The Paris Opera House opened in 1875

The men who destroyed Paris—and then rebuilt it

City of Light tells the story of the French capital's 19th century reinvention
August 21, 2018

The foundation stone of the Palais Garnier, Paris’s sparkling new opera house, was laid a mere six months before that of Montmartre’s imposing Sacré-Cœur. The year was 1875, and France was a Republic once more. The Garnier and all its lavish opulence was the culmination of the capital’s metamorphosis. Rupert Christiansen navigates this period of redevelopment via the relationship of its primary architects: Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte III, who had been deposed in 1870, and his fastidious Prefect of the Seine, Georges Eugène Haussmann.

Louis’s ambition was simple. Rather than oppressing his citizens he would awe them, not just through modern thoroughfares “roughly sketched out in blue, red, yellow and green crayons” but “in terms of sheer spectacle, parade, pageantry and exhibition —one big long party.”

From the extension of the banlieues to updated water conduits and the spacious tunnels of a vastly more hygienic sewer system—a major tourist attraction—Haussmann also masterminded landscaping projects that increased parkland from 20 hectares in 1850 to over 1,600 by 1870.

Many bemoaned the sweeping away of cramped, romantic streets. Christiansen, however, an opera critic and cultural historian, takes a more nuanced approach: although “an ideology of efficiency was the impulse,” the “clogged arteries” of Paris were in dire need of a transplant.

All this came at the cost of displacing countless families, causing astronomic increases in rent and furthering the prosperity of the rich west side.

Haussmann’s drive was relentless: the Île de la Cité slums were attacked “with a blowtorch”—an evocative turn of phrase from the author who maintains the pace and energy. After two decades of construction came Bismarck in 1870, a siege and the hideous semaine sanglante: but the city bounced back, and within a few years the opera house was opened, completing Haussmann’s legacy.

City of Light: The Reinvention of Paris by Rupert Christiansen (Head of Zeus, £18.99)