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Baron Haussmann became Prefect of the Seine in 1853. The transformations of Paris under the Second Empire, or "Haussmannian works", were a comprehensive modernization of the French capital carried out between 1853 and 1870 by Napoleon III and his prefect.
Until then, Paris had been an unhealthy, labyrinthine and dangerous city. There was no direct way of getting from the south to the north of the capital. The city inherited a medieval and anachronistic urban network. The main problem for the inhabitants was getting around.
The city was in the midst of a crisis of impoverishment and overpopulation, with the poorest social groups crowding into the heart of the capital, raising the risk of epidemics. With the development of hygienism in the mid-19th century, advocating a new approach to the human environment, the regime wanted to clean up and beautify the capital, taking its inspiration from London, which had been transformed by the Industrial Revolution and the Universal Exhibition of 1851. According to the ideas of the time, tall houses and narrow streets prevented air circulation and the evacuation of disease-carrying miasmas and effluents.
The emperor chose a strong man whose mission would be to aerate, beautify and architecturally unify the city. The watchword of the day: "Everything must circulate": air, people, money. The aim was to make Paris a showcase for the Imperial regime, in the name of modernization and progress.
In 20 years, 70 new thoroughfares were created, more than 40,000 buildings constructed, 9 bridges built or widened, 20 parks laid out or planted, such as the Bois de Vincennes and the Bois de Boulogne, which are still the two lungs of the metropolis today.
A model of construction
The exterior facade is the main element of Haussmann architecture: private buildings must respect the same height and the same main front lines to form a homogeneous architectural whole.
Everything must line up: facades, floors, cornices, balconies. Heights were strictly regulated and proportional to the width of the road, never exceeding 6 storeys. Floors were assigned according to social class, providing an insight into the hierarchical order of 19th-century bourgeois Paris:
- The first floor was the level with the highest ceilings, as it was used for commercial purposes. In addition, the second floor, or "entresol", was used to store merchandise,
- The second floor, or noble floor, was the bourgeoisie floor par excellence. Balconies, window surrounds and moldings added character to the décor,
- The third and fourth floors were more classical, with sober window frames,
- The fifth floor featured a balcony, but was only intended for a more modest class,
- The attics, or maids' rooms, and the top floor were used as servants' quarters and apartments.
The creation of new, rectilinear axes in the capital usually culminated in a monumental public building: opera houses, railway stations, bridges, fountains. These axes were also intended to make it impossible to build barricades, while allowing the forces of law-and-order easy access to the hotbeds of revolt to suppress them.
The Napoleon III style
The massive use of cut stone magnified the skills of French stonemasons. Despite their homogeneity, the facades, often decorated with mythological statues, are as numerous as they are varied: caryatids, atlatls, cherubs, fanciful bestiaries and exotic flora and fauna are all part of an eclectic mix. This aesthetic variety gave rise to the Napoleon III style, inspired by Greco-Roman architecture, the Italian and French Renaissance, and the neoclassicism of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Paris Opera or Opéra Garnier (named after its architect) symbolizes the apogee of the Napoleon III style.
The transformations undertaken by the emperor and his baron profoundly altered the appearance of Paris, giving it its current appearance. Although the work was criticized from the outset for its cost and the destruction of older architectural heritage, today we can see the beauty of the Haussmann style that gives Paris its unique charm.
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