View on Rue de Castiglione looking at the Place Vendôme in Paris 1900

Haussmann and the buildings of Paris – France

Baron Haussmann, 1865

Baron Haussmann, 1865

Baron Haussmann

The Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann (1809-1891), Prefect of the Seine under the Second Empire, dramatically reenvisioned Paris at the request of Napoleon III. The emperor had spent several years in London, and that capital’s superior technical infrastructure inspired him to change Paris’s urban landscape. Napoleon III wanted to change the essentially medieval city of Paris into a modern capital, with wide streets, large parks and updated sewage systems, and to accommodate new modes of transportation.

On naming Haussmann the Prefect of the Seine, the emperor gave him the power to enforce these transformations and Haussmann surrounded himself with a good multidisciplinary team. In the following years, he created breakthroughs, large straight avenues edged with trees and stone buildings to visually connect the key points of the city. In so doing, he razed entire neighborhoods, and became increasingly unpopular as he gradually erased most of the city’s medieval character and the financing of the works became more and more adventurous. Controversial as it was, his plan represented the first attempt of planning a large city by reorganizing its functional, technical, and administrative aspects. His work decisively determined the appearance of Paris for the centuries to come.

View on Rue de Castiglione looking at the Place Vendôme in Paris 1900

View on Rue de Castiglione looking at the Place Vendôme in Paris 1900 © Brooklyn Museum

The buildings

The overall urban picture was deemed more important than the architecture of individual buildings; structures had to conform to the strict street plan. Even the monuments had to fit themselves into the uniform cityscape, as they were used to emphasize the most important points of the city: road crossings and the vanishing point of a perspective (view-axis). Architecture in that period was quite eclectic and styles were chosen to suit the function of each building: the churches are neo-Gothic, neo-Romanesque, neo-Byzantine, while the civilian buildings neo-Renaissance or neoclassical.

From the outset, Haussmann requires that the buildings obey some architectural rules about the height and the number of floors for buildings. He often specified the construction materials to use according to the prestige of the different areas of the town. An aesthetic gradation, parallel to the social gradation, however introduces some variety: From houses for workers and small manufacturers to rich houses of the boulevards. His goal of a harmonious cityscape led to the repetitive use of certain basic elements with finely varying details. Even though Haussmann himself never drafted a single building, through regulations he defined a style for the bourgeois apartment building of the end of the nineteenth century.

The so-called “Haussmann style” buildings usually have from five to seven floors, designed to accommodate several families of varying social classes under the same roof, mark the emergence of a new civil society. The new buildings along the wide boulevards, with facades built out of cut stones, possess a continuous balcony on the second and fifth floor and the mansard roofs are with roof hatches, which lighted the rooms of the service personnel.

Bird's-Eye View of Paris from Arch of Triumph 1915

Bird’s-Eye View of Paris from Arch of Triumph 1915 © OSU Special Collections & Archives

A social diversity on different floors

The ground floor was usually designed with commerce in mind and the first floor to house the building’s shopkeepers. The second floor (French “étage noble”) was for the wealthier families. High enough from the road to avoid noise but not too many stairs to climb. Elevators were still new and very expensive and only installed in prestigious places like the Grands Hôtels.

The most generous apartments, with the highest ceilings and large balconies, were on this floor. The floor plans were derived from those of aristocratic apartments of the 18th century: salon, dining rooms and bedrooms lie behind the main facade, while the secondary rooms, such as the kitchen, orient themselves to the courtyard. The apartments were decorated conservatively and the ornaments concentrate on the balconies and cornice.

On the higher floors, the ceilings were built lower and the presence of balconies and other luxuries depended on the architect who designed the building. The top floor was reserved for servant staff and was a warren of small independent rooms (French “chambres des bonnes”) with shared bathroom facilities. Sometimes the staff often had their own stairwell on the yard side, which gave a direct access to the kitchen. For a long time those rooms, now outfitted with private baths, were typical student apartments or have been connected to larger apartments to give views over the zinc roofs of Paris.

Works done during the second empire (1852-1870) in Paris

Works done during the second empire (1852-1870) in Paris

The modernisation of the buildings

In recent decades, these Haussman style buildings have generally been brough up to date. Many have had elevators installed, and as such the higher apartments have become the most sought after, as they are quieter and have more natural light. The basements are still used as simple cellars; only a few buildings have transformed them into underground parking.

It is recommended for the buildings to have an external facelift all 10 to 15 years to remove air pollution stains. A clean facade is generally a first sign for the overall quality of the building, since regular maintenance is all the more necessary for these 19th century structures with nearly 150 years of existence. In general the variety of the apartments is huge and quality depends on the time and money invested in the upkeep over the years. Some of the apartments have kept their original charm with decorative finishes, wooden floors, and fireplaces. Others were given a total makeover in the 1970s and 80s, resulting in a sometimes interesting contrast between the historic facades and the modern interiors. The latest trend has been to modernize these apartments just enough, while preserving their traditional charm.

Author: Christian Horn is the head of the architecture and urban planning office rethink

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