In the 19th Century George-Eugène Haussmann completely redesigned and rebuilt the French capital. Jonathan Glancey describes how the city of today was born.
Paris remains one of the world’s most visited cities, and of those tens of millions drawn to its remarkably compact centre each year, the Marais district exerts a magnetic pull. Fashionable among aristocrats before Louis XIV – the “Sun King” – moved his court from Versailles, this pungent quarter of narrow streets and jumble of historic houses and courtyards sank into near-squalor in succeeding centuries before its renaissance in recent decades as a charming labyrinth of fashion boutiques, cafés, restaurants, museums and galleries.
Walking through these lively and endearing medieval streets, it seems almost incredible that they were once considered the enemy, to be demolished in haste – and not, it has to be added, by the German military, who had less than healthy designs on Paris at various times between 1870 and 1945. No, it was none other than the Emperor of France, Napoleon III, and his Prefect for the Seine, George-Eugène Haussmann – who died 125 years ago – who had districts like the Marais in their sights.
Like much of Paris, however, the Marais stank to high heaven in 1853 when the emperor instructed Haussmann to rebuild the odorous city along grand and salubrious lines. Entire medieval quarters of the city were to be razed with modern avenues taking their place. “It was the gutting of Paris,” wrote Haussmann proudly in his Memoires.
A public administrator with no training in architecture or urban planning, Haussmann turned Paris into a titanic building site for 20 years. Even though he was forced to resign in 1870 as the emperor faced growing criticism for excessive expenditure, work on Haussmann’s plan continued until the late 1920s. […]