Paris Reborn: Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and The Quest to Build a Modern City by Stephane Kirkland (Review)

Paris in the eighteenth century bore little resemblance to the romantic City of Light that attracts visitors from all over the world today. In 1749, the enlightenment author Voltaire turned a critical eye to his beloved city and wrote the essay “On The Beautification of Paris.” Voltaire observed, “We need public markets, fountains that actually give water, regular intersections, performance halls; we need to widen the narrow and filthy streets, uncover monuments that we cannot see and build new ones to be seen.” The crowded medieval neighbourhoods and shortage of clean drinking water threatened public health.

Readers of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Miserables, and fans of the musical based on the novel will remember that narrow streets were also ideal places for revolutionaries to build barricades and oppose the government. In Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City, former architect and consultant Stephane Kirkland reveals how an Emperor and his appointed Prefect of the Seine created a new Paris that responded to the growth of industrialization and the birth of mass tourism.

The story of Baron Haussman’s radical changes to the Paris streetscape has been told in numerous other English language histories of the city such as Paris: The Biography of a City by Colin Jones and Seven Ages Of Paris by Alistair Horne. Paris Reborn stands out from all these previous works because Kirkland places Napoleon III (President 1848-1852, Emperor 1852-1870) rather than Hausmann at the centre of the book. Hausmann found creative ways to finance the building of grand avenues through the city and new buildings and public health initiatives but the the overarching idea for a new Paris was that of Napoleon III. The failings of the modern Paris, such as the destruction of historic neighborhoods and inadequacy of working class housing also reflected the Emperor’s limitations in the realm of urban design.

The displacement of 20% of the Parisian population during the Second Empire, the controversial destruction of medieval quarters and showcasing of a new Paris required the Emperor’s authority. Those who decried the loss of the old Paris blamed Haussman but the prefect was doing everything his power to create the city envisioned by Napoleon III.

The political career of Napoleon III is central to Paris Reborn but Kirkland fills his engaging account of the building of a new Paris with telling details about the various historical figures who lived in the Emperor’s capital or visited and left their impressions. Queen Victoria, visited Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie with Prince Albert and their two eldest children in the summer of 1855. While the Queen’s green parasol and enormous handbag embroidered with a poodle design could not compete with the fashions of the Empress Eugenie, her presence in Paris was an opportunity to showcase the new city and the legitimacy of the Second Empire.

European Royalty also descended on Paris for the 1867 Universal Exposition, marvelling at grand boulevards, high culture and technological innovations of Napoleon III’s Paris. The Viceroy of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, was so impressed by the performance of the opera bouffe by Jacques Offenbach, The Great Duchess of Gerolstein, that he attended the theatre every night during his stay in Paris. Victor Hugo acknowledged the need for Paris to introduce modern innovations but he decried the loss of so much of the medieval city. (Hugo’s famous 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame celebrated Paris’s Gothic architecture). American author Mark Twain sardonically noted that the grand boulevards were perfect for firing a cannonball straight through a revolutionary barricade and the medical discoveries of Louis Pasteur inspired the rebuilding of the historic Hotel Dieu.

Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City is a well researched and beautifully written account of the building of Napoleon III’s Paris. Kirkland places the Emperor and his vision at the centre of the narrative and includes the perspectives of a diverse array of historical figures who all had their own expectations of the historic city and the rebuilding that occured in their lifetimes. I recommend Paris Reborn to anyone interested in nineteenth century royalty and/or birth of the modern Paris.

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