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