June 02: the most glorious vandal

2012/06/02 § Leave a comment

During this month June in 1853 Georges-Eugène Haussman was inaugurated as prefect for design of Paris.

Haussman (1809-91) seems an unlikely hero of nineteenth-century urban planning, having studied law and music rather than architecture or engineering.  But he was well enough prepared, and connected, to become a civil servant under Napoleon III (r. 1852-70) and then appointed to lead the charge to expand, embellish and cleanse Paris (Paris agrandie, Paris embellie, Paris assainie).  Before Haussman, Paris was a sprawling medieval city: rickety, dirty, with narrow winding streets–hardly the image of the ville moderne and spectaculaire that Napoleon III was sure his capital was destined to become.

Haussman invented modern Paris by blasting broad boulevards through the knotted neighborhoods, linking major monuments and building up hundreds of sharp townhouses, cafes, shops and entertainment centers.  All you need to know about his new Paris is that, in this country where cathedrals, crowded by market stalls, had always marked the center of towns, now the most prominent architectural project was a gigantic new opera house surrounded by department stores.

Haussmann left his fingerprints all over Paris; most of your picture-postcard-perfect Paris trip was created by him.  He set the stage for future burnishing of the city’s image with the hosting of great world’s fairs, construction of train stations and the metro, inspiring artists like Gustave Caillebotte, Edgar Degas and Claude Monet like few other groups of artist have ever been inspired by a new city.  Although the loss of so much medieval Paris (that had survived six or more centuries) is regrettable, at least Haussman got to it first, and did things like this, rather than letting later hooligans get their mitts on it, who wanted to do things like this.

Image: Paris, near l’Opera, ca. 1870 (from this site)

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