Minotaur by Howard Litchfield

even as the established order of western civilisation has begun its decline. Of China and the built environment, Burtynsky draws attention to “the enormity of the transition that is taking place there… Not only are new cities emerging but immense urban renewal efforts are also underway”.20 More than a century ago the modern western city as concept and reality also came into being through ambitious urban renewal projects, and here we must turn to Paris, and to sewers.

Le Nouveau Paris

The reconstruction of Paris began in earnest in 1853 as an immense, long-term undertaking initiated by Emperor Napoléon III and had as its goal the transformation of “a congested medieval city into a dynamic modern metropolis”; as such, it was “a crucial moment in urban history”.21 This ambitious grand design included multiple sub-projects, such as the division of Paris into new arrondissements along with annexing outer-lying communities to create an expanded city; the creation of a new street network based on wide, primary boulevards and avenues; the broadening of existing streets; the landscaping of streets and the creation of new parks and boulevard-intersection squares; new public buildings of a monumental character, new apartment buildings and the uniform refurbishment of building facades; and the construction of new sewer and water-supply systems.22

Employing the latest science, technology and engineering to realise this vision of urban modernity, Paris became a massive construction site for more than twenty years. Crucially, expropriation and demolition were as important as construction and renovation; for example, cutting through the old city to create two of the new, wide thoroughfares early in the program “involved the loss of some 40 streets, the demolition of 2,000 dwellings, and the displacement of 25,000 people”, and images from the era are astounding in their depiction of the scale of demolition and construction work.23 It was a period of “drastic and often ruthless urban modernization” that saw the employment of “authoritarian, highly structured, even brutal methods”.24

Unlike the new cities that were being planned and built from the ground up in the New World of the United States of America – cities that reflected a boundless optimism and that had modernity's order, rationality and vision of expansion built into their design – the entire city of Paris, through an act of human will, became an example of the dialectic at work: the thesis of the existing mediaeval city, and the antithesis of demolition and reconstruction, leading to the synthesis of a modern city. This synthesis of old and new, of past dragged into the future and expressed as newly created reality, was a process symbolised by the new seal of the city, inaugurated in 1853 by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the  "Ruinenlust City and ruin in culture and psyche" continues in a popup window.