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  • Writer's pictureFlora

How Architect Haussmann renovated all Paris in the 19th Century?

In the mid-1800s, Paris was not the City of Lights we know today. Believe it or not, it was seen as dim, gross and crowded. Instead of inspiring romance and art, it was inspiring uprisings and despair.

Luckily, all of that changed. And one of the people most responsible for that change is the city planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann.

The impact he left on Paris cannot be understated. Working at the behest of Napoleon III, Haussman’s renovation of Paris gave it much of the charm and character it is famous for today.

Let me guide you on a stroll through Parisian history and how it got a major revitalization that made it the city we love.

Paris Before Haussmann

By the middle of the 19th century, Paris was becoming unliveable. Its population had been growing dramatically, and housing wasn’t being built to meet the demand.

Many Paris streets and buildings hadn’t changed since the Middle Ages, and the cramped conditions and crumbling infrastructure were taking a toll on the people. There was little sunlight, due to the narrow streets, and the population density led to massive cholera outbreaks. There was also rampant crime and poverty among the twisting lanes.

This was particularly bad on the Île de la Cité, a small island in the middle of the Seine, and the Quartier des Arcis.

Figure 1. Haussmannian transformation of Paris

It was in these wretched living conditions that revolts sprang from. In an 18 year span in the first half of the century, there were as many as seven armed revolutions — all of them spawning from these decrepit sectors and the people who suffered in them.

Emperor Napoleon began projects meant to one day entirely modernize Paris, but he was removed from power before getting very far. Other leaders also saw the problems and tried to fix them, but budgetary and political restrictions curtailed these efforts.

And so the city languished, one foot in the present and one foot in the distant past.

1 - Napoleon III Hires Haussmann

Born in Paris in 1809, Haussmann knew the city as well as anyone. He became involved in public administration as a very young man. And he was so deeply committed to his political beliefs that he fought as a rebel in the Revolution of 1830.

Haussmann proved incredibly capable as an administrator, a strength that would soon be noticed by a very important person.

With the election of Louis Napoléon (grandson of Napoleon) as president in late 1848, the leader began an ambitious building project in Paris: a wide road to connect the Louvre to the Hôtel de Ville and establish a large park. But the overseers of the project kept dragging their feet.

collage of Napoleon III in the Louvre
Figure 2. Napoleon III in the Louvre

When the constitution forbade Louis Napoléon to run again, he led a coup d'état and established himself as Emperor of France Napoleon III, the same title his grandfather held.

The new emperor wanted to speed up the renovation of Paris, and he picked Haussmann to do it.

The plan was simple but would be wide reaching:

● Introduce more air and open spaces, a sewerage system, clean streets, etc

● Unify the city through accessible wider avenues

● Same architecture for all buildings

All of these rules added visual beauty and charm to Paris.

2 - The Haussmann Style of Architecture

The first major success came in 1859, when Haussmann completed the grande croisée de Paris, an intersection in the middle of the city that is still in use today.

The four streets he brought together were widened, and many sites along their path were improved with public areas.

picture of haussmanian building in Paris
Figure 3. Haussmanian preserved buildings in Paris

This proved a major victory, and he continued this formula throughout the city. He included what have now become known as Haussmann apartment buildings — their large, uniform faces and gradual corners are now a trademark element of Parisian architecture. The owners of these buildings were allowed to customize the inside however they wanted, but Haussmann regulated their facades strictly.

What caracterized Haussmannian Building ?

The Haussmann buildings are all made using cream-colored stone, much of it Lutetian limestone — the size and scope of the stonework was only made possible by the industrial innovations going on at the time. The cornices and balconies are now famous, immediately letting you know that you are in Paris.

Figure 4. Haussmanian building floors

According to Nicolas Chaudun : " The so-called “Haussmannian” Parisian building obeys a very strict template.

Like the streets, it is straight lined.

It generally has long balconies on the second and fifth floors, but variations, as here, are possible. By decree of 1859, the maximum height of buildings is set at 17.55 meters, except in streets over 20 meters wide, where it can reach 20 meters.

Each block having to constitute a single architectural unit, the promoters are not free to decide on the height of the floors and the balconies, which must all be aligned from one building to another.

On the street side, the principle is to have rooms in a row along the facade, while the layout at the back, on the common courtyard, is freer.

The angle between the attic and the facade is very precisely regulated: it cannot exceed 45°.

Under the zinc blanket, we freeze in winter, we suffocate in summer: these are the maids' rooms.

The second floor is truly the "piano nobile" : The interior must reflect the ease of the Parisian bourgeois: gilded mirrors and marble fireplaces.

The first floor is a mezzanine, an intermediate floor, where store clerks live, but where chic establishments can also set up their dining room.

The ground floor hosts shops or cafes.

The vestibule, with poly-chrome cement tile floors and a carpeted staircase, marks the distinguished character of the place"

Haussmann's new projects swept through dangerous parts of the city, replacing them with broad streets that were sunny and all designed to work together both practically and aesthetically.

In one bold move, he brought together 12 avenues around the Arc de Triomphe, creating a famous (and infamous) feature of the city. He also built large parks and government buildings around Notre Dame.

Arc de Triomphe Surrounded by Haussmanian Buildings
Arc de Triomphe Surrounded by Haussmanian Buildings

The buildings he commissioned both relished Neoclassical influences and also brought the latest in architectural style. Still other works were maximalist celebrations of extravagance.

Opera Garnier in Paris (credits to Laila Gebhard)

By radically changing the city, he attracted both fame and criticism. While many of his changes were seen as positive, they often required destroying people’s homes and were also massively expensive — making it harder for the state to do something about the poor who were now homeless. And though the housing stock was greatly improved under Haussmann, they were really only accessible to the well off.

3 - Haussmann Expands His Work

In 1860, Napoleon III made the suburbs of Paris part of the city. This one move doubled the geographical size of the city and brought 400,000 new people with it.

Haussmann was thrilled, as it was up to him to integrate all these new lands into the city system. It also indirectly improved air quality. These suburbs held many factories, built there to avoid Paris taxes. Now that they would have to pay them, many chose to move away from the city altogether.

Haussmann created many large boulevards to unify the suburbs with the city center, but his later improvement phases went far beyond roads.

Throughout all his renovations, he introduced 2000 hectares of public parkland, making the city much more livable and, just as importantly, enjoyable. And he led major waterwork initiatives that increased the Parisians with running water by 25% as well as introducing better sewers, reducing disease.

Those underground projects also allowed gas lines to be installed underneath the entire city. It is that access to gas lighting that soon gave Paris its nickname “The City of Lights.”

A few of the major architectural works commissioned by Haussmann include such Paris icons as:

● Building the Opéra Garnier

● Rebuilding Les Halles

● Introducing hexagonal street advertising columns

● Renovating of the Hotel-Dieu de Paris

This is only a small portion of the full list, but it illustrates just how big of a fingerprint he left on the look and feel of Paris.

4 - The End of Haussman’s Renovation

Eventually, Napoleon III was forced to give parliament more powers, due to popular demand. He also made big changes to his cabinet to appease rivals. These new voices in power saw Haussmann’s work as excessively expensive and no longer necessary.

Inside a Haussmanian appartment - The Floor Planers - 17th century

On top of all that, it had been almost two decades of non-stop construction throughout the city. At a certain point, people were tired of the constant disruption to routine and the clamor of work crews.

In 1869, Haussmann critic Emile Ollivier was chosen as Prime Minister, and within a month Haussmann was asked to resign. He refused but was forced out anyway. Within the year, Germany had captured Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War, and his empire fell.

Haussmann was enraged at his ousting as he still had many plans for the city. His later memoirs reflected on the audacity of his projects and the ill will they ended up generating among the population.

But history proved friendly to Haussmann. The Third Republic, established after the downfall of Napoleon III, took up the projects he didn’t have time to begin. Though the pace slowed, they were eventually completed in 1927.

5- The Legacy of the Haussmann Renovation

Many of the improvements made to Paris under Haussmann were part of the necessary march of time. The water, sewer, and gas infrastructure dramatically modernized the city, and the more rational road system greatly benefited living conditions.

The style Haussmann preferred became so prevalent through the city that we can no longer separate it from the idea of Paris itself. But there were also major social costs to his projects, and this can’t be hand-waived away.

When you visit Paris today, you can still feel the impact of Haussmann. From the apartment buildings to the streets, from the parks to the monumental buildings, his projects are everywhere.

Author : Flora

If you’d like to see this history come alive, book an architecture tour with us Flora & Louise.

You can hear the stories behind the sites while being there in person. And the city’s art and architecture are a cornerstone of my services.

Come with Flora & Louise and relive the Haussmann Renovation of Paris, along with many other fascinating chapters of history.


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