Haussmann Redux at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal

15 years after the landmark Paris-Haussmann exhibition at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, the institution revisits the subject in a radically different way to reveal fresh insights. A more than worthwhile visit, on view until June 4th.

A Haussmann show in Paris is always an event of great interest. Parisians are very keen to learn about the man behind the city  and are coming in numbers to the Pavillon de l’Arsenal for the current exhibition.

These people may be satisfied by the general material, including some lovely drawings and models, some period materials and a couple of videos. But the historical content is sparse and there is little on offer in terms of new insights or understanding of the events of the Second Empire years that forged the modern Paris.

That is because, as great as the appetite of the general public may be, revisiting the history is not the objective of this exhibition. The curators, Benoît Jalon and Umberto Napolitano of LAN (Local Architecture Network) and Franck Boutté of Franck Boutté Consultants, have an agenda entirely unrelated to the expectation of again telling the story of the formation of modern Paris. Their agenda is much more stimulating and challenging, and requires a bit more investigative work on the part of visitors to grasp the full measure of what is on offer.

The curators’ objective is to use tools of graphic and quantitative analysis to investigate what kind of city Haussmannian Paris is and to assess its relevance compared to other urban models existing today. They perform this investigation using a thoroughly contemporary analytical framework and by confronting the urban models to issues of core relevance to us today.

The approach is artifactual rather than historical. In other words they approach Hausmannian Paris as an extant object and are concerned with understanding its characteristics and performance, rather than delving further into its historical genesis or the ideological or practical intentions.

Each aspect of the city is broken down and analyzed in a very detached and data-driven way. The approach is highly empirical, based on the observation and characterization of specific examples of the city as it is, with a minimum of discussion of the circumstances of its creation.

The exhibition begins with an analysis of the structure of the individual buildings.  Specific examples from different moments in the genesis of Haussmannian Paris are analyzed to uncover their distinguishing characteristics in plan and elevation, and in other respects such as material, structure and ornament.

This work, by the way, give some lovely representations, produced by an entire team of graphic designers. The graphic approach is always very sparse and analytical. It has a directness that gives it great visual impact — a characteristic directly relatable to LAN’s architectural work.

The analysis yields insights, for example relating to the flexibility of the building plans and the structural adaptability due to the static overdimensioning. An analysis of the typical window dimensions and placement in relation to ceiling height shows the effectiveness of the building type from the ventilation and air quality perpective.

This work yields a very thorough performance-based understanding of the value of the building stock of the Haussmannian city. It is an understanding that practitioners of this building stock understand intuitively, but which gains greater specificity and power by being fully articulated analytically.

The approach continues at the level of the city block. This includes analyses of the evolution and adaptability of the Haussmannian block. Most strikingly, the team considers the morphology of the block by performing an extraordinary quantitative analysis of the shapes and dimensions of city blocks on a whole sector of Paris.  This allowed them to break down the Haussmannian urban fabric into blocks of different shapes and then to analyze urban performance based on the quantified characteristics.

All this work comes together at the urban level. In the exhibition, and even more in the supporting book, the team analyzes the capabilities of the Haussmannian city. They investigate things like the network of public spaces and the dimensions and proportions of thoroughfare. They then perform a general analysis of urban performance, mobilizing contemporary concepts such as connectedness, sustainability, resilience, and so forth.

The performance of Hausmmannian Paris is compared to urban types extracted from 15 cities around the world, as diverse as New York, Dakar, Moscow and Manila. Each city is characterized across dimensions such as grid density, porousness and grid efficiency for pedestrian mobility, density of services, etc. The results of the analysis are extremely rich and offer plentiful opportunities for further analysis and experimentation by urban planners.

The authors summarize their findings as follows: “The Parisian Haussmannian fabric reveals itself to carry, at its different scales and in each of its component parts, several fundamental balances: between density and viability, between permanence and resilience, between sobriety and diversity, between long-distance and short-distance connectedness, between identity and universality, between intensity and urban welcoming, between attractiveness and inclusivity.”

This raises an interesting question: the extent to which the Parisian Haussmannian fabric may not be just a heritage that we can leverage, but even an example with valuable design lessons for the future development of cities. We fully expect this to become part of the praxis of the authors, who are of course active designers.

This exhibition, therefore is something different to what one might first expect. It is quite demanding of the visitor, but offers and interesting and unusual approach. This work is extremely stimulating and brings a true addition to the body of work on the Haussmannian Paris and, more broadly, to urban design and planning.


The exhibition runs to June 4, 2017 and is free of charge. Opening hours and other information is available on the Pavillon de l’Arsenal web site.

The ehibition is accompanied by a bilingual (French and English) publication available on the Pavillon de l’Arsenal web site: Paris Haussmann, Modèle de ville; under the direction of Benoît Jalon, Umberto Napolitano, and Franck Boutté; Pavillon de l’Arsenal, Paris and Park Books, Zürich; 2017.