In Paris Reborn: Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann and the Quest to Build a Modern City, urban planning and architecture blogger Stephane Kirkland describes the Second Empire transformation of the City of Light from a medieval maze to a modern metropolis.
What initially drew you to this story—Paris, or the people who remade it?
It was definitely the city. What intrigued me was how much of the Paris we experience today draws directly from a quite concentrated period in history. When you are aware of the history, you see signs of the Second Empire everywhere. I was also struck by how enthusiastically the main protagonists of this era projected themselves into the future. They embraced technologies and new opportunities; they were not afraid of the unknown.
Napoleon III viewed city planning as an imperial duty. Fortunately, he and Baron Haussman developed a highly effective working relationship. Could the emperor have achieved similar results with anyone else?
Napoleon III enjoyed the work of urban planning to an extent that is highly unusual for the leader of a country. As a pragmatic military man with a keen interest in science, engineering, and contemporary social issues, he could immerse himself in concrete and ambitious projects. Urban planning brought together these interests in a way that perfectly suited his personality. I do believe that there is one other person besides Haussman who understood the emperor’s vision: the Duc de Persigny. But ultimately, Haussmann was more wily, more determined, and more uncompromising.
You employ Haussmann’s own writings to help establish the political environment at the time. Were these writings merely self-aggrandizing, or were they honest reflections?
Without a doubt, Haussmann’s writings are self-serving. He is a master of the lie by omission. One has to use his writings very carefully. Haussmann’s notoriety is in good part a direct result of the fact that his accounts have been parroted over time with little critical perspective. He has basically been allowed to write the historical record unchallenged. In some cases I was able to compare Haussmann’s account with another perspective on the same events. In others, I took Haussmann’s version more as an example of his thought process than as a truthful account.
How much of Napoleon III’s failure to create acceptable public housing was due to design flaws, and how much was due to continuing social unrest?
To begin with, it was a very tough issue. In the mid-19th century, France was essentially a rural and quite conservative country. The constant inflow of poor, uneducated people into the capital city created very difficult conditions. Despite this, a great deal was done to make the city a place where a new society would be built. However, the government never really faced the issues of the working class other than through a paternalistic and conservative form of social welfare. Napoleon III’s earlier writings and actions show that he had the raw material for a sweeping social vision, but his regime never took to heart the implementation of an ambitious social program.