It is a truth universally acknowledged that Paris is the most beautiful city in the world. While other cities must be content with a single grand monument or two, Paris is filled with Taj Mahals. In Paris, the eye is overwhelmed. It doesn’t know where to look, and that is entirely by design.
Suitably impressed by the imperial splendor of Paris, every Asian bureaucrat for the past hundred and fifty years has come away determined to build a capital city in its image.
But few have questioned whether Paris should be the ideal.
The city that Napoleon III and his prefect Baron Haussmann built was the result of the largest urban renewal project in Western history.
Before its transformation, the center of Paris was home to the poor and destitute. Its unhygienic slums were a breeding ground for disease and social unrest (rather like Mumbai or Manila today).
But society’s winners could hardly bear the daily reminder of the plight of society’s losers, and so Haussmann, with the support of the elites, decided that the center of Paris had to be reclaimed from the “dangerous classes.”
Within five years, Haussmann had “gutted” the old city center. He demolished the slums, forcefully moving the residents out to the periphery (where their descendants live today, but as recent events in the banlieues show, out of sight does not mean out of mind). Wealthy bourgeoisie moved into the expensive new housing that Haussmann built in place of the slums.
The rabbit warrens that once sheltered revolutionaries were now laid over with wide-open boulevards offering unimpeded sightlines, a particular obsession of Haussmann’s. The great monuments — the Louvre, the Notre Dame and Hôtel de Ville — were detangled from the squalid mass of humanity.
Karl Marx noted that Haussmann had razed a city for human beings to make way for a city for sightseers.
Such a large-scale transformation could only have been brought about by the brutal and sustained intervention of an authoritarian administrative state.1 Haussmann was able to finance his vision for Paris only because he was unaccountable to any elected body and could spend taxpayer money as he pleased.2
Today, Haussmann’s obsessions with control and order have been replaced by our current obsession with smart cities. China has taken the lead in developing smart city technology. Interestingly, the Chinese transformation of Beijing in time for the Olympics would be the closest modern-day equivalent to Haussmann’s transformation of Paris in time for the 1855 Expo.
Beauty has been democratized in the Internet era. Once-exclusive fashion shows are now live-streamed on our iPhones. Normcore is the new black. And millennial media such as Wallpaper* have turned designers and architects into household names. Isn’t it time our concept of the beautiful city evolve too?
Consider instead Jane Jacob’s vision of a beautiful and humane city: “The order, not imposed by a few imperial bureaucrats from above, but composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to a dance—not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.”