Paris was a hectic and vibrant city, but it did not resemble the capital of a country that fancied itself the most refined and sophisticated in the world. The jewel in the crown of the Kingdom of France was a much smaller town, one that lay some ten miles to the southwest. Its name, unknown a century before, was now legendary: Versailles.
“We need public markets,” Voltaire wrote, “fountains that actually give water, regular intersections, performance halls; we need to widen the narrow and filthy streets, uncover monuments that we can not see, and build new ones to be seen.”
Voltaire thought it wise to leave for Berlin, where he had an offer to enter the service of Frederick II, king of Prussia. As Louis XV approved the exit visa, he commented, “That will make one madman less in the Kingdom.”
One contemporary remarked that the riches of Paris were all in the interiors. The city was prosperous, houses were going up all around, but none of the wealth went into the public space.
the Orléans line, and the West line—built its own station. Thus was born the layout we know today, with six stations arranged in a circle around what was at the time the fringe of the city.
Napoléon took frequent walks through the city with the painter Jacques-Louis David, who was able to describe in detail the ideas for Paris developed in the previous decades.
Rambuteau entirely rebuilt the Grands Boulevards from the place de la Madeleine to the place de la Bastille and built new streets outside the historical core. He added sidewalks, which greatly improved the urban experience for pedestrians. And he implemented another novelty: a public lighting system of gas lamps, which completely changed the appearance of the city by night.
They were the place where Paris surpassed itself in its Parisianness, where elegance, frivolity, and revelry defined a life aesthetic. They were a constant theater of humanity, where one would run into friends and enemies, entertain wives and mistresses, and discuss business dealings and dreams of changing the world.
In many parts of these delightful promenades, double rows of chairs are placed, and persons of the highest respectability come from different quarters and sit for hours in them, amused with observing the happy moving scene around them; the seats on the Boulevard Italien are often occupied by persons of fashion, who arrive in their equipages, then take chairs for an hour or two, whilst their carriages wait for them; the charge for each chair is one sou, but every one takes two, one for the purpose of resting the feet, and generally takes ices which are served from Tortoni’s, long celebrated for the supply of that cooling refreshment. It is by night that the Boulevards are seen to the greatest advantage, the innumerable lights blazing from the different theatres, the lamps placed before the coffee-houses, the brilliant shops, the trees, the equipages, the sound of music and singing, the houses, which resemble palaces, the gilded cafés all united has the air of a fairy scene to any one brought suddenly upon them.4 Parisians
Still, Paris, with more than one million inhabitants, remained a major center of commerce, learning, and politics. In addition, perhaps in part because of the loss of prestige in other areas, it had developed an acute sense of itself as the world’s capital of art and culture. From Saint Louis on the Mississippi to Saint Petersburg on the Neva, it had established itself as the Western world’s undisputed reference in cultural matters.
Erected to commemorate the Battle of Austerlitz, the Arc de Triomphe was the most spectacular symbol of Napoléon I’s unfinished project to create an imperial capital as great as the Rome of Augustus. To the eyes of Louis-Napoléon, it was not only an illustration of Paris’s potential grandeur and beauty; it was an exhortation to continue the Bonaparte legacy for France.
She spoke to Louis-Napoléon as a future great leader, saying things like “a famous name is the first down payment that destiny gives to a man it wants to push forward.”1 She gave him advice on how to manipulate men and govern a nation. Like other men who grow up close to charismatic, protective, and ambitious mothers, Louis-Napoléon developed an indestructible belief in himself.
Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was sworn in as the first president in France’s history on Wednesday, December 20, 1848.
By October 1849, Louis-Napoléon was strong enough to take the decisive step of dismissing the entire government and replacing it with his own men. He was beginning to grasp the reality of power, and he would use every opportunity to gain a firmer grip.
The situation reminded the classically educated conspirators of Julius Caesar coming to take control of the Roman Republic, so they called the plan “Project Rubicon.”
Another plebiscite was held, and on December 2, 1852—exactly a year after the coup d’état—Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte paraded under the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-Elysées. He would henceforth be known as Emperor Napoléon III.
French haute couture became an industry during the Second Empire. The obsession with novelty and appearances had tremendous economic repercussions. On the one hand, it put France at the forefront of the luxury business, a position that it has not relinquished since. On the other, it led a whole society into significant expenditures for frivolities that some commentators saw as weakening the French economy by diverting funds from more productive uses. Some even later cited it as a contributing cause of the calamitous defeat of 1870.
By the beginning of 1853, Louis-Napoléon had metamorphosed into Emperor Napoléon III, the exclusive holder of power over France. He had patiently built up a framework where there was no room for anyone who did not have absolute loyalty to him.
The combination of Napoléon III and Georges-Eugène Haussmann would change Paris forever.
Haussmann, like Napoléon III, did not see a place for municipal democracy in Paris. “Paris is not a municipality; it is the Capital of the Empire, the collective property of the entire Nation, the ‘city of all the French.’”7 He gave the example of Washington, D.C., the capital city of the archetypally democratic Americans, managed as a federal territory.
the city of Paris did not have an elected mayor until 1977.
“Yes, long live the Emperor, who wants to make Paris the greatest city in the world, a capital worthy of France.”
the success he yearned for had always eluded him. In Bordeaux, he had come close to resigning himself to a life as a provincial notable, perhaps leaving the civil service to seek his fortune in private business. Now he knew that he held a rendezvous with history. It meant more to him than anything.
At his meeting with Berger, Haussmann had asked for the full financial accounts of the city to be delivered to him. In the evening, as he sat at the little desk in his hotel room, poring over the numbers, Haussmann discovered that Berger’s extremely conservative financial management actually put him in an excellent position now. Berger had systematically left himself extra margin: Revenues were baselessly assumed to decrease, costs included items that would never materialize, and expenses allowed for spurious items that Haussmann would hasten to eliminate.
I then felt that I was firmly in the saddle to undertake the conquest of the old Paris, with an army that was gaining confidence in its new leader. With its help, I would be able to begin ripping open the neighborhoods of the center of the city with their tangle of streets almost impossible to navigate by carriage and their crowded, sordid, and unhealthy houses; these neighborhoods that are for the most part a seat of misery and disease and a subject of shame for a great country such as France.
Before going any further, Haussmann had a major concern: No geometrically and topographically precise plan of the city of Paris had ever been established. He therefore asked Eugène Deschamps, who was in charge of the Roads Department at the Seine prefecture, to conduct a comprehensive survey of Paris.
In the fall of 1853, Parisians were intrigued to see workers erecting wooden towers around the city. These formed a triangulated network, in relation to which reference points across Paris were measured. An altitude survey was also conducted, using the level of the water of the La Villette basin as the reference point. The surveying work lasted more than a year. When it was finished, Haussmann finally received a complete and accurate plan of Paris, which he had printed at the scale of 1:5000. A copy of the plan, which measured ten feet high by sixteen feet wide, was mounted on canvas and hung in his office. He could now precisely and comprehensively embrace the city he was to rebuild.
Giuseppe Verdi was in town for the premiere of his opera Les Vêpres siciliennes, which took place on June 13 and was a massive success.
As was clear to contemporaries—but is completely forgotten today—the Universal Exposition of 1855 was the beginning of a new phenomenon: mass tourism.
The beginning of mass tourism brought the mass development of cheap hotels, cheap restaurants, souvenir shops, and legions of dubious guides who seemed to have instantaneously materialized on the streets of Paris. And so it turns out that not just the glories but also the crassest aspects of the tourist’s experience of Paris are a legacy of the Second Empire.
Visitors to Paris are always struck by the extraordinary uniformity of Parisian architecture. This is due, more than anything, to the massive number of buildings built in a concentrated period: more than 100,000 houses between 1852 and 1870.
Like Napoléon III, Haussmann had little knowledge of architecture and was not particularly sensitive to its aesthetics. He fancied that he had an artistic side—in his youth he played the cello and in old age he wrote poetry—but in reality his artistic views were basic, highly conservative, and not particularly well informed.
He loved monumental buildings, preferably with a dome, and grand perspectives carefully laid out in their axes. He preferred architecture of a simple classicism, without innovation or audacity.
the classically inspired exuberance of Garnier,
power. Haussmann’s life was entirely dedicated to his work. He would be at his desk with the day’s newspapers read well before the rest of the staff arrived and he would not leave in the evening before all his work was completed.
The great season of the Empire was beginning, which would make Paris the abode of the world, decked and full of music and song, where one would eat and fornicate in every room. Never a reign at its height had called the nations to such a colossal junket. Toward the blazing Tuileries, in a magical apotheosis, the long parade of emperors, kings and princes began, from the four corners of the earth.
One could visit a Chinese tea pavilion, an ensemble of Egyptian palaces, Turkish baths, Russian izbas, a Kyrgyz yurt, and the replica of the summer palace of the bey of Tunis, which would later stand in the parc Montsouris until it was destroyed by fire in 1991. Flying above it all was a hot-air balloon.
It was inevitable that all these exotic stimuli would launch in France and in Europe a multidecade wave of architectural designs, which encompassed everything from neo-Mauresque pavilions to facsimile Chinese pagodas.
Thanks to Haussmann’s fourteen years of effort, France’s capital was hands down the most glamorous and exciting place in the world. It was truly at this moment that Paris gained the reputation of being the Queen of Cities, a status that it still enjoys today. As Europe consolidated into nation-states, there was talk of the whole Continent some day forming a single nation. Victor Hugo wrote in the first chapter of the monumental Paris-Guide that accompanied the exposition: “Before having its people, Europe has its capital.”
Napoléon III was a visionary and an idealist, not an executor. In many areas, he found skilled individuals to execute and improve on his vision—Persigny for conspiratorial politics, Haussmann for the rebuilding of Paris, and Ferdinand de Lesseps for the building of the Suez Canal.
The Great Duchess of Gerolstein was a tremendous success. Napoléon III went to see it on April 24 and returned a few days later with the empress. Every night, the audience included some of Europe’s most illustrious people: the Prince of Wales, who would later become King Edward VII; the czar of Russia, Alexander II, and his son, Grand Duke Vladimir; Otto von Bismarck and Helmuth von Moltke; King Ludwig II of Bavaria; King Luís I of Portugal; King Charles XV of Sweden; and the viceroy of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, who enjoyed the show so much that he returned almost every night during his stay in Paris!
The Opéra is the temple of modern civilization, it is the culmination of art, luxury, elegance, all the refinements of the haute vie. The fortunate of society who frequent it are discerning and wish to find there the sumptuosities of their palaces and their hôtels. It must be both charming and grandiose, coy and pure, fashionable and classic; the problem is not easy to solve; M. Garnier has succeeded in this almost impossible task.
T]he architect wanted it to look very grand and very rich by summarizing all the architectural styles from the Pharaohs to our time.”
All the while, Viollet-le-Duc, who had still not come to terms with his early elimination in the competition for the Opéra, criticized Garnier’s work, saying it had too much decoration, basic design errors, and misguided technological choices. Garnier generally focused on his work rather than rebutting the naysayers, but he was not without an ego and was not one to be cowed.
Back in the United States, McKim and Peabody, in their respective practices, would go on to build American monuments like New York’s Pennsylvania Station, the Boston Public Library, and Boston’s Custom House Tower. Chandler would become a professor and the head of the Architecture Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All were durably influenced by the time spent in Napoléon III’s Paris and by their immersion in the Parisian architectural world.
He reported that the original estimate of 180 million francs had ballooned to 410 million. This meant that instead of the 130 million francs that had been requested and approved by the city council, the city would need to pay a whopping 360 million francs.
Although he had many enemies, Haussmann had displayed the political astuteness required to stay in a highly exposed position far longer than any minister of the Second Empire. That political longevity, earned through countless backroom alliances, pleas, escalations, displays of indignation, and arguments, was, without doubt, one of the secrets of the scale of his accomplishment. That remarkable run was now over.
You know that I have long aspired for the hour of my retirement; but that I only wanted to reach it after having put the final hand on our work, and fully ensure the complete liquidation of our grand enterprise. It had to be otherwise. What consoles me, after so many efforts, is to fall with the full confidence of the Emperor; with the esteem and affection of all those present who have seen me at work. That satisfaction is enough to make me forget many outrages. Ah! Gentleman, it takes courage and devotion to enter public service in France; to dedicate efforts and faculties that in private practice would bring both independence and fortune, and which often bring, in the service of the public interest, only bitterness and disappointment.
By 1870, the city that Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte had entered by train little more than twenty years earlier had been comprehensively remodeled. The Second Empire journalist Amédée de Cesena wrote, “The day will come when history will say, speaking of the capital of France, transformed as if by magic, in less than a quarter century: the Paris of Napoléon III, as it said: the Rome of Augustus.”
But the future proved de Cesena wrong. Today, the universal phrase is not “the Paris of Napoléon III,” but “the Paris of Haussmann.” Extraordinarily, a civil servant who joined the undertaking after its broad direction had been determined has supplanted the emperor of France and the visionary leader behind the project of the new Paris in the eyes of posterity.
Haussmann well understood that he offered no particular technical or artistic qualification; the one unique thing he brought was the ability to achieve results at a scale that filled timid spirits with doubt and apprehension, to move beyond debate into action—whatever the forces conspiring to confine the ambition.
He did little to apply methodological rigor to social issues, although others were beginning to do so at the time; his aesthetic conceptions went little beyond systematically ending avenues with domed structure. Haussmann had many qualities, but he was a doer, not an urban visionary.
As the opening approached, there were, of course, a million matters to tend to. But Garnier had one special worry: the ceiling of the grand staircase. The painter Isidore Pils, who specialized in battle scenes, struggled with the mythological subjects requested for this painting: “[H]ow he would have preferred to paint an entire regiment than the torso of just one Venus!” joked Garnier.
The two young men worked with extraordinary energy, singing as they painted, skipping lunch, smoking excessively, and even bringing models up to the top of the scaffolding to pose for them, all amid the hammering and other sounds of the construction site all around.
“A sentiment of joy invaded us all. There was nothing to regret. The effect was admirable! The painting was soft and shimmering! Pils had succeeded!”
The Opéra was not just Garnier’s masterpiece; it was a showcase of the artistic talent of the nation, a total work of art.
High above was the domed ceiling carrying Isidore Pils’s renderings of Apollo and Orpheus.
A]nything that was said against our common enemy was good for us. But today it matters little to us if Haussmann’s accounts were fantastic. He undertook to make Paris a magnificent city and he completely succeeded.… We only wish one thing today: that we complete through liberty what was started by despotism.”
The accomplishments of the Third Republic form a separate and important chapter of Paris’s urban history. They include numerous streets and buildings, big improvements in the transportation system, including the beginning of the underground Paris Métro system, and a certain three-hundred-meter-tall metal tower. They consolidated the changes of the Second Empire and turned Paris into a modern, industrial city, the capital of a great democracy.
One New Yorker wrote, “Despotic governments are generally bad governments, but when one hears of the marvels Napoléon has accomplished in Paris…, it makes us wish that he, or someone like him, could be made Emperor of New York for about ten years.”
not downright reprehensible, questionable. The moral depravity of many of those involved was appalling. The grands travaux destroyed entire neighborhoods of irreplaceable character and history, and overturned the lives of thousands of ordinary people.
There is no doubt that, in other hands, the grands travaux could have been achieved in a more sensitive way, without such blind sacrifice of the city’s historic character to the objective of modernization.
The Paris of the Second Empire has proved to be durable. Its structure still functions quite well today, without major changes. Every day, millions of people use the streets, train stations, parks, arrondissement town halls, and other urban amenities built during the Second Empire. Tourists continue to flock to the city to marvel not just at the monuments but at the city as a whole. Paris’s boulevards still convey an image of elegance, luxury, and beauty recognized around the world.
The city created by Napoléon III’s vision, by Haussmann’s tenacity, and by the priorities and culture of an entire society became the archetype of a modern, functional, and beautiful city, unlike anything we have ever known or ever will know. The transformation of Paris is the remarkable story of a grand idea meeting reality, a lesson that a great vision can indeed be transformational. It can only invite us to consider the urban vision of our society and ask ourselves what kind of world we wish to build for our own posterity.