City of Light: The Rein­ven­tion of Paris by Ru­pert Chris­tiansen Belinda Jack


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City of Light: The Rein­ven­tion of Paris By Ru­pert Chris­tiansen Head of Zeus £18.99 Oldie price £12.38 inc p&p

The French have a verb, Hauss­man­niser, which means to break open, to aer­ate, to brighten, to un­block.

It refers to the trans­for­ma­tion of Paris un­der­taken by Ge­orges-eu­gène Hauss­mann, a ca­reer civil ser­vant and pre­fect of the depart­ment of the Seine. He worked di­rectly for Louis Napoleon, for whom the ques­tion of Paris was cen­tral to all his think­ing. He knew that the suc­cess of his regime would be mea­sured by the way he man­aged and trans­formed the city into a mod­ern cap­i­tal. He also be­lieved that events such as the revo­lu­tion of 1789 and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary up­ris­ings of 1830 and 1848 could not be pre­vented by con­ven­tional polic­ing.

‘I would rather a hos­tile army of 200,000,’ he claimed, ‘than the threat of in­sur­rec­tion based on unem­ploy­ment.’

The ‘rein­ven­tion of Paris’ – as Chris­tiansen’s ti­tle rightly has it – was key. City of Light tells of the 15-year project un­der­taken by Hauss­mann which did away with the dis­ease-rid­den me­dieval squalor of Paris’s nar­row streets and al­ley­ways to cre­ate the wide boule­vards, im­pos­ing town houses pro­vid­ing pri­vate ac­com­mo­da­tion in spa­cious flats, mag­nif­i­cent venues for pub­lic en­ter­tain­ment, parks, grand squares and pub­lic mon­u­ments that char­ac­terise the city to­day.

Hauss­mann came from a mid­dle­class, Protes­tant back­ground. He was hand­some, well-ed­u­cated and aca­dem­i­cally able. His artis­tic strength was mu­si­cal – he was an ac­com­plished cel­list. He also loved opera. But he was a prag­ma­tist and came to Paris from his home in Al­sace to study law at the Sor­bonne be­fore en­ter­ing the civil ser­vice. He was posted to Bordeaux and it was here that he came to Napoleon’s no­tice when the lat­ter made an of­fi­cial visit to the city in 1852. Hauss­mann was re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing the visit and it passed off with éclat.

The min­is­ter of the in­te­rior, Vic­tor, Duc de Per­signy, then in­ter­viewed Hauss­mann to es­tab­lish his com­mit­ment to the im­pe­rial vi­sion. In his notes, he refers to ‘cyn­i­cal bru­tal­ity’ and rel­ished the idea of ‘throw­ing this tall, tiger­ish an­i­mal among the pack of foxes and wolves com­bin­ing to thwart the gen­er­ous as­pi­ra­tions of the em­pire’.

Per­signy’s char­ac­ter as­sess­ment was shrewd. When Hauss­mann started work, his man­age­rial style quickly be­came clear: he hired and reg­u­larly fired. His right-hand man was the ar­chi­tect and sur­veyor Eu­gène De­schamps who was equally sin­gle-minded in his ap­proach to the task in hand. His first project was to draw up a com­pre­hen­sive map of Paris – on a scale of 1:5,000. This re­sulted, three years later, in a doc­u­ment that mea­sured 15 square me­tres and hung be­hind Hauss­mann’s desk. He re­ferred to it as his ‘al­tar’.

The next ex­tra­or­di­nary task was to level Paris, in prepa­ra­tion for the straight lines and long vis­tas that would char­ac­terise the new ur­ban plan. The pho­tographs in­cluded in Chris­tiansen’s beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated book, of the lev­el­ling, de­mo­li­tion work and ex­ca­va­tions, make all this vivid, as does his lively telling of the story.

The ex­tent to which Hauss­mann’s plan re­lates to is­sues of se­cu­rity is de­bat­able. Chris­tiansen ac­knowl­edges that broad streets can­not be bar­ri­caded with the ease with which the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies block­aded their pre­de­ces­sors in 1830 and 1848 but claims that this was never a pri­mary mo­ti­va­tion for the ex­pan­sive av­enues. Rather, he states that Hauss­mann had ‘an al­most patho­log­i­cal ha­tred of block­age’. Chris­tiansen even men­tions Hauss­mann’s asthma as a fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion for his de­sire to aer­ate the city. Hauss­mann wanted ev­ery­thing to flow freely: the work­force, ve­hi­cles, the elab­o­rate wa­ter and sew­er­age sys­tems.

For some, Hauss­man­niser also meant some­thing close to so­cial geno­cide. On the Île de la Cité, for ex­am­ple, the clear­ance was bru­tal, dev­as­tat­ing en­tire com­mu­ni­ties but al­low­ing a full view of the façade of Notre-dame for the first time: Hauss­man­niser was also déshu­man­iser.

And it meant bor­row­ing on a scale that has seen prop­erty in­vestors and spec­u­la­tors come un­stuck in ev­ery mod­ern city. The jour­nal­ist and politi­cian Jules Ferry ac­cused him of hav­ing spent the in­her­i­tance of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Hauss­mann fell. And so did Louis Napoleon.

Chris­tiansen’s ac­count is read­able and en­gag­ing. He doesn’t judge his sub­ject. But he rightly em­pha­sises that the rein­ven­tion of Paris, very much along Hauss­mann’s lines, con­tin­ued un­abated long af­ter his fall. Hauss­mann’s in­sis­tence that in­de­pen­dent wa­ter sys­tems, for drink­ing and other­wise, be in­stalled was unique among mod­ern cities. So the pe­cu­liarly French ob­ses­sion with eau potable and eau non potable is also a legacy of the asth­matic Al­sa­tian civil ser­vant.

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