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While other – smaller – European Cities were just about to start a phase of expansion beyond their mediaval boundaries in the middle of the 19th century Paris at that time was already a big city with 1,2 Mio. inhabitants and an urban area of around 65 km2.

However, the capital of France was cramped, overcrowded and dirty, ravaged by plagues such as cholera. Emperor Napoleon III, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, therefor commissioned the new prefect of Paris, Georges Eugène Haussmann, to turn unhealthy and  Paris, , into a modern, imperial capital. The model was London, where Napoleon III. had spent several years in exile.

The Rue des Marmousets, one of the narrow and dark medieval streets on the Île de la Cité, in the 1850s – Source: Wikipedia

The mission was to “ventilate, unify and beautify the city.” This marked the beginning of the „Grands travaux“ („great works“), the most massive renovation in the history of Paris, a work that still gives the metropolis its face today. Anyone who gets off the metro from the airport or one of the long-distance train stations and feels overwhelmed by the grandeur of this city – by its boulevards and avenues, squares, monuments and the harmony of its buildings – owes this feeling particularly to Haussmann.

Paris 1835 on todays roadmap, Source: David Rumsey Map Collection

„His name, more than any other, represents the urban identity of Paris.“ In the 17 years in which the city planner with German roots remodeled Paris, almost three quarters of the buildings were demolished, rebuilt or massively changed. 20,000 houses were cleared away and 40,000 were newly built. Countless streets and cul-de-sacs disappeared to make way for broad visual axes that were intended to channel traffic, open up neighborhoods and overwhelm visitors. Haussmann treated Paris like a creator god treated a body. Main arteries such as Boulevard Magenta and Boulevard Saint-Germain emerged under him; and nerve centers like the Place de la République or the Place de l’Étoile, now called Place Charles-de-Gaulle. Under Haussmann, 175 kilometers of roads, the arteries, and 600 kilometers of sewers, the veins, were built. Paris became airier, cleaner, healthier.

Plan d’ensemble des travaux de Paris. Publie par E. Andriveau-Goujon. editeur 1868 – Source: David Rumsey Map Collection – Click on map to enlarge

Map shows the progress of the major mid 19th century boulevard and road works of Paris, including Haussmann’s projects. The solid red lines show roads open and completed, the hatched red lines show roads modified and in progress, and the double red lines show projected future road work.

Plan d’ensemble des travaux de Paris – in red – as overlay with Paris map of 1835 on present day road network – click on map to enlarge

The combined map of Paris in 1835 with the grand travaux by Haussmann show the dimension of urban transformation.

Paris 1883 with most of Haussmann’s Boulevards implemented – overlay on todays road map, Source: David Rumsey Map Collection

The prefect had the water supply completely renovated, with two systems for drinking and industrial water, which still water Paris today. He supervised the construction of fountains, town halls, schools, train stations and – as the architectural imperial crown – the Garnier Opera. The Spiritus Rector of the whole company was the Emperor.

Below ground, Haussmann oversaw the installation of les egouts, the city’s complex sewage network. He also commissioned reservoirs and aquaducts to bring clean drinking water to the city.

Parisian drains by 1883 – black up to 1857, red 1858 – 1873, blue 1874 – 1883, Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Above all, the large apartment buildings – now known as typical Parisian Haussmann houses – on the new streets were planned down to the smallest detail. Until then, the noble „Hôtel particulier“ had been the measure of all things, a city palace to represent nobles and rich citizens, but now the need to accommodate many people well in a small space came to the fore; The furnishings varied between luxurious and simple depending on the neighborhood and residents.

Source: Süddeutsche Zeitung 16. Juni 2017

Republican opponents criticised the brutality of Haussmann’s work. They saw his avenues as imperialist tools to neuter fermenting civil unrest in working-class areas, allowing troops to be rapidly deployed to quell revolt. Haussmann was also accused of social engineering by destroying the economically mixed areas where rich and poor rubbed shoulders, instead creating distinct wealthy and “popular” arrondissements.

Barricade on Rue Soufflot during the 1848 Revolution. There were seven armed uprisings in Paris between 1830 and 1848, with barricades built in the narrow streets. Source: Wikipedia

Critics also accused him of destroying the city’s medieval treasures, citing the enduring charm of the narrow winding streets of the Marais: the city’s oldest district and one which escaped Haussmann’s razing.

There was additional outrage at the staggering 2.5bn franc bill for the work – around €75bn today. By 1869 the attacks had become deafening, and Haussmann was forced to vigorously defend himself before MPs and city officials. In the hope of salvaging his own flagging popularity, Napoléon III asked Hassmann to resign. He refused.

Victor Hugo, the man who wrote Les Miserables about how desperate conditions were in Paris, accused Haussmann of destroying the city’s medieval charm!”

Source: The Guardian 31.03.2016