What is more emblematic of Paris than the Haussmannian building? When Napoleon III commissioned Georges-Eugène Haussmann in 1853 to modernize Paris, an architectural revolution began. The old Parisian neighborhoods were razed to the ground in favor of wide and straight avenues, lined with standardized buildings, in a cream-colored limestone. Appartement buildings and private mansions became the most recognizable features of this new city, as they were the same height, color, material, general design and were harmonious when all seen together.

This standardization of buildings was challenged by a few artists and architects of that time – including Charles Garnier, the architect of the Opera House – who saw it as a suffocating monotony and overwhelming monumentality. Nevertheless, such standardization gives a strong sense of cohesion to the city, in a nutshell, its face.

Haussmann gave Paris its current face, allowed for its sanitization, built an invisible network of sewers and water distribution under the streets and created parks and squares throughout the city, but it should not be forgotten that this new face was shaped in pain. Expropriations were legion in order to allow the construction of the new buildings – 20,000 houses were demolished in order to build 40,000 between 1852 and 1870 – and the financial arrangements set up by the Minister of the Interior with the Pereire brothers in order to finance the construction of this new Paris led to speculative financial maneuvers that eventually led to a stock market crash in 1873.

Haussmann was blamed for the social disruption caused by his gigantic building projects, increasing the preexisting gap between poor and wealthy classes but also between rich and poor neighborhoods, with the poor concentrated in the East and the middle class and wealthy in the West of the city.

In fact, the Haussmannian building was, at the time, a perfect example of social hierarchy. The second floor, always adorned with a balcony, was said to be the “noble floor” or piano nobile, while the top floors were occupied by the servants of the people of the appartements below, or lower-income people.

Later, the installation of elevators within the buildings and the pursuit of light made the top floors the most sought-after levels.

Anyway, the Haussmannian building remains my favorite photographic playground, because it is easy to have fun with the monumental building doors, the stairwells with their muffled carpets, the moldings that adorn the walls, the herringbone parquet that gives rhythm to the steps, the double mirrored doors that allow for the play of light, the fireplaces that majestically punctuate the rooms, and the balconies that allow the eye to wander.

April 10, 2017