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What lies beneath

Ruth Lang

An exhibition at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal in Paris dissects Haussmann’s intervention in the city, from grand plans to details of street furniture

Haussmann's Paris: accessible.
Haussmann's Paris: accessible.

The grand plan of the architect is not an uncommon trope in architectural history. ‘Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realised. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work,’ said Daniel Burnham, who went on to reshape Chicago’s skyline irrevocably – not only in the creation of the first steel-framed skyscraper with his business partner John Root, but in his 1909 plan for the development of the city.

Similar plans were made for the rebuilding of many major cities – including those for London by Wren, and the LCC’s post-war work with Patrick Abercrombie – but few of their authors were imbued with the powers necessary to see their proposals through in their entirety. While the conceptual basis of their aspirations differed fundamentally in adopting an additive or subtractive approach, they are united in being largely illegible in the contemporary urban fabric.

Contrast this with the aesthetic unity of Paris, driven by a simple plan, albeit a drastic one. Baron Haussmann, then merely a civil servant, of course, was given the authority and the finances to overhaul the city in a manner contemporary urban planners can only dream of. The current exhibition in Paris’ Pavillon de l’Arsenal demonstrates the perversity of some of the grand moves his pen lines imposed over original street patterns, the seemingly arbitrary curtailments to the fabric of the city demolishing entire blocks to widen the street by a foot or to chamfer a corner. But this was not mere pattern making. Haussmann’s plans shifted in scale from that of the urban plan to the detail of street furniture, balconies and chimney lines. What is surprising is the wiggle room such a holistic plan of strictly determined parameters allows for ingenuity in detail, accommodating a rich diversity which underpins the character of the city and the ways we inhabit it. The result is shown to be a city that is a model of sustainability in all senses of the word; geological, infrastructional, transportational, financial, functional and ecological. Haussmann’s Paris is far more than just a pretty face. 

  • Haussmann's Paris: adaptable…
    Haussmann's Paris: adaptable…
  • …appropriable in its urban space…
    …appropriable in its urban space…
  • …constant despite its variations…
    …constant despite its variations…
  • … and iconic with its building creating a strong identity.
    … and iconic with its building creating a strong identity.

The results of the plan are investigated by architects Benoit Jallon and Umberto Napolitano and engineer Franck Boutté in both qualitative and quantitative terms, churning through seemingly endless permutations of data concerning building envelope geometries and pedestrian travel routes. The breadth and variety of the investigation is impressive, not only in terms of its coverage, but also the refined beauty of the outputs, from an exhaustive taxonomy of building forms, to a laser-cut comparative study of tectonic details. This is not detracted from by some aspects such as the more granular comparison of particular areas of cities across the world – juxtaposing the Parisian experience with that of Chicago, Manila (also planned by Burnham, though only partially realised) and a frustratingly unrecognisable corner of London – which appear arbitrary in comparison.

The premise of what literally and figuratively lies beneath the plan is explored via the importance of the sewerage and water systems introduced by Eugene Belgrand to eradicate disease in such a densely populated city, and the sectional hierarchy of access routes. Shown in juxtaposition with Cyrille Weiner’s streetscape photographs, this demonstrates how it is often the less immediately obvious parameters of Haussmann’s plan that create the most Parisian of streetscapes. If you hadn’t noticed already, this exhibition is a planning geek’s dream come true.

  • Haussmann's Paris: a total solution down to the detail of street furniture.
    Haussmann's Paris: a total solution down to the detail of street furniture.
  • Some of a series of door panels.
    Some of a series of door panels.
  • Designing from the largest scale to the smallest.
    Designing from the largest scale to the smallest.

On first impressions, it could have been a twee cliché of little substance beyond stylistic concerns, yet much like the plan itself it warrants exploring beyond the immediately apparent face it presents. This is a comprehensive demonstration of just how all-encompassing architectural considerations are, both in historical research and contemporary relevance. In the ongoing debate about how we might build the ‘model town’ or ‘garden village’, Haussmann reminds us that success is not only about the physical matter of building, but in establishing the invisible infrastructure that makes a place sustainable in more than just the superficial sense.

Ruth Lang is a senior lecturer at Central Saint Martins, and is currently completing a PhD at Newcastle University

Pavillon de l’Arsenal, Paris, until 7 May 2017