top of page

Boulevards and Balconies
By Jacqueline Cockburn  (11th February  2022)

Horace_Vernet-Barricade_rue_Soufflot (002).jpg

Everyone loves Paris and in a fascinating on-line presentation Dr Jacqueline Cockburn introduced us to the changing style of Impressionism in the city through its architecture. Photographs of the medieval narrow city streets and maps showed the need for alterations to the main thoroughfares and the associated rebuilding was outlined, resulting in what are now regarded classic buildings along the main routes.

The city and indeed the country was in constant turmoil before the mid-19 century and in the wave of unrest which swept much of Europe.

Paris witnessed seven armed uprisings in between 1830 and 1848, with barricades built in the narrow streets.Under Napoleon III a vast public works programme was commissioned from architect George-Eugene Haussmann. Hiring tens of thousands of workers to improve the sanitation, water supply and traffic circulation of the city. Partially, the boulevard system was planned as a mechanism for the easy deployment of troops and artillery, however its main purpose was to help solve the traffic problem in a city and interconnect its landmark buildings.

The population of Paris had doubled since 1815, with no increase in its area. To accommodate the growing population and those forced from the centre by the new boulevards and squares Napoleon III planned to build, he issued a decree annexing eleven surrounding communes, and increasing the number of arrondissements from twelve to twenty, which enlarged the city to its modern boundaries.

For the nearly two decades of Napoleon III's reign, and for a decade afterwards, most of Paris was an enormous construction site. To bring fresh water to the city a new aqueduct to bring clean water from the Vanne River in Champagne, and a huge new reservoir near the future Parc Montsouris. These two works increased the water supply of Paris from 87,000 to 400,000 cubic metres of water a day. They laid hundreds of kilometres of pipes to distribute the water throughout the city, and built a second network, using the less-clean water from the Ourq and the Seine, to wash the streets and water the new park and gardens. They completely rebuilt the Paris sewers, and installed miles of pipes to distribute gas for thousands of new streetlights along the Paris streets.

Beginning in 1854, in the centre of the city, Haussmann's workers tore down hundreds of old buildings and cut eighty kilometres of new avenues, connecting crucial points of the city. Buildings along these avenues were to be the same height and in a similar style, and to be faced with cream-coloured stone local stone, creating the uniform look of Paris boulevards. Victor Hugo mentioned that it was hardly possible to distinguish what the house in front of you was for: theatre, shop or library. Haussmann managed to rebuild the city in 17 years. "On his own estimation the new boulevards and open spaces displaced 350,000 people; ... by 1870 one-fifth of the streets in central Paris were his creation; he had spent ... 2.5 billion francs on the city; ... one in five Parisian workers was employed in the building trade.

To connect the city with the rest of France, Napoleon III built two new railway stations: the Gare de Lyon (1855) and the Gare du Nord (1864). He completed Les Halles, the great iron and glass produce market in the centre of the city, and built a new municipal hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu, in the place of crumbling medieval buildings on the Ile de la Cite. The signature architectural landmark was the Paris Opera, the largest theatre in the world, designed by Charles Garnier, crowning the centre of Napoleon III's new Paris.

Was the rebuilding welcomed - whilst it seems it was good for the wealthy, the dispossessed did not benefit in quite the same way and they turned to alcohol and the drinking of absinthe became a social problem, the latter being banned in 1912. Through the work of artists such as Renoir, Monet and Berthe Morisot the changes in the city and the growth of the embryonic leisure industry were shown. The talk was not just about the work of these well-known French artists of the day but covered a relatively brief period in what is perhaps the favourite city of many of us, with many topics interlocking to provide a story which will, hopefully, resonate on future visits.

Tony Cross


Picture caption

Barricade on Rue Soufflot during the 1848 Revolution.

Horace Vernet, 1848, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A member of The Arts Society
bottom of page