Photography and Urban Renewal

Convincing a preservationist that documentation is good is a little like convincing water to be wet. Nonetheless, not all documentation is created equal. This was driven home to me as I exclaimed and tried to keep my voice down simultaneously at the Marville exhibit at the Met. I’ve seen more pictures of Paris than most, especially since I’m a native of the city, but these photos were something else.

Old Paris looking rural.
Old Paris looking urban.

Others who are more talented at description have already waxed poetic about this exhibit. For me, seeing the city as it was painfully transformed from medieval to modern city was eye-opening. Yes, I’m familiar with the story. I teach it every year. By this point when I teach Paris – which is coincidentally about now – students are familiar with the destructive force of urban renewal, and how it has torn out the heart of neighborhoods across America. And then I bring up Haussmann, and his grand vision for Paris. It’s so easy to demonize urban renewal until you realize it was done to Paris on a huge scale. Truth is, modern Paris is a marvel. It’s beautiful of course, but also surprisingly easy to navigate, and unmistakable as the city of lights. So… Why did this exhibit affect me so?

Does this pic need a caption? Didn’t think so.

Both the new and old were shown in the pictures, and the violent upheaval of the change was made clear. Yet the photos are also peaceful. Because of the long exposures necessary at the time, street life is absent. Or rather, it’s a barely perceptible cloud along the streetscape. It’s good to mourn the loss of the lively pre-Haussmannian Paris. It’s also good to see just how much of an improvement the new streets were in terms of hygiene, coherence, and wayfinding.

New Paris looking beautiful but devoid of life.

I’ve always had a soft spot for photos of demolition. 100 abandoned houses is a particularly affecting site that I visit periodically. Photos like these bring home the realities of urban planning: that there is no painless progress, that loss is often violent and traumatizing, that new development feels sterile for a long time.

While I’m not a google glass person, I think these photos allow for augmented reality that is very valuable, showing us the fourth dimension in the built environment. The temporal aspect of the built environment is so tough to really keep, and these photos of transition allow that bridge to remain.

I know we probably all take too many pics these days, often with filters. So while I won’t advocate selfies or artificial patina, I will encourage you to take pics of the world around you. Some of those photos will end up relevant, and probably not those you would expect.

It's no Marville, but here's part of UMW as it transforms.
It’s no Marville, but here’s part of UMW as it transforms.

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