Cosmopolitanism in the Culture and Planning of Second Empire Paris

This weekend I am in New York, speaking at Columbia University as part of the Urban History Association’s annual conference. I’ll be discussing the idea of cosmopolitanism as it relates to urban planning in the first years of the Second Empire (1852-1855). An excerpt of my talk appears below.


Other cities before and since may have been more cosmopolitan than Paris was in the years of the Second Empire. But I do not think there is an example of a city whose political and administrative agenda was so explicitly based on a project of cosmopolitanism.

I’m defining the cosmo-polis, the idea of a world city, in opposition to the city defined strictly in reference to its surrounding territory. Rennes may define itself with respect to Brittany and Dijon to Burgundy; one could say Warsaw defines itself with respect to Poland and Madrid to Spain. One could never say the same thing of Athens, Constantinople or London. These are not random examples. The cosmopolis has a natural link to the idea of Empire, an entity that spans nations and ethnic identities. In France, it is therefore not surprising to find cosmopolitanism in relation to the regime that defined itself as a revival of Napoleon I’s Empire.

In a context like this one, the assumption is probably that cosmopolitanism is a good thing, part of the open-minded spirit that allows the meeting of people and ideas, part of what makes the city, in Ed Glaeser’s words, “humanity’s best invention.” But the choice of cosmpolitanism is non-obvious. In mid-nineteenth century Europe there was a tendency among some policy-makers to encourage lower density housing where workers could avoid the pernicious influences of the big city, tending to their little gardens in the happiness of the family unit. Even today, cosmopolitanism is not always shared as a desirable value. In any case, there was one society resolutely committed to the idea of a city that was as cosmopolitan as possible. That was Second Empire Paris.

The idea of the “world city” was already established in Paris’s self-definition before the Second Empire. Paris was a crossroads, particularly in art and culture: the 1830 and 1840s were years when foreigners like Rossini, Meyerbeer, Heine, Fennimore Cooper, Ari Scheffer, Offenbach, Hittorff, Gogol, Chopin, Liszt and others either moved to Paris or lived there for a significant period.

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who was elected France’s first ever president of the Republic in December 1848, was by far the most cosmopolitan leader France ever had. He had spent almost his whole life outside of France – in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and England. He had even briefly lived right here in New York City. His father had reigned as King of the Netherlands. His wife was Spanish of Scottish descent and had been raised in France. Between the two of them they fluently spoke five languages.

The Second Empire was created in 1852. The efforts of the next eighteen years would be aimed at bolstering France diplomatically and commercially, and giving an urban form to the Empire through its capital city. The transformation of Paris into largely the city we know today was the result of a conscious decision by the regime. It wanted to make Paris into a “Capital for Humanity”.

In the words of Baron Haussmann: “this immense city has the pretension to be the head of modern civilization; the principle seat of the sciences and the arts; the masterpiece of architects and engineers; the model of sound administration; the veritable Rome of the present century.”# This comparison with Rome and the other seats of empires was, by the way, not isolated. It was recurrent in public pronouncements throughout the period.

This concept of the role of the city in civilization was extremely vivid in the minds of those who made modern Paris. In the introduction to the definitive work on Paris prepared for the 1867 World Exposition, Victor Hugo put the French capital firmly in the lineage of the great centers of Western civilization: “The logarithm of three civilizations reduced to a single equation, the penetration of Athens into Rome and of Jerusalem into Athens, this sublime teratology of progress pressing toward the Ideal gives this monster and produces this masterpiece: Paris.” The existence of such a city was seen as essential to human civilization: “Humanity needs the cerebral place, the generator of initiative, the organ of will and liberty, that acts when the human race is awake and, when the human race sleeps, that dreams. […] We need a city of which everyone is a citizen. The human race needs a universal reference point.”# In the minds of Hugo and other French thought leaders, Paris’s natural role was to be that city.

Contrary to what is often thought, the urban changes of the Second Empire were not a decisive break with the past. Thanks to the research of the last 15 years or so, we know that they were on the contrary well rooted in the thinking of urban planners of the 1830s and 1840s and the work of Prefect Rambuteau. But the moment when Napoleon III took control of the urban planning of Paris marks a major inflection in the relation of the urban project with the idea of cosmopolitanism. The projects up to the arrival of Napoleon III were essentially utilitarian in nature. When Napoleon III took charge, the urban planning of Paris took a decisive turn toward a more visionary agenda of cosmopolitanism, as is visible in the work of the early years of the Empire, from 1852 to 1855.

The actions of the provisional government of the Second Republic had been focused on two specific urban challenges: the problem of the displacement of Paris toward the west due to the congestion of the center and the problem of the railway stations that would soon be the point of entry of hundreds of thousands of people each year. Hence the focalization of the debate on the “grande croisée,” the great crossing through the heart of Paris, like a modern-day cardo and decumanus, and the arteries leading to the stations.

At first, as president, Louis-Napoléon simply continued these projects. But when he became Emperor Napoleon III, he drove the undertaking beyond the utilitarian and, one might say, technically urbanistic, realm.

Perhaps the most emblematic of the new projects was the Bois de Boulogne. There was no utilitarian agenda whatsoever. The transformation of the park was clearly aimed at providing a space of pleasure for the elite, something to be talked about across the fashionable centers of Europe by those who were as comfortable in Mayfair as in Baden Baden.

Louis-Napoléon had just come from London, where he had lived on Carlton House Terrace, across from Saint James Park, where he strolled daily. He had a very clear idea of how well-designed park spaces contribute to the quality of life of society’s elite and formed the idea of emulating George IV by reworking the Bois de Boulogne.

In 1852 a decree transferred ownership of the Bois de Boulogne from the French State to the City of Paris in exchange for a commitment by the city to invest 2 million francs in works to improve the park. The execution of this project was therefore the responsibility of the Prefect of the Seine, who at the time was not Haussmann but Jean-Jacques Berger. The architect for the project was to be Jacques-Ignace Hittorff.

The Bois de Boulogne was dug up, earth was moved about, an artificial lake was created, hillocks, thickets and clearings were arranged between sweeping paths. Building the park’s artificial topography was a massive undertaking. Similarly, creating a network of streams, lakes, ponds and waterfall where there previously was no water at all was a major hydrographical feat.

Very quickly, the Bois de Boulogne became not just a place to be enjoyed by the cream of Paris society, but the place where to be seen – and in the company of whom one was seen – made or broke reputations. As an arbiter of style, Arsène Houssaye wrote, about the park’s main body of water in Les Grandes Dames, an 1867 bestseller: “I wrote ‘the lake’ because there really is only one lake in Europe.”

Focusing on the urban perspective, it is important to understand that the Bois de Boulogne was not an isolated space, but part of an integrated sequence that was specifically designed for the promenade, a consecrated urban ritual. The key was the link between the park and city, the Avenue de l’Impératrice – the thoroughfare that is known today as avenue Foch. The idea of the new design was to create a monumental link between the Barrière de l’Étoile, the entry gate to Paris, and the Bois de Boulogne through the mostly empty plaine de Passy.

From the outset, the avenue de l’Impératrice was labeled as a “promenade,” developed under the responsibility of the Department of Parks and Promenades. It was therefore clear that its primary role was not as a traffic artery. It was a street for the pleasure of moving at a leisurely pace, of seeing others and of being seen. It was conceived as the extension of the Champs Elysées, which already served that purpose.

As a catalyst for real estate development, the avenue de l’Impératrice was a fabulous success. Land that was essentially uninhabited in the 1840s became sought after for hôtels particuliers in the 1850s. By the 1860s, urban buildings of the “haussmannian” typology were being built, and in the 1870s, 1880s and beyond the speculative pressure intensified to the point that few of the original hôtels particuliers have survived to today.

While the Bois de Boulogne and the avenue de l’Impératrice were being built, preparations were underway for the event that truly marked the arrival of Paris as a world city, the 1855 Exposition Universelle.

From an urban point of view, the goal was twofold. One was to show that Paris was reinventing itself, to display a picture of urban modernity through the new streets and buildings. The other was to meet the logistical challenge of properly hosting tens of thousands of guests from around the world. Most emblematic at the time – and largely forgotten today, even though the building still stands – was the Grand Hôtel du Louvre.

The Grand Hôtel du Louvre, situated on the place du Palais Royal, was part of the development of the rue de Rivoli by Emile and Isaac Pereire. The Pereire brothers had in fact signed the development contract with the city with the specific provision that the hotel be in operation in time for the 1855 Exhibition.

The Grand Hôtel du Louvre was a marvel. It had seven hundred rooms, a glass-covered central court, a thirty-four-foot high dining room, and all the modern conveniences: electric bells to call for service, elevators for the luggage, hot and cold water in all the rooms, a steam laundry service, and a telegraph. The perimeter of the ground floor consisted entirely of shops, all bought up by one tenant to create one of Paris’s first department stores, the Grands Magasins du Louvre, that opened in July 1855 and that Queen Victoria visited during her stay in Paris in August of the same year.

One aspect of the preparation of the 1855 Universal Exposition that is often overlooked is the reorganization of the city’s transportation. Prefect Haussmann, in place since mid-1853, consolidated the many independent omnibus lines into a network run by a single operator. He also consolidated the taxis – the voitures de place – whose drivers underwent training, and began to enforce standardized prices and the systematic issuance of receipts. Mundane things, but important to make the city a place friendly to foreigners.

The 1855 exhibition was the first large-scale international event ever hosted in Paris. There was no small measure of national pride in the effort to rise to the opportunity for France to show itself in its best light. But there was also a genuine interest in all the exotic and intriguing things brought from the rest of the world.

The result was that Paris changed forever in the summer of 1855 with the advent of mass tourism. Until that point, visitors tended to be aristocrats or businessmen with a specific purpose or, at any rate, with introductions and some notions of French. In 1855, middle-class British tourists descended on the French capital for the first time en masse, often speaking no French at all. The beginning of mass tourism brought the large-scale development of cheap hotels, cheap restaurants and souvenir shops, and dubious guides on the streets of Paris.

Paris has gone on to base itself very largely on its massive power of attraction on tourists and on a worldly image sustained by the arts and by the industries of luxury. Although the seeds had been planted well before, the period of 1852 to 1855 marks a decisive inflection toward this destiny, that occurred because the aspiration for cosmopolitanism was a fully assumed part of the vision for the city. Napoleon III, often belittled in the subsequent analyses, played the key role in this, because of both his personal background and his political project.

It is remarkable to me that the project of creating a city for the world, in Victor Hugo’s words, is in fact visible in what was done and has had a long-lasting effect. It strikes me how rarely we hear such ambitions in today’s urban policy declarations. I take away from that a lesson that I believe is something fundamental that urban historians can contribute to the contemporary debate: when we take a broad, ambitious, and generous perspective, when we have a vision for the type of society and city we want, it can have extraordinarily long-lasting results.