Book review: ‘City of Light: The Reinvention of Paris’ by Rupert Christiansen

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The story of how a near-magical transformation revived one of the world’s great cities.

Driving along a wide tree-lined boulevard called Broadway towards the centre of my home town of Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire always makes me think of Paris. To me, this beautiful street, leading to a round square with a fountain in the middle, has an uncanny resemblance to a particular stretch of the Avenue des Champs Elysees adjacent to the Place de la Concorde.

The similarity is not pure coincidence; when Letchworth’s founder Ebenezer Howard set about laying out his Utopian teetotal and vegetarian town, which would be the world’s first garden city, he was very much under the influence of Baron George Eugene Haussmann, the city planner who was behind the spectacular renovation of Paris between 1853 and 1870.

Haussmann’s vision had helped to transform the French capital from a messy, polluted and overpopulated city of slums into a sparkling metropolis – a ‘City of Light’ with vast squares, wide boulevards, parks and posh apartment blocks. Howard’s aims in Letchworth were pretty much the same – to create a healthy and aesthetically attractive living environment for English workers who were being resettled to the country from the disease-ridden slums of Victorian London.

Unlike Haussmann, however, who enjoyed full creative and material support from the Emperor Napoleon III, Howard soon ran out of funds. His ambitious plan to construct eight wide boulevards radiating from Letchworth’s central square as they do from Haussmann’s Place de L’Etoile (now the Place Charles de Gaulle) had to be curtailed and reduced to just one leafy boulevard, the Broadway – an unmistakably Parisian street in the middle of North Hertfordshire!

Yes, Paris - my favourite city - is one of those rare places that are immediately and uniquely recognisable even to an accidental visitor (London is another). I am talking, of course, of the ‘post-Haussmann’ Paris, for had it not been for the eccentric Baron, it would have probably still looked drab and ordinary. Like a larger version of Letchworth’s neighbouring ‘new town’ Stevenage, I assume.

‘City of Light: The Reinvention of Paris’ (Head of Zeus, £18.99, ISBN 9781786694546) is the story of Paris’ near-magical transformation, inspired by a mediocre and much-hated dictator (Louis Napoleon) and masterminded by a visionary government bureaucrat – extravagant and eccentric in equal measure, with the able assistance of the engineer Jean-Charles Alphand.

It is as much a drama as it is history. Eventually, Baron Haussmann (who was neither a baron nor an aristocrat, but asked for the title of baron which Napoleon III bestowed upon him unofficially, so he always remained legally ‘just’ Monsieur Haussmann) was dismissed from his post as Prefect of the Seine and head of the city’s reconstruction project for that bane of all bureaucrats – chronic overspending of funds. As author Rupert Christiansen puts it, “Haussmann overstepped the mark.” He “went out with his head held high but his tail between his legs, and although he never suffered public humiliation, the remainder of his life would be spent in the shadows.”

Haussmann’s legacy outlived both him and the Emperor. Under his guidance, Paris had become - and remains - arguably the finest city in the world, copied and imitated everywhere (including Letchworth), yet without much success, for there is something very special about the unique and indestructible spirit that can be felt in its boulevards and streets. I could feel a whiff of it, too, while reading this beautifully produced compact book, written and put together with the rare combination of expertise and love.

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