Haussmann’s Paris was an enormous building site

The centre of Paris is world-famous for the uniformity and the elegance of its buildings.

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Today, however, we are unaware of the extraordinary story behind the Paris we know today: for nearly 20 years the city became a building site as the old was demolished to make way for the new.

Between 1853 and 1870, some 24,000 houses were razed, as more than half the city was transformed under the direction of Georges Eugène Haussmann, with whose name Paris is now synonymous.

He was not an architect but an administrator who knew how to get things done. He was appointed as préfet for the Seine by Emperor Napoleon III, who had a vision for a new Paris, based on the wide open spaces, avenues and parks he had seen on his travels to London and New York.

Napoleon III had already sacked one préfet, Jean-Jacques Berger, because he felt he was not bold enough. Instead he nominated Haussmann, who had already proved himself efficient in Bordeaux.

In the first half of the 19th century, Paris was full of narrow, dark, unhealthy streets and there were no direct routes for moving from one side of the city to another. An 1832 cholera epidemic was made worse by the unsanitary conditions of the buildings.

Paris had not really evolved since the Middle Ages. Napoleon III lived in London from 1846-1848 and was impressed by the way it had been rebuilt after the fire of 1666. He wanted his city to be cleaned up and the slogan for change was “Paris embellie, Paris agrandie, Paris assainie” - a more beautiful Paris, a bigger Paris, a healthier Paris. The project touched all aspects of city life: private housing, public buildings, parks, roads, water and sewer systems. It was an early new town and Haussmann was one of the first modern urban developers.

In 2017, the Pavillon de l’Arsenal staged an exhibition in Paris about the effect Haussmann had on the city.

Benoît Jallon, Umberto Napolitano and Franck Boutté, the architects involved in the exhibition, wrote in their introduction that it would be difficult to find any civil servant who invested as much in popular culture as Haussmann. “In 17 years, he oversaw the works to construct 600km of drains and 175km of roads, build mairies and schools, create squares, parks and woods, stimulate private investment, rebuild the centre and design the outskirts. It is a town where the infrastructures and the superstructures work with a remarkable efficiency.”

There were strict rules to make sure the new buildings looked alike but, though Haussmann’s buildings resemble each other, they have a flexibility in the way they can be used. The ground floors and basements can be adapted for offices, shops, hotels or living accommodation, while the upper floors can easily be transformed from living space to offices. This is why, they said, the buildings have endured.

Nearly the whole of 19th century Paris is made from the same stone – a limestone from the Saint-Maximin quarries in the Oise, about 50 kilometres north of the capital, which could be reached by the railway created between Paris and Creil. The quarries still provide stone to restore the original Haussmann buildings.

Haussmann architecture is recognised by its use of industrially-produced ironwork, which made mass identical quantities available for the first time. They were used for public buildings such as hospitals, churches, town halls, lycées and prisons - so their ironwork, from door handles to railings, is often identical, adding to the uniformity of the architecture in Paris.

To finance the project, Haussmann attracted investors for individual buildings or large-scale areas, who would earn back their money by renting out the properties. It was not a new system of public-private finance, but it did develop quickly in Paris at the time. This led to an increase in rents - and the social make-up of Paris was changed forever. Up to then there had been a social mix in the city, but now poorer people were driven away from the centre. It became a town for the rich and for pleasure, with its cafés, theatres and walks along the boulevards.

The centre was also enlarged. Paris annexed Montmartre and Belleville, and created eight new arrondissements. The surface area and population of the capital doubled under the reign of Napoleon III.

Criticism of the scheme came to a head in 1867, when politician Jules Ferry ridiculed the cost of the project in Les Comptes Fantastiques d’Haussmann.

In 1870, as opposition to Haussmann grew, Napoleon asked his administrator to resign. He refused and was dismissed. Years later, in his memoirs, Haussmann said: “In the eyes of the Parisians, who like routine in things but are changeable when it comes to people, I committed two great wrongs: over the course of 17 years, I disturbed their daily habits by turning Paris upside down, and they had to look at the same face of the Prefect in the Hotel de Ville. These were unforgivable complaints.”

Typical Haussmann features

Height restrictions meant that buildings would not usually exceed six floors.

The ground floor is typically high so that it can accommodate shops, with a first or mezzanine floor which could be used for storage or housing. The second floor is “noble”, with a balcony running the length of the building. It has been suggested that this meant richer people avoided climbing many stairs. The third and fourth floors are in the same style – with or without balconies, but the fifth typically has a balcony which runs the length of the building and matches the first floor for aesthetic purposes. The top floor has attic rooms, for lower-income tenants and servants.

The façades are above all characterised by uninterrupted horizontal lines. Uniformity and harmony are the overriding feature.