Capital’s Capital

Christopher Prendergast

  • Haussmann: His Life and Times, and the Making of Modern Paris by Michel Carmona, translated by Patrick Camiller
    Ivan Dee, 480 pp, £25.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 15 666342 2

In September 1848, Louis-Napoleon returned from his long exile in London armed with a startling blueprint for what he was later to call his ‘plan for the embellishment of Paris’. It consisted of a colour-coded roll of parchment representing the soon-to-be Emperor’s provisional thoughts on the renovation of the capital’s thoroughfares. This was the Urtext of the drastic transformations to the material and social fabric of Paris that were to take place during most of the Second Empire (the term ‘transformation’ was used for the first time in connection with city-planning during this period). The canonical image of Louis-Napoleon remains Marx’s withering portrait in The Eighteenth Brumaire, that of the supreme con-man in the age of con-men and hucksters (‘the serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy but his comedy for world history’). But where the remaking of Paris is concerned, opinion about his legacy was and continues to be sharply divided, with a growingly influential school of revisionism which has Louis-Napoleon as a key player in a necessary process of ‘modernisation’ (roughly where Michel Carmona stands) or as a star figure in the creation of ‘the city as a work of art’ (the title of Donald Olsen’s book on the subject, published in 1988).

Aesthetics were not Louis-Napoleon’s strong point. In the eclectic medley of Second Empire styles, his basic preferences were Modernist; he was a glass-and-iron man, as evidenced by his enthusiasm for the new Les Halles, and actively disliked the Gothic revival (the Empress, by contrast, was an ardent gothicist). On the other hand, he was also conservatively classical in his fondness for the straight line and the monumental vista (the straight line, Carmona maintains, was quintessentially French, while omitting to mention that this was so largely from the point of view of the ruling classes: Victor Hugo, in his ‘Guerre aux démolisseurs’, attacked the obsession with the straight line by linking it directly to the oppressive exercise of state authority). The Emperor’s main objectives, however, were strictly practical: to make the city safer, cleaner, more unified, above all a city for circulation (of bodies, goods and money), a city for the Age of Capital. Underlying this commitment there was also a fantasy of the great imperial city, centre and symbol of power, especially commercial power, a city of display in which the outstanding commodity to be looked at was the city itself, often in the mirror of the World Exhibitions (one reason why Second Empire Paris has so often attracted partisans of Guy Debord’s notion of the société du spectacle).

What of the man who gave his name eponymously to this massive Parisian facelift, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann? Fervently loyal to his master, even after his fall from favour (over alleged financial mismanagement), Haussmann always maintained that the Emperor was the prime inspiration for the whole undertaking. In his memoirs he wrote that he would not have succeeded in his endeavours ‘unless I had really been the expression, organ or instrument of a great idea conceived by him and for which I should give him the principal merit’. Since this was written long after Louis-Napoleon’s death, we can take it at face value rather than as the flattery of a courtier. Yet, without the energy and determination of Haussmann during his near 17-year tenure as Prefect of Paris, it is inconceivable that the Emperor’s dreams would have been translated into reality, and it is naturally what he is now remembered for; Haussmann has become indistinguishable from Haussmannisation.

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