The intense uniformity of Paris's central architecture
Over 20,000 buildings got destroyed in the remaking of central Paris.
OverviewWhen looking up from Rue de Castiglione toward Place Vendôme, it might seem as though every building has been duplicated to form an endless row of identical facades. The broad boulevards that define Paris’s urban landscape today were built on the order of Emperor Napoleon III in an attempt to “air, unify and beautify” the country’s capital. Until the renovation project assigned to Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann began in 1853, Paris had been a chaotic labyrinth of winding, narrow alleyways dating back to the Middle Ages. The population had more than doubled in the previous fifty years, growing from 500,000 inhabitants in 1801 to one million in 1846. Haussmann, a government official with no formal training in either architecture or urban planning, proposed a solution to issues of overcrowding, petty crime and unhygienic living conditions: a 137-kilometer network of wide, open avenues lined with imposing apartment buildings. Haussmann’s renovation of the city was radical and uncompromising. The uniformity and repetition still visible in the building’s facades contributed to the emperor’s aims – to create a center of power that would present itself as grand, modern and unified, while being easy to control and police.
MethodRepetition in Parisian architecture isn’t just a matter of aesthetics; it is also the result of a systematic approach to planning. Haussmann’s radical idea involved demolishing 19,730 historic buildings and erecting 34,000 new ones, following a strict pattern. The first step of the renovation process consisted of dividing the city with four new 18- to 24-meter-wide boulevards – ample enough for both carriage traffic and military troops. Boulevards Rivoli and Saint-Antoine ran east-west across the city, and boulevards Strasbourg and Sébastopol traveled on the north-south axis. The new road network, which included the 1.9 kilometer Champs-Élysées, was completed in 1855 to welcome international visitors to the Paris Universal Exposition. Then, Haussmann began methodically tackling the city’s segments by erecting apartment buildings, all equal in color, height, design and materials. A typical Haussmann apartment building would be between 12 and 20 meters high, with five or six floors. Interiors varied slightly. With some exceptions, a Haussmann building is recognizable by the high-ceilinged ground floor, designed for shops, an anonymous first floor for storage, a luxurious second floor featuring a long balcony, and two more floors of apartments under a penthouse at the top. All buildings would be perfectly aligned, with balconies sitting at the same height. The second stage of the project, running from 1859 to 1867, was dedicated to extending the boulevard network and constructing some of the most famous Parisian squares, now known as Place du Château-d’Eau, Place de l’Europe and Place Charles de Gaulle, surrounding the Arc de Triomphe, as well as 27 parks.
The renovation of Paris involved a third stage, starting in 1869. During that period, however, Haussmann’s work began to be heavily criticized, and Napoleon decided to fire the baron in 1870 to avoid political backlash. Haussmann was blamed for the project’s exorbitant cost: 2.5 billion francs, equivalent to EUR 75 billion – and for wiping out centuries of medieval heritage. One of the most notable critics of the project was author Charles Baudelaire. In “The Swan,” a nostalgia-filled poem sent to Victor Hugo in 1861, he lamented the disappearance of “makeshift booths and crowded tradesmen’s squares” that brought the city to life among mismatched brick buildings. Following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the director of Haussmann’s parks department, Jean-Charles Alphand, was appointed to complete the renovation. Alphand finished many of the projects that were left undone, including the Boulevard Saint-Germain (1877) and the Avenue de la République (1889). Despite early criticism, today, Haussmann’s renovation is generally considered a success. It improved public infrastructure and created the distinctive visual code that sets Paris apart from other European capitals.
As the capital transformed, artists reacted to the changing scenery. Impressionist painters such as Camille Pissarro and Gustave Caillebotte often employed the Parisian skyline to frame their subjects. Pissarro’s “The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning” and “Rue St. Honoré in the Afternoon. Effect of rain,” both completed in 1897, play with the atmosphere produced by the large boulevard, as mist and sunlight invade the busy city streets among the flat facades of the apartment buildings. Similarly, “Rue Halévy, Seen From the Sixth Floor” (1878) by Caillebotte shows what a 19th-century resident would have seen from an open window in the morning. The depth of perspective that the boulevards provided, the symmetrical composition and the long lines of windows are a common element in the work of late 19th century Parisian artists, reflecting the same experience of citizens immersed in a radically remodeled capital. For an even more realistic impression of the city’s architecture, one can look at the work of Parisian paper artist Camille Ortoli (IG: @camilleortoli), who has recently presented a collection of 3D miniature buildings created to look like Haussmann’s original designs.