Why Does Paris Look the Way it Does?

The Tyranny of the Straight Line: Mapping Modern Paris is a cross-disciplinary investigation of nineteenth-century Parisian cartography and its role in shaping a modern conception of space. Here, author Min Kyung Lee answers some of the internet’s questions about the history of urban planning in the city of lights.

Did Napoleon III rebuild Paris?

Min Kyung Lee: Yes and no. Napoleon III and his government under the Second Empire had consequential impacts on Paris, but in many ways, the building that occurred between 1851 and 1870 was a continuation of building programs that well preceded his reign, and that were realized long after he was deposed during the Franco-Prussian War.

An important issue embedded in this question concerns accountability and how much power an individual has in shaping a city. Some historians have placed responsibility on Napoleon III having formed committees and most notably having hired Georges Eugène Haussmann to head a newly organized administration mandated to modernize the city. Other historians have given Haussmann credit for the successes and failures of those building efforts. In political terms, it is certainly essential to find those culpable of the violent upheavals and spatial displacements that were part of this period’s building program. However, this period was also incredibly significant for the institutionalization of building practices that would form the foundation of a new field of urban planning. That institutionalization had as its core, certain values of objectivity that sublimated accountability through new kinds of instruments and objects that were used by the men charged with directing the building projects. These tools included maps and plans, which became understood as scientific and unbiased, such that the decisions about construction and destruction drawn on them would be understood as outside of politics. So, if Napoleon III draws on a map his plans for improving the city and gives it to his lieutenant, Haussmann to realize, who gets credit? Perhaps Napoleon III, Haussmann, and the many engineers, administrators and architects employed by them. Perhaps the industrialists and financiers who were essential in creating an economic system that could sustain and fund the building efforts, or the artists and writers who both supported and critiqued the works. However, I might argue, there is the practice of planning itself that must be accounted for, and this includes the map and culture out of which that tool was made essential for Paris’ transformation.

Why was the Haussmannization of Paris controversial?

MKL: The term “Haussmannization” was coined long after the prefect George Eugène Haussmann left office and the devasting fall of the Second Empire. While Haussmann’s urban projects were heavily criticized during his tenure, these sentiments were replaced by positive connotations of efficiency and effectiveness by the 20th century when cities from Rio de Janeiro to Cairo all claimed their allegiance to the Paris model. This was partly due to the efforts of Haussmann’s successor, Adolphe Alphand who recuperated the damaged image of the Second Empire’s urban projects and claimed them under the Third Republic as part of a republican narrative.

Haussmann is often credited with developing a specific method of urban development that favored large-scale demolition, whose consequences of displacement sustained by authoritarian processes became associated with urban modernization. What emerged from the systematic planning of urban interventions were new spaces for an aspirational bourgeois society against the backdrop of economic inequality and human suffering, and as Charles Baudelaire articulated, an overarching sense of ephemerality and contingency against the physical materiality of a new city.

During the prefect’s tenure, more than 350,000 were displaced from the city center. Moreover, in 1859, the municipality of Paris officially annexed its surrounding suburbs. Not only increasing the area of the city and its population, but also establishing new administrative units that broke the identities of historic neighborhoods and often working class strongholds. What came to be the twenty arrondissements outlined a form of spatial organization that was centered around a newly conceived modern space: the street. It became a volume that could be occupied and inhabited by sitting on one of the new benches designed by Gabriel Davioud, under one of the thousands of trees planted by Alphand. It could be strolled upon in the direction of the new Opera designed by Charles Garnier where street windows of department stores filled with colorful consumer goods seduced women into their interiors. It could be observed from the balconies that now lined the new apartment buildings that created a straight and continuous scenographic facade. The street with its infrastructural advances of sewage and lighting symbolized both the pleasures and anxieties of a new urban culture.

These dichotomies make Haussmannization — as shorthand for modernization— controversial. What was the cost that society was willing to pay for modernization? How did these urban changes condition the modern experience?

Why are Paris streets so wide?

MKL: Widths of Paris streets were first regulated in 1783 and their measures related directly to the height of the buildings. This ratio was adjusted to meet the infrastructural demands, aesthetic and political values, and social and symbolic needs of the city as it developed. Such that a street’s width is tied directly to the ways in which these spaces represent urban functions and conditions urban experience.

Attitudes of the values and consequent forms of streets have been traced by the historian Michaël Darin through his study of the concepts “boulevard” and “avenue” during the nineteenth century. “Boulevard” originates as a military term denoting a wall, for instance, bulwark, and when those walls were brought down by Louis XIV, their spaces were transformed into tree-lined promenades of 18 toises (or 36 m) and later came to be referred to collectively as the Grands boulevards. By the Second Empire, “boulevard” was no longer only tied to these park-like spaces, but also to major streets cut into the old urban fabric. One of the most significant is the Boulevard Haussmann, opened in 1857, on which department stores, the new monuments of nineteenth-century urban culture were placed and that served as the main spine of a new wealthy district of Paris.

The other major term during this period used for these new important streets was “avenue,” and was most famously employed to name the street leading to the new Paris Opera building. The origins of “avenue” come from venir, meaning to come or to arrive. Thus, the term proliferated around important monuments, particularly royal palaces, demarcating a form of thruway that was anchored by a special structure, i.e. Avenue des Tuileries and Avenue de Vincennes. During the nineteenth century, the use of the descriptor proliferated around other landmarks, including in 1855, the Avenue de l’Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). At 30 meters wide, this was the first time a street within the center of Paris was called an avenue, and would then mark the beginning of the term’s growing use.

These street spaces required many new services including areas of circulation for vehicles, animals and pedestrians, areas of gathering including café seating, vendors and storefronts, as well as new street furniture. Cumulatively, these streets denote a complex infrastructural system below and above the pavement, all of which were anchored by and also framed a monument at its end.

When did city planning become a thing?

MKL: Many terms relate to the practice of “city planning,” including “town planning,” “urban planning” and “urbanism.” All of these terms have different origins but generally assume systematic interventions in and of the built environment that involve the creation or the reorganization of a city. Each culture and government will define a city in their own manner, but overall, a city refers to a dense population relative to its surrounding areas that aggregates structures, resources, and materials.

Creating cities is synonymous with the beginning of human civilization, and there are archaeological records from Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, as well as in Africa and the Americas of complex agglomerations. However, the term as it is used today relates to the formation of a profession and its sustaining institutions during the early 20th century. In the British context, the term was tied to a 1906 “Town-Planning Act” as well as the 1910 Town Planning Conference in London. “City planning” is closely linked to the 1909 National Conference on City Planning in Washington DC that brought together architects, engineers, and other associated professions. Around the same time, Eugène Hénard used the term “urbanism” in his 1904 text Études sur les transformation de Paris and helped to found the Société française des urbanistes in 1911. Thus, the invention of term “city planning” and its variants coincided with its professionalization and establishment of both cultural and legal norms. However, its practices of the large-scale and systematic urban works were conceived earlier within the context of industrialization and post-Enlightenment cultural and intellectual values. In France, physical interventions to urban space during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were called, for example, aménagement or embellissment, whose terminology allude to aesthetic and social principles beyond what had been commonly understood as justified actions based on hygienic or military reasons.

At the center of its modern conception was the plan itself. City planning relies on the basic idea that a city is to be understood as a unified object that can be systematically organized through the tool of a plan: a visual—often diagrammatic—representation of the urban built environment.

Min Kyung Lee is associate professor of the Growth and Structure of Cities at Bryn Mawr College.

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