4.241J | Spring 2013 | Graduate

Theory of City Form

Lecture Notes

Lec 9: Transformations II: Paris

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Lecture Summary

The nineteenth century transformation of Paris, the world’s largest manufacturing city, took place through absolute control from the ruling center with a view to transform a largely medieval city into a modern city of efficiency and grandeur. While London, according to Rasmussen, was based on a set of villages, Paris had always been centered around royalty and court encircled by constantly expanding walls from the twelfth century to the last in the nineteenth century. The major projects of the city were made by kings from the twelfth century’s Phillipe Auguste to the sixteenth century’s Henri IV, the greatest builder of all, who built not only from his own funds but attracted others to build majestic town residences, such as Richelieu’s Palais-Royal and Marie de Medici’s Luxembourg Palace. By the time of the Revolution, their role had been replaced by local government who faced a city dense through immigration from the countryside; in the 3rd arondissement there were close to 400 persons per acre in 1851, and, starved of physical improvements, one Parisian in forty died in the 1832 cholera epidemic. Stendhal called Parisians “barbarians…having made of their streets a general sewer.”

Before you can plan, you need to measure. The first maps of the city, the city portraits of Turgot and the accurate measurements of Verniquet, made overall urban reorganization thinkable. This appeared for the first time in the 1793 plan by the Commission of Artists, which set out a plan based largely on new streets connecting a city through use and perspective. This first urban plan set forth the idea that movement would be the organizing principle for the modern Paris. But there was no financial mechanism for realizing such a plan. Under the Seine Prefectorship of Rambuteau, for instance, a road meant to be 20 meters wide ended up 13 meters wide. The later Prefect, Berger, refused to engage in deficit spending: “it is not I who will ever borrow the city into ruin,” he said as he left office.

The ascent of Louis Napoleon in 1848 changed the economic formula by which modern Paris was reshaped. He had admired the Regent Street project in London, and apparently had made grand plans for cities while in exile. But he needed the outspoken administrative and fiscal skill of his Prefect of the Seine, Haussmann, the first urban manager of modern times, to execute what had already been foreshadowed in the Artists’ plan half-a-century before, a reticulated multi-centric city. Through deals with developers and banks, Haussmann disposed of public land and received in return expensive buildings lining new boulevards that conformed to rules governing height, materials and street elevation. No deviation from Haussmann’s obsession with conformity was permitted, and these boulevards created the uniform matrix in the central city still there today. By 1870 Haussmann had engaged the city in loans of over 1.5 billion francs, which were fully retired only in 1929. Haussmann’s conception of a modern city was comprehensive; he opened up 95 kilometers of road in the center and 70 outside, and established a system of gas street lighting, a new water supply system, numerous parks and gardens, over 1,000 new trees, the alignment of 15 omnibus companies into one, and various new public buildings such as the Opera and Les Halles. This was accomplished in a period of less than a quarter of a century, bracketed by two major insurrections: the Socialist revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1872. As a model for modernizing the center of a major city through public expenditure resting on a belief that the creation of greater efficiency, attractiveness and general betterment will repay these costs through, amongst others, increased tax revenue and tourist attraction, nineteenth-century Paris is without peer.


Handout for Lecture 9 (PDF - 2.6MB)

  • Page 1: Development in Pairs from the seventeenth to nineteenth century
  • Page 2: Network of streets implemented, thick and inherited streets, thin (Georges-Eugène Haussmann)

Referenced Texts

Fig. 4 from Debord, Guy. “The Naked City.” 1957.

Ten Scenarios for ‘Grand Paris’ Metropolis Now Up for Public Debate.” Bustler, March 13, 2009.

Examples, Precedents, and Works

Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry—Juin, 1750 plan for Paris, The Louvre, Cours-la-Reine, Place Royale and the Carrousel, Place de la Bourse, Rue Rambuteau, Boulevard de Sébastopol, Champs-Élysées, Avenue Foch, Palais Garnier, Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, Paris underground (Paris, France); Paris Street; Rainy Day (Gustave Caillebotte); Académie royale des beaux-arts Bruxelles (Belgium)

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Spring 2013
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