The Paradox of Urban Conservation in France, 1830-1930

By Murphy, Kevin D. | Change Over Time, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

The Paradox of Urban Conservation in France, 1830-1930


Murphy, Kevin D., Change Over Time


Throughout Westorn Europe, the historical process of modernization entailed, among many other transformations, rapid urbanization. The stresses on existing built environments exerted by growing population density brought forth any number of redevelopment plans in many European cities, and those in turn provoked a widespread questioning of how historic buildings should be treated. In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, Continental and British preservation movements had already begun, but they were slow in tackling the problem of urban conservation. Indeed, in many instances, the idea of preserving individual buildings, let alone complete historic environments, was seen as an impediment to modernization. The concept of preserving city form was, in most places, a twentieth-century phenomenon that coincided with-at the same time that it embodied a challenge to-urban development and sprawl.

While many nations dealt with the question of whether there was value in the traditional city, and if so, how it should be weighed against the imperative of modernization, my focus here is restoration policy in nineteenthand twentieth-century France. (The term "preservation" may actually be more apt in some of the cases I'll be discussing, but its French equivalent was not used in the nineteenth century.) France, I believe, is due some special attention in this context for the nation's efforts to preserve its historic architecture from about the time the July Revolution of 1830 received international attention, and indeed, inspired competition with other European countries, especially Germany, Italy, and Great Britain, in the field of preservation. While the aggressive restoration methods of the French received some international criticism, especially from the British who embraced William Morris's "anti-scrape" philosophy, they did inform later preservation elsewhere on the Continent and even in North America. Among the buildings that were first singled out for restoration were castles, churches, and cathedrals-all types associated with the institutions of the monarchy and the church, both disbanded during the revolution of the late eighteenth century-and they became focal points in expanding and modernizing cities, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century.

One peculiarity of the process of modernization in the West, beginning in the eighteenth century, was that it produced a concomitant historical consciousness. The development of industrial production, of international and even global capitalist enterprises, the establishment of new nation states, and urbanization all contributed to a growing concern with the past and particularly with the ways in which it was manifested in material things. Barrett Kalter has described the British antiquarian Horace Walpole as a paradigmatic figure of the eighteenth century who experienced an acute sense of the acceleration of time and changefulness as defining aspects of modernity, and whose engagement with historical objects actually accentuated his awareness of the ephemerality of the moment he inhabited. Kalter argues that in Walpole's practice as a researcher, collector, and builder, objects did not fix time, but instead through their movement from owner to owner, and through their decay, just went to show how quickly time moved. By the same token, however, "The conceptualization of the artifact as an objective and therefore indispensable form of evidence was a key feature of antiquarianism."1 The conception of modernity as at once defined by its unique temporality and its fundamental distinctiveness from the rest of history-by virtue of all the developments alluded to above, as well as by the Enlightenment episteme-undergirds the practice of restoration, as does the belief that objects, and especially architecture, are effective conduits of historical knowledge.

In the modern period, in France at least, historic buildings (and especially those from the Middle Ages) occupied a paradoxical place in the changing modern cityscape. …

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