The vision thing

Austin Williams | 13 November 2003

Here we explore the methods, the madness, the legacy and the redefinition of Baron Haussmann’s influential work in Paris and ask whether it could happen today. 

This year sees the 150th anniversary of Haussmann’s appointment as Prefect of the Seine, engaged to draw up the plans for Paris, one of the greatest, most audacious proposals in town planning ever seen. One and a half centuries later and in New Localism or New Centralism? Planning and the Regions Sir Jeremy Beecham, chairman of the UK’s Local Government Association argued that ‘counties are under great pressure to deliver crucial functions such as education and social services and in the absence of a statutory duty it will be difficult to justify devoting scarce resources to planning.’ How would Haussmann have survived if he had to deal with the miserablist tendency of modern day Britain?

It is not that Britain has ever been thus. A N Wilson’s magnificent work The Victoriansexplains that at the time of Haussmann’s ascendancy, ‘progress was the watchword of the age; advance, improvement, struggle and climb’ indicating that there is something peculiarly latter day about the British tendency towards caution. From Bazalgette to Brunel, risk takers were prepared to step forward with visionary Grand Projets and be tested in the court of public opinion. Or rather they very often ignored the court of public opinion, recognising with bravado, that their work was for the social good and that public consultation was a luxury that could ill be afforded.

Compare this then, with the recent speech by Nick Raynsford MP, in which he attempted to reclaim the Victorian era as the period of localism where individuals made good and civic architecture was enhanced for the community. Pretending that the 19th century was no different in aspiration than what it is today is, at best, silly. Victorian civic architecture was an arrogant display of wealth, not an IPPR-style re-engagement with a community of the great unwashed. Furthermore, trying to recast the moment of British imperial expansion as simply a trick of the light – suggesting that it was a period that celebrated the ‘local’ – is not only revisionist, but smacks of trying to pretend that our own period’s lack of ambition – our modern day obsession with parochial values – is no different to yesteryear.

The natives are revolting

Things have definitely changed. Haussmann’s appointment, after all, was a response to the fright dealt to the ruling elite by the February Revolution five years earlier. The proclamation nailed up for the public’s consumption at the time read:

‘A reactionary and oligarchical government has just been overthrown by the heroism of the people of Paris. That government has fled, leaving behind it a trail of blood that forbids it ever to retrace its steps.’

Such displays of real democratic participation – occurring at the same time as Marx published the Communist Manifesto – was what real political engagement was all about. Today, the insurrectionists would have been captured and sent on an anger-management course. Unfortunately, the power shift was short-lived. As Engels wrote in his letters from France, ‘It really is a curious fact, that Universal Suffrage in France, won easily in 1848, has been annihilated far more easily in 1850.’

From the consolidation of his authority, the desire of Emperor Napoleon III to prevent insurrection amongst the working classes living around les grands boulevards lent itself to the design of wide straight streets that would be better to monitor and defend. Engels again, in The Class Struggles in France observed that ‘the newly built quarters of the big towns have been laid out in long, straight, broad streets, as though made to give full effect to the new cannons and rifles. The revolutionary would have to be mad, who himself chose the working class districts in the North and East of Berlin for a barricade fight.’ Obviously, the Communards, challanging French authority one year after Haussmann’s dismissal in 1870, didn’t seem too concerned.

Haussmann’s role has been described as simply a managerial draughtsman for the proposals that Napoleon had pulled together, but it is clear that he was the brains behind the development and extension of the scheme. He recognised the need for clean air and decent water supplies and so demolished vast area of slumland, previously described by Rousseau as ‘dirty and stinking streets, ugly black houses, an air of filth, poverty, beggars, carters….’ The decrepit tenement blocks had to go, even though, today, the tenement is facing a resurgence in architectural literature? Was Haussmann short-sighted in his acts of vandalism (even destroying his own birthplace in the race to complete Haussmann Boulevard? Often commentators indict a previous age by the standards of the present, but it is dangerous to rubbish the progressive intent of the 19th century’s dictatorial decisions under the guise of promoting an ahistorical version of social advance.

Today, the suggestion that vast swathes of city slumland housing should be demolished would be greeted with howls of derision. Not necessarily from people wanting decent housing, you understand, but from community spokesmen and other unelected ‘representatives’ who would advocate that we preserve and protect this area of rich cultural diversity. Haussmann responded to criticism of his proposals by saying that ‘In general, all new work imparts an unfavourable impression because it challenges the settled way of life. But this first impression is fleeting; it soon gives way to a more just and more generous appreciation.’

A franc exchange

In the end, it was Haussmann’s overly cavalier attitude to money that proved his downfall. As the population increased, so additional money washed through the financial system and the budget surplus available on Haussmann’s project rose from 18 million francs at the beginning of the project to 80 million francs 13 years later. Convinced that he had found the goose that laid the golden egg, he began to be convinced that increasing project costs would continue to be matched by financial reserves arising out of the growth of the economy brought on by the increased construction works. He wilfully worked over budget and in the end, he paid for it (not literally), as the actual costs of rebuilding, which reached 5 billion francs.

Today, the Scottish Parliament building is chugging along under the same blight – if the media reports are to be believed – described by some as a cavalier disregard for the budgetary constraints. While Scotland gets boggd down in a parliamentary enquiry, Haussmann carried on for 17 long years, recognised as he was, as the best man for the job and someone who could get things done.

Nowadays, so-called egalitarians don’t recognise the irony of advocating the need for an elected authority to bridge the democratic deficit. Demands for mayors or design ‘tsars’ pinned with the hopes of promoting civic standards are adding to the problem by trying to find a short cut to democratic engagement, which actually abuses the democratic process.

Haussmann was no democrat, but he got things done under the remit of a single-minded vision of social improvement and human progress (admittedly not always articulated in those terms). Today, many people would be loath to accept his unrepentant vested interest, but that says more about our current lack of trust and social disengagement than it does about the reality of the pioneering professionalism at the time.

Today, where’s the beef? From Barnsley to Redcliffe, ‘Blue Sky thinking’ has replaced ‘vision’ – ‘dreams’ instead of ‘progress’; ‘patch and repair’ instead of ‘supply and demand’.

Before we can start regenerating, developing and progressing a clear vision of the future of towns and cities, we need to have clarity of purpose about what it is we are trying to create. This is required as part of a national, not a local, vision. Cities need revolutionary transformations, not tinkering around the edges. As it happens, this year is also the 300th anniversary of the foundation of St Petersburg. Don’t get me started…

First published in the Architects’ Journal, 13 November 2003

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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