Haussmann, Georges-Eugeène

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HAUSSMANN, GEORGES-EUGEÈNE (1809–1891), creator of modern Paris.

Georges-Eugène Haussmann was not an architect, an engineer, a city planner, a hydrologist, or a landscape designer. He was a lawyer by education, a career administrator by choice, and the man who created modern Paris (where he was born and where he died).

He pompously (and illegitimately) called himself a baron. His maternal grandfather, a revolutionary and Napoleonic general, Georges-Frédéric Dentzel (1755–1828), had been ennobled during the First Empire, but French titles are not heritable through the female line. His paternal grandfather, Nicolas Haussmann, also had a revolutionary past. The grandson's administrative career is a classic example of the breach forced by the bourgeoisie into government service during the French Revolution, which was widened by Napoleon's reforms of the state.

Haussmann was educated at the Lycée Henri IV, the best school in Paris, where he made an important friendship with the duc de Chartres, the eldest son of the duc d'Orléans who would become King Louis-Philippe (r. 1830–1848). He studied law at the Sorbonne during one of the golden ages of French university life, and not only heard some of the most powerful minds of the day lecture, he also met and knew those who would create the brilliant culture of the July Monarchy: the poet Alfred de Musset (1810–1857) and the composer Hector Berlioz (1803–1869), among others.

The Revolution of 1830 was Haussmann's big break, as it was for his generation of "frustrated careerists" with some tincture of idealism. Haussmann fought in the Trois Glorieuses—the three "glorious days" of revolution, was slightly wounded carrying a message to the Hôtel de Ville, and when Louis-Philippe was chosen king, Haussmann was able to ask the heir apparent for an appointment; he was named secretary general in the department of Vienne. He slowly climbed the provincial administrative pole. Advancement in the July Monarchy was sluggish and Haussmann spent at least as much time advertising his abilities and frustration as he did performing undemanding administrative tasks. Things were not made easy by his abrasive personality, and he was sent to cool his heels as sub-prefect in St. Girons, in the Pyrenees. He often traveled to Bordeaux to escape boredom, and there he met and married Louise-Octavie de Laharpe, a bordelaise who brought a comfortable if not extravagant dowry to the marriage. They would have two daughters: Henriette-Marie and Fanny-Valentine. Soon after his marriage he was posted to the sub-prefecture of Blaye, about twenty-five miles down river from Bordeaux. Unfortunately, his patron, now the duc d'Orléans, died in a carriage accident in 1842. Haussmann's career was stalled. Another revolution, in 1848, intervened, and Haussmann, not closely identified with the July Monarchy because of his insignificance, played his cards brilliantly. His early Bonapartism was cautious, quiet, and probably sincere. When Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon III, r. 1852–1871) was elected president of the Second Republic, Haussmann intrigued for a promotion. It came on 24 January 1849, as prefect of the Var. His charge was to browbeat and intimidate the republicans and manipulate the election. He accomplished both and enjoyed the work. His reward was the prefecture of the Yonne (11 May 1850), another turbulent department to be cowed. Again success as a tough and competent prefect brought rewards. He was named prefect of the Gironde, had an interview with Louis-Napoleon on 1 December 1851, the eve of his coup d'état, and left Paris for Bordeaux. He brought the Orleanist city (and department) into the Bonapartist fold.

Haussmann's combination of exceptional competence and authoritarianism, bordering on bullying, succeeded. Napoleon III made a triumphal visit to Bordeaux, orchestrated by Haussmann, and there proclaimed his famous formula: "The Empire is Peace!" The following year (1853) Haussmann was appointed prefect of the Seine, the most important post in the administration. This time he was not charged with intimidating republicans and Orleanists: he was to transform Paris, the most ambitious, successful, and enduring legacy of the Second Empire.

At their first interview since his appointment, the emperor gave Haussmann a map with a series of new streets indicated in three colors to signify their order of importance. He also told his new prefect that there would be no special funds for the gigantic task of urban renewal. These sketchy proposals—the original map has vanished, only a copy made in 1868 survives—were the only concrete plans Haussmann got from his master. He met sometimes daily with the emperor to discuss the rebuilding of the capital, but according to Haussmann, Napoleon III was vague about what he wanted. He was a dreamer, a man with grand, even extravagant, ideas about transforming the city—many of them directly borrowed from his uncle, Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/15)—who depended upon others to realize them. Haussmann could not have done his work without the support of Napoleon III: the imperial will and authority was fundamental. But it is the servant and not the master who determined the look, the shape, and the infrastructure of Paris. This last, the sewer system and the water supply, was not even mentioned by the emperor.

Haussmann began by making the first accurate topographical map of Paris. The earliest projects, which came to be known as the first of three réseaux (street systems) into which Haussmann divided the work, concentrated on the historic core of Paris. The Louvre-Tuileries palace was the first project. Napoleon III wanted to establish himself as a reformer, put men to work, and set his mark on one of the most prestigious monuments in Paris. He linked the Louvre to the Tuileries, the logical conclusion to centuries of expansions and additions. The first streets he built formed the so-called grande croisée that cut through the city north-south (boulevard Sébastapol on the Right Bank, boulevard St. Michel on the Left Bank) and east-west (rue de Rivoli). The latter had been left unfinished by Napoleon I. It was now extended into the unruly and politically volatile eastern quadrant of Paris.

Barricades, easily thrown up in the narrow, twisting streets of Old Paris, had been the chief weapon of urban insurrection in 1830 and 1848. In 1848, it had taken the army a week to cross the city and clear the barricades. One of Haussmann's first projects was not only to extend the rue de Rivoli but to cut a new street (boulevard Voltaire) so that eastern Paris could be attacked, if necessary, from front and rear. This was the only strategic system of streets built in Paris until 1868. The cliché that Haussmann's broad streets were to

make urban insurrection impossible does not explain his urban transformations. The new boulevards were not primarily built to facilitate cavalry charges and provide a clear field for cannon fire. Only two strategic networks, of the hundreds of new streets cut in Paris, were built, one of them fifteen years after the boulevard Voltaire. This relaxed response to urban insurrection casts doubt on the thesis: the fact that barricades were built during the Commune uprising, in 1871, invalidates the hypothesis.

What drove Haussmann's transformation were his thorough, indeed obsessive, interpretation of the aesthetic principles of the day, his belief in urban hygiene, his devotion to transportation above other concerns, his focus on control of the city achieved by regularity and order, and the unrelenting application of his beliefs. The convergence of these ideas in so authoritarian, arrogant, and bureaucratic-minded a personality had important consequences for Paris. Haussmann had little respect for the past and only contempt for the Middle Ages. He did not hesitate to demolish some of Paris's precious medieval inheritance. In the name of slum clearance he turned the Ile de la Cité, the cradle of Paris and one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city, into a virtually uninhabited urban museum. He attempted to give the city a new center at the Place du Châtelet: a failed project. He was devoted to the rectilinear and lopped off a part of the Luxembourg gardens to preserve this urban principle and demolished whatever lay in the path of his straight streets. He created a number of urban optical illusions to give the impression of order, regularity, and rectilinearity. He set the dome of a new building (the cour de Commerce) off-center so it would visually bisect the boulevard Sébastopol. He angled the pont Sully at the eastern end of the Ile St. Louis—all the other Seine bridges are parallel—in order to create the illusion that the Place de la Bastille (Right Bank) was in line with the dome of the Panthéon (Left Bank). He insisted that every urban perspective down one of his boulevards be closed by a monument or important public building. Where none existed he built what was required. Nowhere is the rigidity of bureaucratic thinking so well expressed as in these pedantic urbanscapes.

There are also grand and admirable examples of haussmannisme (a contemporary coinage). The twelve streets that debouch into the Arc de Triomphe form a stunning urban star pattern. The many parks built to satisfy Napoleon III's wishes—most importantly the parcs Monceau, Batignolles, Montsouris, and Buttes-Chaumont—are beautiful and useful, a welcome relief from the otherwise stone city. They were designed by Haussmann's assistant, Jean-Charles Alphand (1817–1891), as were the Bois de Boulogne on the western side of Paris and the Bois de Vincennes on the east. The iron and glass sheds at Les Halles, the Paris markets, designed by Victor Baltard (1805-1874), became one of the marvels of modern architecture and the new city. Charles Garnier (1825–1898) designed the Opéra, the most expensive and luxurious building of the age; although not opened until 1875, the Opéra was an empire project, and the Avenue de l'Opéra that leads to the ornate building is thought to be the quintessential street of Haussmann's Paris.

The serried rows of similar apartment buildings lining the new boulevards, all in the Beaux-Arts style that dominated architectural training and public taste, were of uniform height, building materials, and their ornamentation (such as balconies) were constrained by building codes. They give Paris the homogenous appearance that is one of its beauties.

Haussmann's most visionary work was the incorporation of the banlieue, the suburbs surrounding Paris. By imperial decree in 1860, he doubled the landmass of Paris and added 200,000 inhabitants. His most successful work was underground, where he did not have to cut into the dense fabric of a historic city. His new sewer system was a mirror image of the streets of Paris. The city's water supply had been drawn from the Seine (where waste was also dumped) and the Ourcq Canal. Despite public protest by those who appreciated the taste of the river, Haussmann brought well water to Paris by aqueduct, from more than 100 miles away. This was the work of Marie-François-Eugène Belgrand (1810–1878), another talented collaborator.

Although he built extensively, Haussmann built predominately for the bourgeoisie. The poor, driven from the center of Paris, sought refuge in the banlieue where housing was cheaper. Paris became what it has remained, a city with a wealthy core surrounded—especially on the east, north, northeast, and southeast—by poor neighborhoods. Only at the turn of the twenty-first century has eastern Paris been subject to gentrification.

It was Haussmann's unconventional and dubiously legal expedients for raising money that brought him down. He received support from the National Assembly for each of the three réseaux, but this was never enough. As years went by and the work appeared endless (and endlessly expensive), the politicians were less willing to grant funds. He was entitled to the octroi, a tax on all building materials and wine that came into the city. Some say he built in expensive materials because they were more highly taxed. The octroi went up as Paris built and grew. This, too, was not enough money. The city borrowed hugely, interest rates went up, and the debt was not retired until 1929.

At the beginning of the work, Haussmann regularly condemned for public use more property than he needed to cut new streets. What was not used he later sold at a profit because of improvements in the infrastructure. The juries of landowners who had to approve condemnations soon put an end to this practice. They made themselves the beneficiaries of Haussmann's improvements. He increasingly turned to deficit spending, a radical and distrusted process of urban finance at the time.

Haussmann had always counted on enhanced property values that would increase future property taxes, but now he began borrowing against the future. Contractors were required to front the cost of the project. They would be paid, with interest, upon completion. Until then Haussmann used the money to finance and leverage other projects.

Those who wanted to work for the city were forced to lend Haussmann money, and only the biggest contractors could participate. He then devised an even more dubious scheme. The city began issuing proxy bonds (bons de délégation) based on the amounts owed by contractors. These bonds were soon traded on the market and interest rates were driven up to 10 percent, which in turn drove up the cost of building.

Haussmann's financial legerdemain became the target for opponents of the imperial regime, including conservative financial interests who were shut out of the lucrative gambling in urban finance. He was attacked in a witty and pointed pamphlet, Les Comptes fantastiques d'Haussmann (1868), written by Jules Ferry (1832–1893). Haussmann, secure in the support of the emperor, disdained the attack. But he had become a lightening rod for discontent, and on 2 January 1870 the emperor reluctantly withdrew his support.

The debacle of the empire at the Battle of Sedan several months later sent Haussmann running for cover and eventually out of France for a time. He briefly entertained an offer to haussmannize Rome, but the deal fell through. He was elected to the senate of the Third Republic in 1875, but retired from politics soon afterward. In his last years, he wrote his Mémoires in three dense, self-serving volumes (1890) and died in his Paris apartment the next year, some months after his wife. He is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, not far from Alfred de Vigny (1797–1863), his schoolmate.

See alsoCities and Towns; France; Napoleon III; Revolutions of 1830.


Gaillard, Jeanne. Paris, la ville, 1852–1870. Paris, 1976.

Haussmann, Georges-Eugène. Mémoires du baron Haussmann. 3 vols. Paris, 1890–1893.

Jordan, David P. Transforming Paris: The Life and Labors of Baron Haussmann. New York, 1995.

Zola, Émile. The Kill. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York, 2004.

David P. Jordan