A concise yet admirably thorough account of the reinvention of one of the world’s great cities.
Longtime Daily Telegraph arts writer Christiansen (Literature/Keble Coll., Oxford; I Know You Are Going to be Happy: The Story of a Sixties Family, 2013, etc.), who has won the Somerset Maugham Award, opens with the 1875 debut of architect Charles Garnier's opulent, ostentatious Opéra, the very emblem of Second Empire extravagance. But the real story begins decades earlier. Many readers think of Paris as a timeless museum of grace and beauty. In 1853, when French Emperor Louis Napoleon undertook a massive public works program under the direction of the brilliant but ruthless Baron Haussmann, much of Paris was, in fact, a fetid slum with a few sanctuaries of splendor. Inspired by the emperor’s admiration for London's municipal works, cost (both monetary and human) would be no object. The author details how this campaign of leveling and building transformed Paris from curved forms into straight lines and broad vistas, creating almost as much upheaval as improvement. He gives due credit to Haussmann's key collaborators, demonstrating how an ideology of efficiency ruled and how a banking boom underwrote it—along with immense government debt. While giving voice to Haussmann's most ardent critics, who were appalled by his aesthetic and deplored the banality of the new Paris' thirst for amusement, Christiansen shows how many of the more sensible measures were social investments that benefited everyone, especially sanitation, the greening of Paris, and the educational reforms of Jean Victor Duruy. The author also showcases the influence exerted by an era of free trade and burgeoning technologies. He develops a crisply written narrative that moves from Louis' ascent to the presidency through France's disastrous war with Prussia, the collapse of the Second Empire, and the bloodbath of a Parisian civil war.
Capsule character studies of Louis and Haussmann enrich an engrossing short history that reminds us of the urban planning and social engineering blunders we continue to make today.