09/2014: Paris and the Urban Values of Hygiene

In 2002, my belief that modernity was a vague concept whose hidden values needed to become explicit grew stronger when I wrote an essay on Modern architecture in France during the interwar period, for my communication at the Seventh DOCOMOMO Conference. Le Corbusier’s gift for mediation overshadowed other talented architects and urban planners of his time, especially Auguste Perret. Unlike Le Corbusier, Perret advocated faithfulness to history. He was a protagonist of hygiene in housing architecture, as we can admire in the blocks he built in Le Havre after the Second World War: apartments are surrounded by natural light and air, the kitchens and bathrooms are remarkable standardized equipments, still in use. I thought that this wonderful urban achievement had a long history, which deserved new research.

Fabienne Chevallier.

Still, that hygiene has a history that can be considered as a motor for social urban values is denied by Michel Foucault’s followers. I won’t discuss the formidable visionary talent of Foucault, nor the importance he paid rightly to the relations between knowledge and power. But Foucault’s approach was sometimes biased by his strong belief that during the XIXth century, hygiene was used only for a disciplinary purpose. To his eyes, the function of modern architecture – for instance the modern hospitals – was to transform the individuals, and allow political control on them. The political use of hygiene paved the way for the future totalitarian regimes and their prison-like buildings. But even though hygienists had various ideologies including very conservative ones, there is no evidence showing that the modern city inspired by hygiene was a fruit of a proto-totalitarian political will. Sources show that a wide range of men tried to implement hygiene as a noble social concept.

In France the noble idea of hygiene was born in Paris long before it migrated in Le Havre. Hygiene was a science before it bore architectural and urban fruits. At the beginning of the XIXth century, hygiene took its roots within the disciplines of chemistry and medicine. When I decided to research the history of hygiene in Paris, I was fascinated with the idea that its urban architecture, which endured radical transformations during the Second Empire and the Third Republic, had perhaps more tribute to pay to science than to bureaucracy. Maybe Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the well-known, but also controversial “préfet de la Seine” (from 1853 until 1870), was not the unique champion of the modernization of Paris, and maybe modernization had different meanings even at his time.

Hôtel-Dieu, arch. Jacques Émile Gilbert et Arthur Diet (1865-1877), main courtyard. Photo F. Chevallier.

When I begin a research, I appreciate the moment when I allow new questions to arise. The idea that, maybe, there had existed a wider circle of “Great Men” bringing contributions to the transformations of Paris during the XIXth century, and that this circle comprised not only engineers – Eugène Belgrand and Adolphe Alphand’s roles are well-known -, but also scientists, chemists, professors of medicine, politicians involved in hygiene as an asset for social progress, was a very appealing hypothesis. Sources revealed it was true. Modern Paris owes a lot to the theories of hygiene elaborated since the beginning of the XIXth century.

Before the time of Napoleon III and Haussmann, hygiene in urban architecture resulted in the new markets and slaughterhouses designed by Louis Bruyère (they were all built in the 1820’s), masterpieces of classical architecture made more simple and rational. The Hôtel-Dieu (Paris main hospital in the Ile de la Cité) by architect Jacques Émile Gilbert, is a beautiful building with an inner courtyard inspired by Renaissance architecture. Its conception was a late example of the theory of pavilion architecture, which followed principles of hygiene according to the theory of miasmas. Hygiene was the dominant quality of the buildings designed for schools. It inspired the use of modern materials and functional architectural details. Those schools were considered as an architectural success of the social policy during the Third Republic.

That Haussman’s oeuvre was part of a longer urban history showing prolific relations between science (especially medicine) and architecture brings a different perspective on the understanding of modern Paris. It also brings to the fore that hygiene and its own ethics inspired various forms of architectural beauty, which the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris can be a good example of.


Fabienne Chevallier

Fabienne Chevallier’s web page: http://www.fabiennechevallier.com

Fabienne Chevallier has published Le Paris moderne : histoire des politiques d’hygiène (1855-1898) (2010) and La naissance du Paris moderne : l’essor des politiques d’hygiène (1788-1855)
(Online book, 2012 : http://www.bium.univ-paris5.fr/histmed/asclepiades/pdf/chevallier_2009.pdf. ).

Le Paris moderne won the Prize of the French Society of History of Medicine (2010) and the Prize Jean-François Coste of the National Academy of Medicine (2011).