Way back in the middle of the 19th century, much of what we now know of as Paris was carved out a warren of medieval paths.
It seems as though Paris, prior to the revolution and the tumultuous decades that followed, was still essentially a medieval city. It was still a city in which narrow winding alleyways meandered along with no apparent intention on actually going anywhere. The modernisation of Paris, the rationalisation of its street system commissioned by Napoleon III and undertaken by the civic planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann, changed this centuries-old city into what it is today, a city famous for broad avenues and long, clear sight-lines.
Now, it has been asserted that these new avenues and boulevards, the grand city squares and intersections that are now so symbolic of Paris, beyond the simple project of modernisation sweeping across not only France but much of Western Europe at the time, were in fact a means of rendering the city much more amenable to authoritarian control. Under the guise of improving social and sanitary conditions, the project was geared toward more effective policing of the city. Wide thoroughfares were constructed to facilitate troop movement and prevent easy blocking of streets with barricades, and their straightness allowed artillery to fire on rioting crowds and their barricades. A small number of large, open intersections allowed easy control by a small force.
Indeed, Haussmann never hesitated to explain that his street plan would ease the maintenance of public order. According to reports, when reports of the outbreak of the Paris Commune insurrection reached Haussmann he expressed his frustration at not having been able to carry out his reforms quickly enough to make such an insurrection futile.
But have these reforms really made insurrection futile? Have they rendered cities more amenable to authoritarian control? One look at Egypt over the past year certainly makes the question once again relevant.
If we are to examine a map of Tahrir Square, the centre of the protests, we can see that it also is designed in the same modernist style of wide open space and long, clear sight-lines. In fact, as you can see from the overhead map, the area was in fact modeled on Paris. Clearly something is wrong with this picture. Rather than making insurrection futile, in some very profound ways, these modernist reforms have made insurrection possible on a much larger scale than ever before.
While the crowded medieval city was susceptible to small-scale insurrection, to localised riots, it was with the modernist architect that the narrow and twisting streets gave way to long, straight boulevards and city squares. And it was with the building of these city places that the democratic mind was able to grow and expand with the architecture around it. Freed from the back-alleys and side streets, from the barricades, and thus from the stuffy confines of family and clan, large-scale, popular democratic movements became possible.
Any so-called ‘modern’ – and here I use the term historically to refer to a time period beginning roughly with the French Revolution and ending just prior to World War Two – city is centered around a great public square. (The revolution in personal transportation that was the automobile changed city design quite substantially after World War Two. And I would argue that with this revolution, there has been an accompanying change in how we define and practice democracy.) These great squares are often known by name – Tiananmen, Red Square – many notoriously so, but most are not. And while it can quite rightly be argued that these changes to urban design may have in some cases enabled more authoritarian rule, these great public gathering places have almost inevitably been the places where that rule was (will be?) subsequently ended.
Occupy the square.