City of Light by Rupert Christiansen

Reviewed by Karen Langley

The city of Paris exerts an eternal fascination; chic and glamorous, the haunt of revolutionaries and intellectuals, and stuffed with romance, it can be many things to many people. There are claims that it’s known as the City of Light because of its leading role during the Age of Enlightenment, or simply because it was one of the first cities to adopt gas street lighting. However, Rupert Christiansen’s intriguing new book takes a look at another aspect – the transformation of a grubby, mediaeval city into a modern metropolis full of wide open spaces; and mostly as a result of the efforts of one man – Baron Haussmann.

City of Light is part of the Landmark Library, a series of books brought out by Head of Zeus which aim to record various “achievements of humankind” over the centuries. However, this volume is particularly impressive, as although it sets out to chart the changes which took place to take the city from its squalid state into an exemplary piece of modern planning, it goes much further.

The changes to Paris took place under the aegis of Emperor Napoleon III during the country’s Second Empire (and a brief look at any online source will reveal how complex France’s political state has been through the centuries). Interestingly, I’d always understood that much of the motivation for the ripping down of the slums and the building of the wide open roads was as a result of the French Revolutions that had gone before; the argument being that it would therefore be much more difficult for the kind of insurgencies which relied on street fighting (although as will be seen in this book, that did not hold true…). However, Christiansen opines that this was not necessarily the case, and that in fact the improvements came as much from Haussmann’s OCD and his desire for a clean and modern city. On the latter’s dramatic actions on the Ile de la Cite, for example, Christiansen comments:

It has been suggested that Haussmann’s vendetta was motivated by personal neurosis – as a sickly asthmatic child repelled by dirt and terrified of foul air, he had traumatically been obliged to cross the Ile from his home to school every morning. Now he had his revenge.

So the works commenced, regardless of the human cost; slums were knocked down, Les Halles market remade, the uneven land levelled, new boulevards and magnificent buildings constructed, and a marvellous new sewage system was built. The project was not a quick one, taking decades to complete and still continuing after Haussmann’s death; but it created the centre of Paris that we see nowadays, with its wide open spaces, parks and green areas, tree-lined boulevards and relatively uniform dwelling houses.

However, Christiansen takes on more than just a construction project, and where the book excels is in stating the whole of the historical context clearly. France suffered from a bewildering succession of monarchs, republics, empires and Napoleons, so much so that the casual reader might be forgiven for losing track. Christiansen’s elegant narrative oozes clarity and relates the background to the need for change, the delicate and complex negotiations required to get things done, as well as the aftermath; for the Paris Commune of 1870 proved that it was still possible to take to the streets, which the Parisians did after a disastrous war with Prussia, and the consequences were as bloody as any of the many French Revolutions.

I found City of Light to be an absolutely fascinating read. Christiansen’s lucid narrative is informative and interesting, and although he tends to walk a neutral line, I found myself coming up with lots of thoughts about the whole process of regeneration that Paris went through. As is so often the case with the rebuilding of towns and cities, it’s the poor that lose out. Yes, they were living in filthy slums; but the reconstruction of Paris was not for them and they were pushed out into suburbs like Belleville and Melinmontant which retained their quirky architecture well into the twentieth century. Alas, much of that individuality has now been ripped out too; a quick look, for example, at what’s happened to the neighbourhood of the iconic Rue Vilin steps, featured in so many French movies and beloved of Georges Perec, will make your hair curl.

It could be argued that what Haussmann actually did – the building of the boulevards through Paris, the knocking down of the mediaeval street plan – was the ultimate example of gentrification. Yes, the defeating of disease and the laying on of decent sewage systems et al was essential for the survival of the city; and the descriptions of the (non) treatment of human waste before the improvements will make you want to gag. However, Haussmann eventually came something of a cropper when he took on the issue of the lack of burial ground in the city. As Christiansen explains, the predominance of the Catholic religion meant that until the 1960s (when the Vatican sanctioned cremation) the only option was burial and there just wasn’t the space. His buying up of a considerable amount of land on the outskirts where it was planned to build a new necropolis became public knowledge and his image slipped. The furore that followed meant the end of his career, although his plans to improve the city continued on afterwards.

However, as so often happens with grand Utopian plans, the improvements were for the few and not the many. The whole process also calls into question whether we want our cities to grow organically or be planned; as Christiansen points out, many Parisians find the boulevards soulless, and what looks good on an architect’s drawing board can be a totally different thing when it becomes a real, lived experience. The human element is lost when a project is on such a vast scale; and gentrification can rip out the heart of a place.

City of Light certainly provides much stimulus for discussion, one that is particularly relevant in Britain today. Parts of London, for example, have survived without being torn to bits although sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case for much longer. Arguments about preservation and regeneration are emotive ones; but I think I would personally feel happier about much urban restructuring if it wasn’t the case, as it was in Paris, that the poor were forced out of their homes to make way for the moneyed classes. Christiansen looks at the legacy of Haussmann’s work, briefly mentioning a number of instances where this kind of wholesale razing and rebuilding have taken place (most notably with Robert Moses’s clearances in New York); although he remains optimistic about the future of Paris’s architecture.

Christiansen’s book is a worthy addition to the Landmark Library. Lavishly illustrated with photographs and artwork from the period, it’s printed on beautiful, quality paper and comes complete with a built-in ribbon bookmark. But the contents match the appearance, bringing an erudite, interesting and balanced discussion of not only the building of modern Paris, but also the political events surrounding those changes, as well as much illuminating biographical information about all the figures involved. A fascinating read for anyone interested in the history and construction of the City of Light.

Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and has visiting Paris on her bucket list. 

Rupert Christiansen, City of Light (Head of Zeus, 2018). 978-1786894546, 183pp, hardback.

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  1. Pingback: Rebuilding the Parisian Landscape @ShinyNewBooks @Head_ofZeus | Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

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