Imagine, if you will, a Paris that is awash in putrid vapors, streams of urine trickling through its arteries, piles of excrement everywhere, sulfur and arsenic particles dancing in the air. Imagine, if you will, this Paris teeming with the sounds of cackling birds in the poultry market, the buzzing of small eddies of flies near the fishmongers’ stalls, and the din of incessant scraping spewing forth from the tanneries. It’s awfully exciting, isn’t it? Romantic even, if you consider a seedy, decaying, medieval Paris romantic. But had any of us lived there, in its massive putrefying maw, at any point up until the 18th century, or even up until the first half of the 19th, we would have been absolutely miserable. We would have spent most of our income on bread (literally, just bread) and we probably would have died from starvation or from some type of bacteria transmitted through perpetual exposure to fecal matter. But that was so long ago, no? And so beyond our comprehension and concern, right?
Here’s the thing: Something had to be done. The Paris that we all know and love today would be but a figment of our imagination (not that we would even be able to conceive of such grandeur) had Napoleon III (1808 — 1873) and Baron Haussmann (1809 —1891) — formidable looking prefect of Seine with chinstrap beard — not decided to dedicate themselves to one of the most extensive public works programs in history. Those newspaper kiosks we all find so charming, those grand boulevards we all consider so awe-inspiring, and those wrought-iron balconies some of us swoon over, would have never been realized. In short, so many of those emblems, whether architectural or sculptural, that make Paris, Paris, would be lost in the what-if annals of history. And that would have been a downright shame because then there would be nothing for (what writer Charles Baudelaire (1821 — 1867) called) the flâneur (lounger, stroller) to marvel at. No public gardens in which the flâneur could loaf. And no widened cobbled streets littered with cafe terraces chock-full of artists reveling in “absinthe hour” along which the flâneur could saunter. But at whose expense was this brought to fruition? And what was razed to make the march of progress possible?
Before Paris was recognized by the world, and by itself, as the world’s capital of art and culture, it was, to put it simply, a giant heap of god-forsaken rot. Though there were certainly stand-alone examples of high-quality urban composition, the lion’s share of the city was left to its own devices, and of those there were few, if any. It wasn’t until Napoleon I became emperor in 1804 and devoted himself to the beautification and betterment of Paris that it began to vaguely assume the shape of the Paris we know today. Embankments were erected on both sides of the river, bridges were built, streets were widened as well as created, and, perhaps most importantly, the canal project was resurrected in order to provide the people with a steady supply of potable water. But these were just the building blocks and it would take an extraordinary amount of will and exertion (not to mention funding) for it to become the most modern functional city in the world.
From 1833 to 1848, Claude-Philibert Barthelot de Rambuteau (1781— 1869) served as prefect of Seine and continued the seemingly endless task of transformation. In fact, it is Rambuteau whom we could thank for spearheading the public lighting system of gas lamps and the introduction of public gardens. But not everyone was so chuffed about the modernization of Paris. Essayists during this time were actually up in arms over the phenomena and instead called it the “displacement” of Paris. Author and architect Stephane Kirkland, in his book Paris Reborn, wrote that the Second Empire transformation of Paris was a “heavy-handed enterprise which achieved its ends at tremendous human and cultural cost and wiped from the map an old, much-loved Paris that we will never know.”
Of course, not all can be preserved in the name of advancement, but did so much have to be destroyed? When it comes to progress, is a palimpsest the most that we could hope for? While some were only concerned with salvaging certain charming traces of “old Paris”, others railed against the transformation entirely and wanted nothing short of a swift cease and desist. French writer and critic Jules Janin (1804 — 1874), for instance, wrote a steely monologue, in which he extolls the virtues (or lack thereof) of “old Paris”, that perfectly expresses the discontent of the guardians of the past. “Dark houses, passages without air, the sun nowhere, thieves in every street, hungry wolves at each city gate, anxiety everywhere...” he writes. “Long live the gothic, black, filthy, feverish city, the city of darkness, of disorder, of violence, of misery and of blood!”
Good god. What a time to be alive. Why, though, would anyone long for that Paris? Well, after 1847, when the City Council finally approved a 50 million franc investment program, which would include the construction of sewers, streets, and bridges, Baron Haussmann was given full reign to oversee Napoleon III’s plan to restore Paris. But Baron Haussmann, widely feted for those wrought iron balconies and long stretches of ashlar buildings, was a bit of a megalomaniac, a bit of an overzealous artist, and so he was willing to sacrifice anything for his vision. This sacrifice would come in the form of 12,000 buildings filled with working class Parisians, the historic heart of Paris, an artisan economy, and socially diverse neighborhoods. Sound familiar? “At a time when quality and sustainability of our urban environment seems to be rising rapidly among our priorities,” writes Kirkland, “Paris makes a timeless case study…with lessons both instructive and cautionary.”
So, it seems that Haussmann didn’t have much of a moral compass or a democratic pulse, but it was precisely those qualities which made him an absolute godsend as a “public servant.” Perhaps, though, it would be more apt to call him a ruthless social engineer. If anyone was going to make Paris in Napoleon III’s image, which was one of modernity in the Victorian London vein, it was going to be Haussmann. We could all agree that what Napoleon wanted for, and succeeded in bringing to, Paris (modern sewage system, grand gardens, quaint squares modeled after those in London) are some of the properties we love most about it. If we’ve learned anything this past year, have we not learned that each movement, malicious or not, inspires a counter movement? And that in the midst of great turmoil, great art is created?
“The social importance accorded to art,” writes Kirkland, “would play an essential role in shaping the buildings, avenues, and squares of the city itself.” As the exterior of Paris was endowed with more amenities, both aesthetic and utilitarian, people were beckoned to eat the new fruit it bore. And though the anarchists hated the grand boulevards and new commerce, the artists savored them for a multitude of reasons. Painter Gustave Caillebotte (1848 — 1894), for instance, was struck by the pandemic anomie spurred on by industrialization and the Second Empire transformation and did a tremendous job of capturing its essence in such works as Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877), Un Balcon (1880), and Le Pont de l’Europe (1876). That old adage of feeling alone in a crowd really couldn’t have been more faithfully represented. Whether swallowed up by steel girders or dwarfed by the city, the subjects of Caillebotte’s paintings are isolated from society at large and maybe, even, themselves.
Starkly contrasting that portrayal of Paris is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s, which focuses on the more jovial aspect that city-life affords such as al fresco dances as seen in Bal du moulin de la Galette (1875). Or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrayal, in which the rain-dappled dreariness is supplanted by a seedy, though alluring, underbelly as seen in At the Moulin Rouge (1892/95) The renditions of Paris, conjured by writers and painters alike in response to the modernization, seemed to be limitless. Everyone had something to say or paint or write and it was this reactive spirit, whether indignant or inspired, that gave those art and literary movements meaning.
Perhaps Haussmann did cut great swathes through the metropolis, but then where would James Joyce (1882 — 1941) and Marcel Proust (1871 — 1922) ask one another if they liked truffles? What would Camille Pissarro’s paintings of Paris look like without those grand boulevards? And would the Lost Generation ever materialize without those haunts and salons to loaf in? It is impossible to imagine what alternate histories Paris could have had, the people it could have and have not spawned, the art it could have and have not given rise to. But as it stands, in its current incarnation, it seems to be more testament to the great deal that has been gained as opposed to the impossibly long litany of all that was lost or all that could have been.