“Paris is a movable feast,” described Ernest Hemingway in the eponymous memoir published in 1964. The literary giant’s insight into a city full of sensory delight in the 1920s still rings true a century later.
The fabric of Paris is made up of many different aspects. Strolling through the broad and straight boulevards in Paris, you can’t help but be enchanted by the city of romance. The sweeping avenues of modern Paris that we know today are owed to the French administrator and politician Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who was commissioned by the first elected Prime Minister of France, Napoleon III for to implement a massive urban renewal project between 1852 and 1870. In transforming medieval Paris into a modern capital, a new Paris began to take shape.
It’s time to find out more about the quintessentially Parisian buildings and Haussmann-style architecture.
Dark and dangerous, Paris in the middle of the 19th century was overcrowded and considered unhealthy. The renovation project encompassed a wide-scale demolition of overcrowded slums and the construction of wide streets, straight thoroughfare to promote better traffic flow, an updated sewage system, and elegant building facades. What ensued was the so-called Haussmann-style buildings mushrooming from then on.
Being built around the same time and in a similar style, the buildings erected by Haussmann have now become the signature architecture of Paris, evocative of French chic. Haussmann style architecture is characterized by facades made of sandstone, distinctive mansard roofs angled at 45° with dormer windows, decorative reliefs and molding, and rows of windows. On street level, it’s typical for many of these buildings to host shops or offices and a balcony on some of the lower floors.
Consisting of six or seven stories, the Haussmann-style apartments are designed to overlook the main street. At first glance, they may seem to look the same. Nevertheless, taking social diversity into consideration, details like gates, balconies, windows, and decorative stone statues vary from floor to floor.
It is worth noting that only the lower stories (often between second and fifth story) possess continuous balconies. The etage noble is the first floor above street level and one of the most desirable in the days before elevators. Designed for the aristocracy, the apartments are fitted with highest ceilings of the building, the most elegant rooms, and large balconies containing Parisian-black wrought-iron balustrades. On top of that, the walls are made of massive cut stones blocks. Usually the mansard roof attic rooms were reserved as the maid’s room, sharing bathroom facilities with other apartments on the floor.
In recent years, the buildings have received renewal and an upgrade with the installation of elevators, thus making the apartments on upper floors with their city views even more sought after than those on lower ones, contrary to the situation in the 20th century.
Standardization of Cityscape
Haussmann’s ideal in city planning stipulated that all buildings and boulevard fit into strict rules to ensure general uniformity of cityscape.
The great move towards standardization, homogeneity, and repetition of style mark the architectural language of Haussmann’s Paris. However, many of the apartments have been remodeled with modern interiors and facilities since Haussman’s day, while still preserving the French classicism of the exterior.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” — Earnest Hemingway
Over his six years of living in Paris, Hemingway fell in love with the charm of the city and considered it a formative experience. His first apartment is now quite famous, but it was a shabby place at the time with no running water and few amenities. The top cheaper floor was what an impoverished artist was able to pay for, and he met many others in the creative scene in the bars and cafes that line the streets.
To combat the spread of filthy water, cholera and typhus, Haussmann designed large avenues and new sewers for the city. Napoleon II had seen how cities like London benefited from its large parks and elegant streets. With better streets in the city, Paris demolished most of the squalid neighborhoods and replaced them with grand tree-lined avenues settling two issues with one swoop.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Paris and soak up the city sights, take a look for where Haussmann made his mark, because it really wouldn’t be the same city without him!