When we think of Paris today, we often think of it as the most romantic city (read here as lovers posing before the Eiffel Tower and smooching as they pose before the camera) and one of the most picture-perfect colossal pieces of architecture (also read here as posing before the Eiffel Tower).
Several people I know list Paris in their bucket list. My sister even requested a trip to Paris instead of celebrating her 18th birthday through an extravagant debut celebrations. But once upon a time, the center of Paris was overcrowded, dark, dangerous, and unhealthy. Mid-19th century French political figure Victor Considerant even commented “Paris is an immense workshop of putrefaction, where misery, pestilence and sickness work in concert, where sunlight and air rarely penetrate. Paris is a terrible place where plants shrivel and perish, and where, of seven small infants, four die during the course of the year.”
So how did Paris become the city that it is today?
We go back to France sometime in 1848 and 1849, Louis Napoléon Bonaparte (nope, he is different from the Napoléon Bonaparte but related because he is his nephew) won the first ever presidential elections in France. His political platform: to end poverty and improve the lives of ordinary people. A traveler, President Bonaparte was so impressed with the wide streets, public squares and parks of London and wanted to emulate that in his Paris. In 1852, he declared Paris as the heart of France and the French people must be united in an effort to embellish it into a great city. His city planners and engineers began developing the city into something like . . . London: first on the list of significant transformations is a forest (Bolougne Forest) transformed into a wide park ala London’s Hyde Park.
But Bonaparte’s term as president was expiring. The French constitution prohibited him to run for a second term. He feared that his dream of transforming Paris into a Great City would not come into fruition. The solution: coup d’état. Bonaparte extended his term as the President of France and adapted the name Napoléon III, the Emperor of France through the support of the French Army. Frustrated with his earlier urban planners and architect (and of course, his distrust from his previous administrators – let’s call that paranoia), he called for the best architects and urban planners in Europe and eventually selected Georges Eugène Haussmann to work on his desires to manicure Paris as an important city in the entire European continent.
Haussmann became the Prefect of the Seine. The self-proclaimed Emperor (Louis Napoléon Bonaparte) showed him the map of Paris and instructed him to make Paris breathable and create more open spaces for every Parisian (aérer) to unify the different parts of the city – connecting all locations via walking trails (unifier), and to make it it more beautiful (embellir) – a city that would be envied by other cities.
One of the first works Haussmann did was to establish the grande croisée de Paris, (The Great Cross of Paris). Think of it as the main marker of Paris for Parisians at that time. For my Filipino friends, the best analogy is to think of Rizal Park/Luneta Park as Kilometer Zero in the Luzon Island. Sooner, Haussmann was able to design and execute the desired architectural and cultural landscapes of the Emperor, which paved the way for Haussmann to gain more power than any politicians in France at that time (yes, the favorite son of the Emperor!).
The creation of Paris as a grand city was not without consequences – a lot of the original settlers (Parisians) were displaced, several political prisoners and even French citizens from the outskirts were brought to the city and were forced to do manual labor. In effect, there is a reverberation of the leaderships of the original Napoléon Bonaparte, Louis XIV, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Haussmann’s success was hailed as France’s “triumphant vulgarity.” Some French citizens regretted that Hausmann destroyed a historic part of the city by destroying some places which he thought to be ugly and incompatible to the grand plan of the Emperor. In Le Paris d’Haussmann, Jules Ferry, Haussmann’s most vocal critic in the French parliament, proclaimed “We weep with our eyes full of tears for the old Paris, the Paris of Voltaire, of Desmoulins, the Paris of 1830 and 1848, when we see the grand and intolerable new buildings, the costly confusion, the triumphant vulgarity, the awful materialism, that we are going to pass on to our descendants.”
Whether or not Haussmann’s work contributed to the city’s historical “decay,” there is no doubt, his vision of Paris contributed to how it is admired today. In fact, Paris is considered one of the most aesthetically planned urban centers in the world. In 1991, UNESCO inscribed 365 hectares of Parisian land as a World Heritage Site. The inscription notes the influence of Haussmann’s to town and city planning since the late 1900’s.
As a World Heritage Site (Paris, Banks of the Seine), the property consists of colossal buildings (religious structures, shopping malls, museums, government offices, etc.), architectural wonders (hello, Eiffel Tower!), parks, bridges, wide roads and fountains all attributed to the genius of Haussmann.
According to the World Heritage Committee, the property represents an outstanding exemplar of human genius: “the banks of the Seine are studded with a succession of architectural and urban masterpieces built from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, including the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the Sainte Chapelle, the Louvre, the Palais de l’Institut, the Hôtel des Invalides, Place de la Concorde, Ecole Militaire, the Monnaie (the Mint), the Grand Palais of the Champs Elysées, the Eiffel Tower and the Palais de Chaillot.”
Also, its inscription is based on n important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world (“[B]uildings along the Seine, such as Notre-Dame and the Sainte Chapelle, became the source of the spread of Gothic architecture, while the Place de la Concorde and the vista at the Invalides exerted influence on urban development of European capitals, as stated in the WHC report), on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning (“Haussmann’s urban planning, which marks the western part of the city, inspired the construction of the great cities of the New World, in particular in Latin America”) or landscape design (“the Eiffel Tower and the Grand and Petit Palais, the Pont Alexandre III and the Palais de Chaillot are the living testimony of the universal exhibitions, which were of such great importance in the 19th and 20th centuries).
Finally, the property is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates significant stages in human history: the landscapes, decorative art, and technology employed nearly over eight centuries.
It was definitely an amazing experience to walk along the streets of Paris. The moment I stepped out of the Metro, I felt time was frozen. It was as if I came back in the late 1800’s. If not with the modern clothes and influx of tourist, I would not even be convinced that I am in the present.
In a way, I felt the tremendous hard-work of Haussmann – there is nothing not fascinating about this inscribed property. It was an overwhelming experience that I wanted to stay for another week to completely digest how the city was planned, designed and executed.
Following the tradition of walking the city (oh yes, I am invoking de Certeau), I made sure to” be lifted out of the city’s grasp.” To walk the city is not to encounter an idealistic view of the city (i.e. the touristy way of climbing to the Eiffel Tower to see a grasp of Paris) because that kind of viewing fails to account the everyday life and experience of it. De Certeau reminds me to experience Paris to the streets!
And with that I started the walk to the Notre Dame.
To be continued . . . .