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Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891)

The father of revolutionary planning promised a better world he couldn’t deliver

Le Corbusier said he loved Baron Haussmann, but didn’t like him. He slipped several pages of eulogy into The Radiant City and pictured his tools of the job (pickaxes and wheelbarrows) in The City of To-Morrow and its Planning with the implication we could do much better. But it’s not his finest hour, some will think L-C’s worst; the architect in thrall to power, dismissive of upheaval in the name of the grand plan; ‘apartment blocks lined up like soldiers’, organised by the man who would connive with committees and councils if he took any notice of them at all.

Of course, Corbu could never like the ‘man of taste who will never be an artist’, but he took to the biological underpinning under the offending plasterwork and candelabras. Revolutionary urbanism is a French tradition, and the medical metaphors abound; surgery to guillotine. Haussmann could look back from his position as prefect of the Seine for Napoleon III to Louis XIV and further to Henry IV, who took it on himself to transform the Louvre, Tuileries and Place du Vosges in just 15 years – 1595 to 1610 – so making Paris Paris.

And we can’t avoid Haussmann’s presence beyond great artists; in urban terms he towers above them (providing 100 miles of street, 4,000 acres of park, 400 miles of sewers and so on) not just because he was physically big, but because he was that absolute rarity, the effective bureaucrat. Meanwhile, he demonstrated man’s potential to impose his intellect on the city, to rid it of the arbitrariness of the donkey’s track (the city as an agglomeration of accidents either charming or squalid), and to organise the world on a scale hardly imagined.

‘Haussmann was that absolute rarity – the effective bureaucrat’

Of course a host of details got in the way: the people involved in the re-schematisation of the modern city, from rag-picker to royalty. Herein lies the rub of Haussmann, is it the politics that offends, or the architecture, or both, or neither? It’s not so easy, those relieved at his provision of civilisation range from sanguine professors (JS Curl) to dirty weekenders sauntering up the Champs Élysées; those raging against, romantics of a different persuasion and the cast of Les Misérables.

Victor Hugo, sentimental for the colourful old Paris, accused Haussmann of vandalism. Walter Benjamin and TJ Clark went further (while five decades apart): Haussmann’s improvements were false; they promised a better world they couldn’t deliver, in fact exacerbating a deteriorating condition. For Clark an unpaintable past of ‘anecdote and narrative’ was replaced by the ‘convenient fiction’ so eloquently painted by Manet, Degas and Pissarro. Haussmannisation became a bad word for a city consumed in the abstract; at the core of this a new city was a pantomime for ‘a false rich and a false poor’ (a condition personified in Flaubert’s Emma Bovary). Representing the epitome of neo-conservative planning, Haussmann found his boulevards replicated – when political conditions were auspicious – from São Paulo to Saigon. Benevolo reminds us they are almost taken for granted as agents of colonialism.

However, it might not be the architecture’s problem, for when the Soviets initiated the same programme with urban palaces for the proletariat on Stalinallee in Berlin, Alan Balfour believed the approach in many ways validated it; conveying a certain ‘civic bravura’, and a ‘strange charm and sincerity’. Meanwhile, Ceaușescu managed to make all the wrong choices in Bucharest.

As a man who despaired at the lack of architectural genius produced by the École des Beaux-Arts, the actual architecture Haussmann sponsored was an eclectic mix, epitomised by the showiness of Opéra Garnier (Hitler’s favourite building in his favourite city); a neo-conservative plastering over a ruthless planning matrix, or faux baubles above effective drains. This eclecticism has proved a resilient tactic, but led to many a treatise shoving architecture into the modern era. At first seeming retroactive, ideologues Viollet-le-Duc and Henri Lebrouste propelled architecture into a rethink that would allow the exercised Corbu, enthralled with the Homeric idyll, to standardise the whole caboodle except for your house plan.

Haussmann was a product of a Republic, his grandfathers both committed to Bonaparte and successful in commerce. He married into money and stayed with it, claiming his maternal grandfather’s barony in 1862. Obsessed by status alongside hard work, his wife hardly got a look in. There is little doubt that he was difficult to like, cultivating disdain, showing no great respect for others, socially clumsy, stubborn and inclined to be blasé, but he had guile; he got respect. Even when beaten, his enemies often didn’t realise it. The Emperor would listen to this ‘broad-backed athlete’ for six hours at a stretch.

‘Haussmannisation became a bad word for a city consumed in the abstract; at the core of this a new city was a pantomime for ‘a false rich and a false poor’

And Napoleon III was the prime instigator, intent on aggrandising France at all levels, wanting to be popular, wanting the return of Empire, wanting to be able to march his forces against warrens of insurgents. He had, after all, been victim to an assassination attempt by troublesome Italians. The Emperor wouldn’t let go of his Grand Travaux even when state resources shrank; Haussmann seized the opportunity.

In doing so Baron Haussmann, father of revolutionary planning, also destroyed the revolution, as homeowners ‘left with their bundles … even on a Sunday’, making him inimitable to the champions of the dispossessed (even though he demolished his own birthplace). Indeed, whether you stroll Parisian boulevards or not, this is Haussmann’s reputation.

He had actually argued against the profiteering as communal works were handed back to landlords, and Napoleon III had wanted to include social housing that never materialised. Instead the works showed the power of capital as much as that of Emperor. As public coffers shrank, Haussmann raised money privately and saw the potential for huge returns. This proved his undoing, as he had to mortgage the future by risky means. He was never successfully prosecuted, but investors benefited from a leaky social merry-go-round (the Péreire brothers especially) with Mme Octavie Haussmann remarking that with each new proposal, they mysteriously gained new friends. Meanwhile Haussmann’s plans suffered from mission creep, surveys were inaccurate; the difference in levels underestimated. Demolishing 236 properties became 423: the budget soared.

Those potentially displaced formed the basis for further revolution. Barricades and the ripping up of paving slabs became traditional by 1830. Soon enough, an ill-advised war in the name of French prestige found Bismarck at the gates of Paris, and Napoleon III exiled; so precipitating the Paris Commune of 1871. The Communards were hailed by Marx as harbingers of a new world, the veritable stormers of heaven.

Yes, unlikeable, but pondering Haussmann’s bigness (connecting railway stations, providing water treatment works, hospitals and cemeteries) lends perspective to our own neocon obsession with either ‘informal settlements’ or ‘gated communities’. Paradoxically, given the exponential growth of our cities, such planning is now seen to infringe on one’s personal grand designs whether rich or poor. Meanwhile, Corbu wisely included land reform as essential to the building of the truly Radiant City.  


Illustration by Isabel Albertos