Paris Haussmann

A Model's Relevance


Making the city

Urban actors are exploring new concepts, methods, and forms of organization to deal with the physical, social, and environmental challenges that our cities currently face. We have thus borne witness to a profusion of calls for tenders, competitions, and projects that have engendered a stimulating and fruitful level of experimentation in all directions.
Although such experiences are based on intentions that are almost always laudable, they nevertheless struggle to break away in any substantial manner from zoning practices or the mass of individual built objects. As a result, they are at pains to provide fully convincing responses. The criteria for spatial organization remain very closely tied to urban planning, despite the fact that the city envisioned in a plan chases the dream of an ideal city, far away from our lived reality.







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The reality before our eyes today tells us that the problem lies not with the quality of each individual architecture, rather in the lack of a vision of the whole. We have seen a number of interesting buildings springing up next to each other in many of the new neighborhoods that have been constructed across Europe in the last two decades, but they haven’t succeeded in forging a new sense of identity or in contributing to the existing identity of the places that host them.

What is in doubt today is not our aptitude for building and dealing with all sorts of quantitative restrictions, rather our ability to “make the city” and to “make any sense.”

The sense of a city as a place of collective life grows on the basis of shared values. While some of these values, such as density, resilience, sobriety, connectivity, and appropriation appear to create consensus in current practice, other ideas at times seems to be missing from urban concepts and experiments, such as the importance of form, texture, and fabric, the endogenous, local, and specific character of cities, a multi-disciplinary approach as the best guarantee of coherent, balanced, and multifunctional solutions, trans-scalarity or the awareness of an upstream heritage and concomitant downstream responsibility, synergy and the sharing of resources – passive forms and a sober version of connectivity –, flexibility and reversibility – the primary forms of resilience – and, lastly, legibility and identity, which represent the vectors for real appropriation.

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Why Paris ?
why Haussmann ?

In the spirit of Joël de Rosnay, who in 1975 called for the definition of a new tool for observing and grasping the infinitely complex, we think it is appropriate to develop a tool for building cities that is at once conceptual, methodological, and operational to enact these values and fulfill the need to “make the city.”

How should we answer the question “Name a model of a sustainable city or building”? For the city, we would probably begin by looking across northern Europe or Canada (Vancouver) and for the building, we would likely draw on the idealistic designs of archetypal, environmentally sustainable buildings: 100% wood construction, producing its own energy and recycling its water, covered with thick vegetation, providing the necessary amount of food to its occupants, etc.

But who among us would think to answer “Central Paris?” Who would think of a Haussmann building? And yet, the urban fabric of Paris and its buildings represent a powerful source of inspiration for designing this tool.

Paris is the densest city in Europe in terms of population and human density – meaning inhabitants + jobs – and among the top 5 densest cities in the world; however, this density is far from unbearable and unlivable, and is instead experienced positively. Though due mainly to its small size compared to other greater urban areas around the world, Paris’ highly dense urban model merits particular study for a number of reasons.

At the origin of this model lie the work and thought of one central figure, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. From 1853 to 1870, as Prefect of the Seine Region, he completely reformulated the city’s foundations according to the values of 19th century modernity. When one considers the breadth of urban fabric involved (75% of the built environment) and the speed of the works (in less than 20 years), one can readily view his intervention (and its extensions) as a project for a new, fully planned and designed city.

This interpretation of Paris’ urban fabric raises the question of the model underlying Haussmann’s project and its characteristics. The first thing to emerge is that the simultaneous creation of city infrastructures and superstructures yielded a remarkably effective network. This open, evolving system connects the city below to the city above, both for its inhabitants and its resources. And even though the primary raison d’être for this grid lies in the improvement of traffic and flows of different kinds – pedestrians, vehicles, air traffic, military troops, etc. –, Paris is today one of the most “walked” cities in Europe, meaning that pedestrian movements represent the largest percentage of all modal parts.

Consisting mainly of investment properties, the fabric of Haussmann’s Paris is characterized by the great flexibility that this construction type provides, as well as its ensuing diversity of programs and functions: a completely reconfigurable ground floor and mezzanine, ceiling heights that facilitate the transformation of housing units into offices, an abundance of material and static indeterminacy that allow for structural and spatial reconfigurations, and technical areas and empty spaces able to absorb technological evolutions and the installation of new networks. The buildings’ potential for reversibility, along with the urban structure’s ability to absorb changes in use across space and time represent a significant durability and a clear form of resilience.

Lastly, even though Haussmann’s city, designed on the basis of one type of building, one size, and one local material (a stone quarried from Paris’ own subsoil and nearby sites), is very sober, it remains highly recognizable at all scales because of its markers, the generic elements of Haussmann’s vocabulary that give Paris its identity.

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Corpus and methodology

With an eye to current challenges, we deciphered the properties of Haussmann’s urban fabric through a process of dissection, classification, and comparative analysis.

The corpus of study is Haussmann’s Paris between 1840 and 1914, as well as its evolution until 2016. To explore certain concepts in greater depth or to establish an overarching logic, we enlarged the period and range of study as necessary from 1840, when the prefect Rambuteau undertook the first public health initiatives, to the beginning of WWI in 1914, and then on to the Modernist movement and the beginning of postwar reconstruction. We considered the subject without any a priori factors. We deliberately extracted it from its social and economic mode of production, intentionally disconnecting it from its historical and political contingencies.

The typological and morphological analysis that we conducted using a system of classification according to the size and endogenous characteristics of this heritage is comparable to the work of entomologists or archeologists. The corpus is grasped through drawing and classification to reveal the rules and constants that govern its form, while a dimensional and comparative analysis points to the logic and efficiency of this form.

This work was conducted at all levels – in terms of road networks, blocks, buildings, all the way down to the building’s stylistic components – to reveal the fractal logic that governs the fabrication of Haussmann’s urban form.