Christiansen paints an intriguing portrait of the architect who changed Paris forever. ‘His sole interest was organisation and efficiency. Problems were there to be solved; opposition was there to be ignored or circumvented'... His terrible bouts of choking asthma as a child, Christiansen suggests, ‘might go some way towards explaining his subsequent obsession with clearing blockages and opening up airflow’... Paris’s distinctive architectural and urban spirit, its perspectives of atmospheric roofs and its pervading grisaille that affects both mind and heart in melancholic waves are Haussmann’s doing. And, just as importantly, it was he who reinvented the most perfect city for people either to take to the streets, or to lounge at cafés on the tree-lined boulevards at dusk.
If you are heading for Paris this summer be sure to put City of Light in your bag. Besides being a cracking read, it will open your eyes to the reality of what you see around you. It’s common knowledge that the reason Louis Napoleon tore down old Paris, and replaced its narrow alleys with broad boulevards, was to stop the mutinous plebs building barricades. But, like much common knowledge, that turns out to be less than half the truth. Rupert Christiansen’s account of the destruction and rebuilding is masterly — vivid, dramatic, admirably compact and ultimately tragic.
If anyone could convert me to Haussmann it is Rupert Christiansen. His elegant extended essay City of Light: The Reinvention of Paris is a love letter to a city in architectural revolution. Christiansen writes about the streets he clearly loves with wit and élan. Not a dud sentence. Every page is a pleasure, every building, every gas lamp brought shimmering to life... Christiansen counters the claim “enshrined indelibly in legend” that the boulevards were all about security; stopping barricades being built across narrow streets. Haussmann’s ambition was far greater, motivated by an “ideology of efficiency” and a spirit of total reformation... Christiansen is the opera critic for The Daily Telegraph, so his description of the Palais Garnier is passionately done... In Christiansen’s telling, Haussmann’s boulevards are far from dowager stiff... Christiansen’s splendidly illustrated book made this homesick expat look at Paris with new eyes and walk Haussmann’s boulevards with a quickening step. Don’t board the Eurostar without a copy.