chapter
84 Pages

Building

Memory preys on places: there are virtually no un-situated

recollections. Yet the mind exacts a price for preserving the

past. Recollections are the fruit of conflict and compromise,

indelible but unstable. Taking nineteenth-century Paris as my

example, a city undergoing violent urban and political change

as a result of both industrialization and the revolutions of 1830,

1832, 1848, the coup of 1851, the Franco-Prussian War, and

the Commune, I wish to explore the intersection of memory

and the built environment that followed these dramatic changes

of regime and the attendant iconoclastic consequences. Though

Paris witnessed the destruction of huge swaths of urban fabric

throughout the century, during the Second Empire (1850-1870)

piecemeal interventions gave way to a concerted effort to

overhaul the French capital, led by Napoleon III and his prefect,

Georges-Eugène Haussmann. By then, the old historic center,

the Île de la Cité, and adjacent parts of the Right Bank, had

become a vast slum, with tottering tenement buildings and

dark, narrow streets [9-1].The area had been devastated by the

cholera pandemic of 1832 which coincided with yet another

popular revolution, and the government and the leisured

classes came to associate the impoverished quarters with

both disease and insurgency. Prompted by political as well

as hygienic concerns, the government razed the winding

alleyways and rotting houses which barely allowed sunlight

to trickle down to street level. Though Haussmann also tore

down mansions and palaces belonging to the aristocracy, the

bulk of the destruction was aimed at the derelict housing

stock that served as home to the poor and to segments of

the middle class, either in the center or in strategic districts

required for the broad new boulevards that would henceforth

criss-cross the city.