Wednesday, January 07, 2015

reinventing Paris

review of:

Paris reborn
Stephane Kirkland
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2013

The city landscape of Paris is instantly recognisable in many photos that don’t contain any landmarks or specific clues. You see the slate-covered mansard roofs, the well-aligned balconies, the wide boulevards, the trees, the street furniture, and you just know it must be Paris.

One important reason why it is so recognisable is that much of it was built within two decades (1852-1870) and to strict design standards keeping the extravagance of architects and developers in check. More than 100,000 houses were built in this time, and half a dozen entirely new transects cut in straight lines across the city. The name most widely associated with this remarkable act of urban development is that of the prefect of the Seine département, Georges-Eugène Haussmann. We like to talk about Haussmannian boulevards, and there is even a boulevard named after him.

Kirkland argues that, while Haussmann was the right person in the right place at the right time to ruthlessly implement the vision of what we now appreciate as the Parisian city landscape, it wasn’t his vision at all. President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who then became emperor Napoléon III by a coup d’état followed by a plebiscite, had drawn the colourful lines on his master plan when Haussmann was still a provincial bureaucrat in Bordeaux, and even before him there had been similar ideas and concepts floating around. It was no secret that Paris at the beginning of the 19th century was in urgent need of renovation. It was the combination of the emperor’s vision and the prefect’s efficiency at getting things done that made this project a reality.

In his very readable account of the origins of one of today’s leading tourist magnets, Kirkland aims to distribute the blame and credit fairly, spelling out the specific contributions of Napoléon III and Haussmann, as well as those of the architects and financiers involved. He also acknowledges the dark sides of the “grands travaux”, from the wholesale destruction of medieval Paris (apart from Notre Dame cathedral, which was lovingly restored) through to the questionable finance deals and the banishment of the working class to the suburbs.

It was partly due the republican critics of these faults that Haussmann, the rather boring bureaucrat, came out of this story with the biggest slice of posthumous fame. Under the empire, the critics couldn’t attack the emperor directly, so they pinned all the blame on Haussmann. He didn’t mind too much, and he added to his immortal fame by publishing three volumes of memoirs when he was underemployed under the third republic. The republic, for all its criticism of the empire, essentially carried on with the project of modernising Paris in the same style, culminating in the world exhibition of 1900, which gave the city the metro and the Eiffel tower.

Cover of the hardback edition. I hear it is now out in paperback.

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