservation and cultural heritage do not impinge.

A difficulty a traditionalist faces is answering the question “Would you rather live in a Haussmann apartment or one of the old buildings he destroyed?” While a medieval building might have more history, character and a genuine uniqueness as an authentic vernacular dwelling, how would one live with the inadequate light, gimcrack plumbing and the expense of repairing an ageing building? People do choose such old buildings but for the busy, uninformed and not-especially-well-off resident such buildings present a source of constant uncertainty and distraction. We are right to mourn the loss of pre-Modern Paris but must also admit the utility and necessity of reform – albeit not perhaps on such a large scale and not of such an imposing nature.

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There is an inherent contradiction in the traditionalist’s position. The architecture, layouts and views he wishes to conserve were once new, replacing buildings that stood there before. The Hausmann buildings, which were new and modern when they replaced medieval streets, are now celebrated as iconic and intrinsic to the character of Paris. Where does a cultural conservative draw the line? Is it at what he considers to be comfortably old, sufficiently classic or simply that to which he is used? The axiom that “Conservatism is simply progressivism driving at the speed limit” seems apply here. Surely the traditionalist – a cultural conservative with fixed reference points – is merely accepting and celebrating Modernism once that example of Modernism has acquired a dignifying patina of age.

Traditionalists and cultural conservatives sometimes use arguments about objective standards. One could argue that Hausmann’s buildings were intrinsically beautiful because they derived from Neo-classical precedents. Further, Hausmann’s architecture combined attractiveness with functionality, proving more practical, robust and healthier than the buildings they replaced. To which, the architect of today might respond by stating that radically contemporary designs can be much more resource efficient and ergonomically functional and thus objectively better than what they replace; additionally, new aesthetics follow form and require one to respond honestly and considerately to their qualities. The architect of today insists that these new buildings are design classics of the future and that fabricating historical pastiches – for pastiches these buildings would be rather than authentic recreations, as no traditionalist would return to a pre-electric and pre-indoor plumbing era – does a disservice to the architect’s integrity and discredits the spirit of our age.

Overall, this catalogue will be valuable to architects, town planners, historians and researchers studying Paris. Essays written by specialists cover the background and extent of Haussmann’s Paris project. The illustration in plans, graphics and photographs is extensive. The text is parallel original French and English translation.

Benoît Jallon et al (ed.), Paris – Haussmann, 2020, Park Books, hardback, 264pp, 143 col./345 mono illus., English/French text, 59CHF/€48, ISBN 978 3 03860 219 4  


(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

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