The Consequences of Modernity

This is the first post in a new series called ‘The Consequences of Modernity’. In this series we will try to shed light on several large-scale, comprehensive social engineering practices and the related key figures which lay at the foundation of modernist urban planning. We will further try to use this practices as windows for the analyses of the ongoing influence this practices have on urbanization processes today.

This first article is dedicated to Georges Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891) who with his concern with the totality of urban space and the comprehensiveness and largeness of scale of plan and conception can be ranked as one of the founding figures of modernist urban planning. ‘Make no little plans’, as Daniel Burnham urged many years later was surely Haussmann’s way of thinking.

The moment Baron Haussmann (he called himself Baron) came into office as ‘Prefect of the Department of Seine’ in 1853, seven month after the declaration of the Second Empire, he immediately was given a mandate to remake Paris, according to plan.

At this time the city was still seething with the same social, economic and political problems which contributed substantially to the 1848 revolution. Economic recovery from one of the first full-fledged crises of capitalist overaccumulation was blocked by several barriers. Capital was not connecting to labor, strong tie artisan communities in the city still formed a strong political force and the fragmented, locally focused national market undermined the rationalization of national and urban space.

Paris was held down by a straitjacket of eighteenth century structure of social practices confined in a medieval frame of physical infrastructure. To alter this, Napoleon III and his advisers, implemented wide ranging measures. Most fundamental was probably the introduction of a modern credit system, breaking up with the conservative banking system incorporated by Rothschild, enabling small investors and developers to enter the market (credit mobilier). This state directed speculation strategy and state financed public works to absorb surpluses of capital and labor also enticed middle and large developers into the market and changed Paris into a landscape of permanent flux.

The old Paris is gone (the form a city takes
More quickly shifts, alas, than does the mortal heart);

I picture in my head the busy camp of huts,
And heaps of rough-hewn columns, capitals and shafts,
The grass, the giant blocks made green by puddle-stain,
Reflected in the glaze, the jumbled bric-à-brac.

Once nearby was displayed a great menagerie…

Paris may change, but in my melancholy mood
Nothing has budged! New palaces, blocks, scaffoldings,
Old neighbourhoods, are allegorical for me,
And my dear memories are heavier than stone.

Excerpts from The Swan by Charles Baudelaire.

During the eighteen years of the Second Empire (1852-1870) Frances’ national and urban space was entirely rationalized, with Paris as the beating heart. Under the lead of Haussmann railway tracks were built in a radial pattern, centered around the city, to facilitate transportation and to integrate the Parisian hinterland and rural France. The network was expanded from 1931 kilometers in 1950 to a web of some 17.400 kilometers in 1870. Equally, the installation of a national telegraph system and a network of roads throughout the country contributed to the ongoing rationalization of national and urban space.

via mtholyoke
via mtholyoke

Medieval Paris was thrown to the demolishers, undergoing probably the most drastic urban makeover in history. Slums were cleared around the city center, the ‘dangerous classes’ expulsed, to improve the capacity for the circulation of goods, military forces and people within the city. To interconnect rail stations, the city center and the periphery with places of recreation, industry and commerce, some ninety miles of grand boulevards where constructed and the flows of water and sewage were revolutionized under Haussmann.

via doorsofperception
via doorsofperception

via mtholyoke
via mtholyoke

Haussmann deployed a completely new conception urban space. Instead of implementing a collection of autonomous partial plans, he was concerned with the totality of urban space, paying extraordinary attention to details. He, for example, closely monitored the design of street furnishings such as gas lamps and kiosks.


Insalubrious neighborhoods were opened up for the free circulation of fresh air and light during the day. The newly installed gas lightning turned the boulevards at night into pumping veins were the public life of the city was taking place. Haussmann was also obsessed with details of alignments, creating local asymmetries to produce a symmetrical effect at a grander urban scale. The most bizarre probably being the displacement of a dome on the Tribunal of Commerce to place it into the sightline of the newly build Boulevard de Sebastopol.

To implement his general plan, he created a sophisticated hierarchical form of territorial administration, with himself positioned at the top and his close acquaintances spread over the different arrondisments. Also in terms of planning, building and engineering he employed a loyal network of different, talented people. Alphand to do the parks, Belgrand for water and sewers, Baltard to redo Les Halles, and so on.

This new scale of thinking, scale and form of extrovert urbanism is probably best exemplified in the transformation of the central market district of Les Halles by Baltard. Haussmann not only wanted to change individual buildings or the style of architecture, he wanted to create a whole new city texture. At Les Halles, the traditional, central market place of Paris, this amounted to the production and engineering of a whole quarter with a single, commercial function.

This gentrification strategy was in accordance with the rapidly growing demand for middle class housing and luxury space, leisure and spectacle. At the same the massive growth in numbers and socio-cultural diversity introduced new social and spatial divisions, with the creation of slums as a means to accommodate low income groups in the city.

In this article we followed to a certain extent the argumentation of David Harvey that urban planning is deployed, during the Haussmannization of Paris, but also in more recent urban restructuring practices, to solve large scale economic problems. Take for example the urban renewal offensive through the rescaling of big cities and widespread suburbanisation in the United States under the lead of Robert Moses as a means of lifting the country out of the Great Depression, or the ongoing building boom in China as the potential savior of the European and American economy.

see also

The Production of Space by Henri Lefebvre

Paris, Capital of the XIX Century (translation) by Walter Benjamin

Charles Marvin, amongst others, documented the urban restructuring process in Paris through hundreds of photos.

Paris en images

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