Napoléon III’s Paris vision

When we arrived in Paris last June, friends alerted us to the fact that an unprecedented number of people sought therapy last winter – tanning salons, counseling, holidays, mood enhancers – because of cold, grey, cloudy days that seemed to go on forever.  Even in June we were complimented for finally “bringing good weather.”  With that in mind, it was very pleasant this week to see a crew of gardeners working in the central courtyard of the apartments, weeding, raking, and planting.   One of Kathleen’s recent blogs included pix of plants in full bud, helped along by several sunny days and reasonably mild temperatures.

But this is northern Europe, and Paris is about the same latitude as Vancouver and farther north than Toronto or Montreal, so one should not be surprised that Parisians are sun-seekers.  On a recent sunny Sunday people were out in force in the Luxembourg Gardens, the majority of the chairs were aimed directly at the sun, and occupied by warmly dressed people reading, chatting, or simply hands in pockets and eyes closed.

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In Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City, Stephane Kirkland contends that Haussmann receives too much credit and Napoléon III far too little for the reshaping of Paris during the Second Empire.  Early in his reign Napoléon ordered the first detailed surveyed of the city of Paris, and the resulting large-scale map took up most of the wall behind his desk in the Palais de Tuileries.  Long before he chose Haussmann as his builder, Napoléon had spent untold hours planning, colour-coding, and redrawing lines on the map, representing new roads, parks, and even planned housing for working class families, a project close to his heart (and which, unfortunately, was sidetracked by property speculation engendered by the rebuilding).

Kirkland also suggests that the oft-told story that the large straight boulevards which resulted were intended to ease the movement of troops throughout the city to quell civic unrest (a story which I repeated in an early post) is a fabrication, part of the successful political campaign that ousted Haussmann after 16 years in office.  Prior to the rebuilding, Paris was far too congested to allow easy movement of people, goods or services, and Napoléon’s vision was to open the city to such movement, a vision directly aided by wide straight east-west and north-south corridors.  That this allowed ease of troop movements cannot be denied, but Kirkland makes a strong case that this was only one result, and not a primary one, of the “new Paris.”

Kirkland also notes that Napoléon III was following in a long tradition of previous rulers and intellectuals.  Louis XIV’s decision, in 1676, to demolish the city walls and turn them into broad thoroughfares created Paris’s most popular public spaces, the Grands Boulevards.  And in a 1749 essay, Voltaire proclaimed: “We need public markets, fountains that actually give water, regular intersections, performance halls; we need to widen the narrow and filthy streets, uncover monuments that we cannot see, and build new ones to be seen.”

I am convinced by Kirkland’s argument that it is indeed unjust that Haussmann’s name lives on in one of the major boulevards of the 8th and 9th and that one commonly sees references to “Haussmann’s renovation” of Paris, while Napoléon III, the actual visionary of planned housing, green spaces, and open access, is known but little honoured.


  1. Our friend Cindy Swoveland alerted us to a current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York by the French photographer Charles Merville (1813-1879) who was commissioned to document the before–and-after of the Second Empire rebuilding –
  2. The photographer Evvy Eisen, whom we mentioned in an earlier post (“Photography, Aristotle, and the French in 1944”), sent the following comment: “Regarding the mention of my photographs of the Metro St. Sulpice, the exhibit is now at the Maison de la RATP and will be there through March…The RATP is the organization responsible for all metro and bus transportation in Paris…[the exhibit] is quite different from the one at the Mairie and includes a video display.  I hope that you can update your content to inform your readers about the current venue.”
  3. The photographer Dimitri Hakke, whose wonderful black-and-white photos of iconic 60s and 70s rock stars we saw at Galerie Blumann, and noted in the post “One Fine Day: Morning,” was kind enough to send a thank you.
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One Response to Napoléon III’s Paris vision

  1. I will have to seek out this book. it sounds really interesting.
    One small correction….should be Metropolitan Museum, not Museum of Modern Art.

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