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Parisian Boulevards and Avenues

Redesigning the entire street network of an existing city, as the Plan of Chicago proposed to do, is difficult, if not impossible. Even after the city of London burnt to the, proposals for rationalizing the street plan were ultimately not implemented; there were too many vested interests that would be affected by wholesale changes. It is little wonder, then, that the most important model for Burnham and Bennett’s ambitious for rerouting Chicago’s streets was Paris of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, prefect of the Paris region from 1853 to 1870. Haussmann’s success in remaking the street map of Paris, however, depended on the backing of an authoritarian ruler, determined to remake Paris into a model modern capital.

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected President of France in the aftermath of the revolution of 1848 that toppled the last French king, Louis-Philippe. After a Coup d'état in 1851 he assumed the title of Emperor Napoleon III. At the emperor’s behest Haussmann drew up a general plan for Paris that was only partially completed before Haussmann’s ouster in 1870. In many respects Haussmann’s ideas were consistent with plans developed for former French kings and Napoleon I, which emphasized the construction of broad boulevards and avenues, parks, and monumental open spaces. But Haussmann also coordinated the construction of new rail stations and commercial spaces, including Les Halles, the great market of central Paris. Most importantly, Haussmann was determined to reconstruct the heart of medieval Paris, which entailed the destruction of many of the oldest districts of the city, including the Île de la Cité, the island that formed the core of the ancient and medieval town. The destruction was controversial, in terms that twentieth American planners and critics would recognize. Many citizens and social critics welcome the destruction of slums, perceived improvements to public health, and the improved circulation of urban traffic. Other decried the destruction of so many ancient buildings and the bland uniformity of the structures and streets that replaced them. In the end, Haussmann authoritarian approach to planning was so unpopular that he was forced out of office not long before his mentor suffered the same fate. “Haussmanization” became carrying mixed meaning, derogatory or complimentary depending on one’s point of view. Yet, many of Haussmann’s projects were continued by his successors and the city that Burnham so admired and which Parisian tourists idealize is largely a reflection of Haussmann’s vision.

 

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