The Holistic Conception of Paris Sewers

The Sewers. Photograph by Félix Nadar (1864/1865)

The rebuilding of Paris between 1850 and 1870 is a crucial moment in urban history. The attempt by Emperor Napoleón III and his Prefet de la Seine, Baron Georges Haussmann, to rationalize urban space is one of the formative legacies in the development of urban planning. For Frederick Hiorns, the Second Empire reconstruction of Paris was a time in which, the evils of long-continued civic neglect were redeemed and Paris placed in the forefront of modern cities by imaginative reforms applied to the most onerous of human problems.Edmund Bacon echoed similar sentiments in describing the new spatial structure of Paris as a reversal in the direction of energy, from the outward explosion of avenues and palaces of the Louis Kings to the implosion of the connecting and life-giving boulevards of Haussmann.

Sewers enjoy a special place in the pantheon of urban mythology. They are one of the most intricate and multi-layered symbols and structures underlying the modern metropolis, and form a poignant point of reference for the complex labyrinth of connections that bind urban space into a coherent whole. Sewers have long been used as metaphors for the hidden worlds of crime, poverty and political insurrection, and there is a rich legacy of representations ranging across literature, cinema and music.In Les misérables, perhaps the most famous literary evocation of the underground city, Victor Hugo depicted the Paris sewers of the 1830s as ‘the evil in the city’s blood’, a place where the poor and the outcasts of society lurked together as a threatening formation for the world above ground.

Paris sewer. Google images
Sections of Paris sewers, circa 1884.
Samuel M. Gray, Proposed Plan for a Sewerage System, and for the Disposal of the Sewage of the City of Providence (Providence: Providence Press Company, Printers to the City, 1884) From
Just as sewers are repeatedly associated with dirt, danger and the unseen, they are also physical manifestations of new patterns of water usage, bodily hygiene and the progressive application of new advances in science and technology. Rosalind Williams traces a similar theme through her exploration of the symbolic and metaphorical meanings attached to underground technologies in modern societies. For Williams, the growing scientific and technological sophistication of the built environment necessarily alters our relation with nature and the organic world. She emphasizes the poignancy of the vertical axis to our understanding of the cultural appropriation of urban technologies, since the subterranean environment is not only a technological construct, but also ‘a mental landscape, a social terrain, and an ideological map.  the process of ‘Haussmannization’ was predicated on a holistic conception of the relationship between the body and the city, which drew on a series of organic analogies to compare the new city with a healthy human body: These underground galleries would be the organs of the metropolis and function like those of the human body without ever seeing the light of day. Pure and fresh water, along with light and heat, would circulate like the diverse fluids whose movement and replenishment sustain life itself. These liquids would work unseen and maintain public health without disrupting the smooth running of the city and without spoiling its exterior beauty.
Excerpts from The Paris sewers and the rationalization of urban space. By Matthew Gandy. 1998

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