Book Review: Paris Reborn

(Above) 1852 cartoon showing the inside of the new George Haussmann style apartment building.
Book Review:

“Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City”

Author: Stephane Kirkland

Review by A.T. LeMay

Modern Paris is not as old as one might think. Although Paris is one of the oldest cities in Europe, dating back to the time of Julius Caesar, the city as we now know it was recreated and modernized in the middle of the 19th century.

Between 1848 and 1870 Paris was rebuilt in one of the largest building project ever undertaken before the age of the bulldozer, and modern building techniques. This was when Paris was transformed from a city of dark crowded streets to the “City of Light”.

The 19th century were turbulent times in France. Starting in 1789 with the French revolution France went from being a country ruled by a king, to a republic, to an Empire created by Napoléon, back to a kingdom back to an Empire for one hundred days as Napoléon escaped his captors and led an army to Waterloo. In 1848 France was back to being a Republic once more.

This political turmoil took quite a toll on the city as Paris had been rocked by riots and mass executions and war. The Notre Dame Cathedral had been badly damaged in 1789 when crowds of Parisians attacked the building as a symbol of the church which had protected the corrupt rule of the king.

Napoleon III

In 1848 Napoléon’s nephew was elected president of France. Louis Napoléon (who later became known as Napoléon III) was elected the first president of the new republic. He won the election more because of his uncle’s name than any political leadership experience he had.

Louis Napoléon at once decided to rebuild the city that had been so neglected and devastated by the events of the preceding 50 years Paris was also suffering from the effects of overcrowding and poor waste management (Paris had no effective sewers) and disease was rampant.

Paris was so bad that in 1682 King Louise XIV had moved his court from Paris to Château de Versaille. Napoléon III first order of business was to rebuild Paris. Transforming it into a clean modern city.

Baron George Haussmann

Georges-Eugène Haussmann was a successful no-nonsense bureaucrat with a reputation for getting things done. Haussmann was given the title “Prefect of the Seine” and the job to manage the rebuilding the great city.

Stephane Kirkland gives an account of Haussmann’s tearing down and rebuilding of Paris. Haussmann as Prefect of the Seine, dealt with accountants and architects, artists and hosts of bureaucrats. Haussmann unlike many modern more pragmatic city planners cared deeply about the aesthetics of the new Paris, choosing carefully the architects and artist whose designs and work he used to refit the city.

At the same time, Haussmann could be completely ruthless using the government’s right of ‘emanate domain’ to take possession of and demolish family homes in order to carve out great boulevards through the middle of the city.

 

Haussmann style apartment building.

In his designs for Paris Haussmann incorporated new ideas, like parks to give the people a place to relax and enjoy themselves. He also championed new concepts like gas lighting.

Paris was the first city to be built with street lights that ran on natural gas. These street lamps when lit up gave Paris it’s new nick-named “The City of Light.” Although taken for granted now, street lights at night were a miracle of technology in the 19th century.

In the 1860s Paris streets were illuminated for the first time by 56,000 gas lamps.

But the political situation in France had not yet been settled. In 1852 Louis Napoléon declared himself Emperor Napoléon III. A war was fought with Prussia. The people of France demanded that their republic be restored once more. And through all this work on the City of Light continued.

“Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City” is an excellent book for anyone who has ever wondered about how the modern city of Paris came into being.

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“Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City” By Stephane Kirklanz



In the mid-nineteenth century, the Paris we know today was born, the vision of two extraordinary men: the endlessly ambitious Emperor Napoléon III and his unstoppable accomplice, Baron Haussmann. This is the vivid and engrossing account of the greatest transformation of a major city in modern history.

Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City