Monday, October 15, 2012

The power of the state to remake cities

Paris before and after Haussmann
Cities are always connected closely to their controlling governmental regime. Rulers often create, or re-make, capital cities in order to make political statements. Urban planning and architecture can convey public messages about power, control, memory, legitimacy, symbolism, and other governmental concerns. Cities that are not capitals usually have to accommodate rulers, officials, or bureaucrats who manage, supply, or regulate them. It is impossible for us to fully understand the forms and activities of cities--ancient or modern--without taking their political or administrative context into account.

I have always been intrigued about the remodeling of Paris in the 19th century under the direction of Baron Haussmann. When Cindy and I were in Paris a couple of years ago, we visited the apartment of a friend. She lived in an old building, and her apartment had a strange shape and layout. She told us that Baron Haussmann had widened her street, and in the process the front part of the building (perhaps 3 to 5 meters) had been shaved off and a new exterior wall added. What had been a narrow curving alley was turned into a wider and straight street.

The Paris we see today is largely a creation of Baron Haussmann. This is not to deny that the layout of the earlier Roman and Medieval cities influenced the form of contemporary Paris - these influences are clear throughout the center of the city.  (And when you visit Paris, be sure to tour the excavations of the Roman and Medieval ruins under the plaza in front of Notre Dame. You go down a poorly marked stairway that looks like a metro stop, at the opposite end of the plaza from the cathedral. The ruins are fascinating, and the exhibit is very well done.)

Marville and Moncan images
In 1852, the French ruler Napoleon III hired  Baron Haussmann to modernize Paris, and the two decades of work produced perhaps the largest urban renewal project of all time. There were several components of Haussmann's remodeling: wide straight boulevards, a new sewer system that ran beneath them, and a new emphasis on railroad tracks and train stations. Planning historian Peter Hall has this to say about the boulevards:
They would simultaneously achieve several key objectives: they would free up traffic, give access to the new [train] stations, make the suburbs accessible, clear slums to make the city healthier, create a monumental city that would be the envy of the civilized works and--not least--guard the city against demonstrations and civil disturbances. (Hall 1998: 718).
Rounding up the Commune, 1871
Riots and demonstrations had been a real problem in nineteenth century Paris, and the narrow crooked streets made it easy for demonstrators to wall off sections of the city to keep the police and military out. Haussmann's redesign didn't eliminate public rebellions in Paris, but as the members of the Paris Commune in 1871 found out, the wide streets made it much easier for authorities to put down the rebellion and round up the rebels.

Marville and Moncan images
Most of the photos in this post are before/after pictures of specific places in Paris. Photographer Charles Marville took many photos in Paris before and during Haussmann's project, and they are fascinating (and very high quality) images. More recently, photographer Patrice de Moncan located the positions of many of Marville's images and took photos of those places today. They are published side-by-side in Marville and Mancon (2010), a fantastic book. Many of Marville's photographs are posted online, and there are other books that publish large collections.

Urban renewal
Some of my favorite Marville photographs are the shantytown images. While there are slums ringing Paris today, we usually don't think about the city being filled with shantytowns. But this shouldn't be surprising; see some of my earlier posts on shantytowns, or on visual and spatial order in cities.

One of Haussmann's sewers
Hall notes that left-wing critics of Haussmann have "argued that the demolitions were deliberately designed to clear neighborhoods with a strong working-class revolutionary consciousness" (Hall 1998:728). Haussmann was very attuned to the importance of neighborhoods in cities, and he designed the system of urban districts (arrondissments) still used today. The older neighborhoods had been grass-roots places where residents organized themselves (whether to simply structure and help urban life, or to resist the state). The new districts, by contrast, were administrative units imposed by the state to help regulate Paris. See some of my prior posts, such as "Do all cities have neighborhoods?", or "Neighborhoods in semi-urban settlements."

It is much harder to study urban renewal projects at ancient cities, before photography and before extensive historical documentation. If Haussmann had been redesigning Augustan Rome, we would probably know his name and have some idea of what he did. If he had been redesigning Teotihuacan, we would never know his name and we would have only the faintest idea that the city had been redesigned. In fact there was a program of urban renewal at Teotihuacan. Most of the residential neighborhoods of the ancient city were built over a single period of a century or less, covering what had been earlier houses, fields, and irrigation canals. Was there an ancient Baron Haussmann in charge of this operation? Was he an direct state official or an independent contractor? Did the public make fun of him in political cartoons? The more we can learn about how city forms and planning relate to social conditions and activities, the better we will be able to understanding ancient urban changes. And the better we can understand ancient cities, the better our chances of figuring out what is universal and what is unique in cities in the wide urban world, across the ages.

Gandy, Matthew
Haussmann as a busy beaver
1999    The Paris Sewers and the Rationalization of Urban Space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24 (1): 23-44. 

Hall, Peter
1998    Cities in Civilization. Pantheon, New York.

Jordan, David P.
1995    Transforming Paris: The Life and Labors of Baron Haussmann. Free Press, New York

Kirkman, Emily
2007     Haussmann's Paris: Architecture in the Era of Napoleon III. Art History Archive (online).

Marville, Charles and Patrice de Moncan
2010    Paris, Avant Après: 19e siècle, 21e siècle. Les Editions du Mécène, Paris.

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