The next time you’re in Paris, blowing too much money at the massive department stores Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, or just prowling the aisles and indulging in wishful thinking, step outside a moment and contemplate the street on which the two stores stand nearly side by side. It is called Boulevard Haussmann, as it was christened in 1864 in tribute to Georges-Eugene Haussmann. “This street,” Stephane Kirkland writes in his fine account of the reconstruction of Paris, “of which only the first portion had been built at the time, has kept its name to this day, while many other Parisian streets named after prominent figures of the Second Empire have been renamed. The name of [Emperor] Napoleon III himself is only carried by a small square in front of the gare du Nord that hardly anyone knows has a name at all.”

Few would have been more surprised by this turn of fate than the French journalist who wrote, in 1870, “The day will come when history will say, speaking of the capital of France, transformed as if by magic, in less than a quarter-century: the Paris of Napoleon II, as it said: the Rome of Augustus.” To the contrary, Kirkland writes, “Today, the universal phrase is not ‘the Paris of Napoleon III,’ but ‘the Paris of Haussmann.’ Extraordinarily, a civil servant who joined the undertaking after its broad direction had been determined has supplanted the emperor of France and the visionary leader behind the project of the new Paris in the eyes of posterity.”

“Paris Reborn” is an attempt to correct that misjudgment and a highly persuasive one, though whether it will remove Baron Haussmann from the position he has occupied at center stage for nearly a century and a half is unlikely. Haussmann is deeply entrenched in the mythology of Paris, and mythology as often as not has little to do with facts or historical truths. Towering figure though Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte most certainly was from his election as president of the French Republic in 1848 through his two-decade reign as emperor beginning in 1852, he has remained under the shadow of his legendary uncle, Napoleon I, and nothing in the literature about him has had a lasting influence comparable to that of Haussmann’s three-volume “Memoirs,” in which he “did everything necessary to ensure that his opportunity to play a role in history did not slip away.”

Yet by the spring of 1853, when Napoleon named Haussmann prefect of the Seine — the national government’s representative to and administrator of Paris — plans for the rebuilding of the city had been underway for more than two years. By late 1850 “the improvement and modernization of Paris was beginning to gain prominence in Louis-Napoleon’s political program,” and in December of that year he said in a speech: “Paris is the heart of France, and all the useful improvements that we can adopt here contribute powerfully to the general good. . . . Let us put all our efforts to embellishing this great city, to improving the condition of its citizens, to enlightening them on their true interests. Let us open new streets, clean up the populous neighborhoods that lack air and daylight, and let the sun’s beneficial rays penetrate everywhere behind our walls, like the light of truth in our hearts.”

It is difficult for us, who know only the Paris that Napoleon III willed into being, to picture the Paris that he was intent on eradicating. Rather than the broad boulevards we know today, it was packed with narrow, congested streets and alleys in which poverty and crime reigned; sewage floated in the Seine, and the water was undrinkable; the “difficulty of getting around in Paris had grown so bad and the old neighborhoods were so dirty and dangerous that the elite had begun avoiding the historical core altogether.” The little island in the middle of the Seine where Paris had begun, the Ile de la Cite, was a slum: Notre Dame was “in a terrible state,” and Louis IV’s exquisite 13th-century Sainte-Chapelle, a structure of almost indescribable beauty, was in disrepair thanks to loutish rioters of the French Revolution, and lost in a maze of tenements.

‘Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City’ by Stephane Kirkland (St. Martin's Press )

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte came to Paris in 1848, possessing “an indestructible belief in himself” as well as in the redemptive powers of technology: “He combined the Bonapartist reformist ideals of his uncle with the faith in progress of the Victorian era.” He was a sturdily practical man, but he was also an idealist, “by nature compassionate,” concerned about “the issue of poor urban industrial workers” for their own sake but also for the threat that their discontent posed to order and stability. Contrary to the legend that surrounds Haussmann, “the reality is unequivocal: The man who defined the vision for Paris and gathered the political means to implement it was none other than the emperor himself,” and he had at his command “an imperial regime with a full state apparatus dedicated to implementing the will of its leader.”

In 1853, disappointed with the unsteady progress of revitalization under the incumbent prefect, Napoleon dismissed him and appointed Haussmann, whose work as a provincial prefect had impressed him. His “defining values” were “the assertion of the power of government authority, the aspiration for rigor and order, and single-minded zeal in pursuing these principles.” He was no visionary and no artist — he had strong opinions about architecture but knew nothing about it — but he was a brilliant administrator, “a doer, not an urban visionary.” Kirkland writes:

“The only sense in which Haussmann was a great urban planner is if one takes the view that being an urban planner means overcoming and incorporating all the contingencies of the development of a city to produce a result with extremely strong and recognizable characteristics that matches the needs of an era. If it is not much about planning at all, but about action and dealing with what is there, with a keen, even cynical skill for navigating the political and financial obstacles, Haussmann was as good as they come.”

Kirkland, who was born near Paris to French and American parents, lives in Paris and New York and specializes in both architecture and urban affairs. (His grandfather, Jack Kirkland, wrote the phenomenally successful Broadway adaptation of “Tobacco Road,” and his aunt is the dancer Gelsey Kirkland.) He clearly knows Paris intimately, writes lucid and engaging prose, and is both spirited in his advocacy of Napoleon III and clear-eyed about how he was able to do what he did. His plans for Paris, “even if imperfect and in some places somewhat improvised . . . were amazingly bold,” but “the principles that governed the transformation of Paris were despotic and socially regressive.” Kirkland continues: “The financial and real estate dealings were, when not downright reprehensible, questionable. The moral depravity of many of those involved was appalling. The grands travaux destroyed entire neighborhoods of irreplaceable character and history, and overturned the lives of thousands of ordinary people.”

Thus in the end Kirkland tells a cautionary tale. While it is an immense pleasure to accompany him as he leads us through the planning and building of the great boulevards, the construction of the Opera House and the reconstruction of the Louvre, it is also sobering to realize that in the process of gaining much, Paris lost much as well, in particular medieval neighborhoods that had profoundly influenced the city’s character. We do well to remember, too, that Paris is far more than Napoleon’s and Haussmann’s glittering central city, but rather a vast urban sprawl that contains slums as well as monuments, the poor as well as the privileged, reviled immigrants as well as haute Parisiennes, not to mention traffic jams that make Washington’s seem models of efficiency. Right now it’s April in Paris and thus absolutely lovely, but it’s still several steps short of heaven.


Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City

By Stephane Kirkland

St. Martin’s. 327 pp. $29.99