Hausmannian buildings: How Paris got its unique aesthetic

Paris, renowned worldwide for its architectural grandeur, boasts an urban landscape dominated by a unique form of architecture: the Hausmannian style.

These iconic buildings, characterized by their uniformity and elegance, are integral to the city’s identity. They tell a compelling story of Paris’s urban transformation in the 19th century under the direction of Georges-Eugène Haussmann.

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Photo by Alexander Kagan on Unsplash

Georges-Eugène Haussmann and the Transformation of Paris

In the mid-19th century, Napoleon III appointed Georges-Eugène Haussmann as Prefect of the Seine, tasking him with modernizing Paris. The city was then a labyrinth of narrow, winding streets, riddled with issues of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and recurring epidemics. Haussmann’s plans aimed to address these problems while making the city more aesthetically pleasing and efficient.

Features of Hausmannian Architecture

The result of Haussmann’s renovations was a new type of building that would come to define Paris’s architectural identity. Hausmannian buildings are instantly recognizable by their uniform facades, mirroring a standard of strict regulations set in place. These guidelines regulated everything from the building materials — limestone quarried from the banks of the Seine — to the color, height, and arrangement of the structures.

Hausmannian buildings typically consist of six stories. The ground floor often housed shops, with the mezzanine above it featuring less ornamentation and lower ceilings, usually rented as office space.

The pièce de résistance is the second floor, or the ‘étage noble,’ with its grand balconies and intricately designed interiors, catered to the wealthy bourgeoisie. As you ascend, the ornamentation decreases until the final, sixth floor, with its distinctive sloping zinc-covered roofs and small, humble ‘chambres de bonnes’ (maids’ rooms).

The buildings’ facades are adorned with ornate, symmetrical designs. Balconies usually span the length of the façade at the second and fifth floors, tying the buildings together and offering a harmonious, uniform streetscape.

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Hausmannian Buildings: Symbols of a Bygone Era

While Haussmann’s redesign dramatically improved the city’s hygiene, traffic flow, and overall aesthetic, the urban overhaul wasn’t without its critics. Haussmann was accused of erasing the city’s historical identity and favoring the bourgeoisie, as many working-class Parisians were displaced by the renovations.

Today, these criticisms form an integral part of the Hausmannian narrative, serving as reminders of the socio-political tensions of the era.

Hausmannian Paris Today

The architectural legacy of Haussmann endures. His transformation created a standardized Paris, now an iconic symbol of the French capital. Today, Hausmannian buildings constitute about 60 percent of Paris’s architecture, setting the tone for its aesthetic and atmospheric charm.

These structures, now over a century old, have retained their appeal, both for their historical significance and the unique living experience they offer. While they are a symbol of luxury and prestige, they are also witnesses to Paris’s tumultuous past, narrating a story of evolution, revolution, and transformation.

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Photo by Selin Florio

In a time of towering skyscrapers and avant-garde structures, Hausmannian buildings stand as a testament to Paris’s timeless elegance. They epitomize the charm of the city, an urban landscape that is a living, breathing museum of architectural history.

Today, walking through Paris’s wide boulevards lined with Hausmannian buildings is akin to strolling through a living gallery of 19th-century urban design. These limestone structures, adorned with wrought-iron balconies and crowned with mansard roofs, capture the city’s historic ambiance.

From the bustling arteries of the Champs-Élysées to the quaint, leafy streets of Montmartre, Hausmannian architecture reigns supreme, narrating Paris’s history and mirroring the ebb and flow of the city’s life.

Top photo by Selin Florio

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