The form of a city changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart.

Posted on November 1, 2015

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I have been researching influences for my project about the redevelopment of East London. In doing so I came across the French 19th century photographer Charles Marville. Marville documented the transformation of the centre of Paris under Haussmann.

The first major urban renewal project in Paris started in the1850s. Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon), commissioned Baron Haussmann to restructure the city after imperial Rome. In the process, Paris was modernized with the addition of sewage, sanitation, rail transportation and markets. Broad boulevards and tree-lined streets and parks took the place of narrow dirty streets.

Haussmann’s redevelopment gave the city much of its current grandeur, but in doing so he also disregarded the lives of the city’s inhabitants, evicting hundreds of thousands from their homes and destroying the integrity of arrondissements around which the city was organised.

Charles Baudelaire’s response to Haussman’s Paris is documented in “Tableaux Parisiens,” from Les Fleurs du Mal. In this poetic work he sets out stories of the forgotten people of Haussmann’s Paris. This excerpt from his poem “The Swan” is particularly poignent.

“As I walked across the new Carrousel.

—Old Paris is no more (the form of a city

Changes more quickly, alas!

Than the human heart);”

Charles Baudelaire,1859,

Baudelaire is suggesting that, after Haussmann, everyone had become an exile in their own city. The people are likened to a swan that has escaped from its cage ­– choked by the dust on the streets, and looking and longing for its natal lake. He regrets the alienation that the new city (and Modernism?)  had created.

Is this what is happening today to those areas of East London bordering on the City of London: Shoreditch, Spitalfields, and Whitechapel? Is the constant thrust of demolition, redevelopment and gentrification ripping the heart out of communities in these districts. I fear it is and so do many living in these areas. The growth of the city and property prices are the driving forces behind these changes rather than a grand ‘Haussmannesque’ plan.

There are some interesting echoes of Marville’s Paris in some of my recent photographs of East London. 

La Rue Souflet and the Pantheon. Charles Marville

La Rue Souflet and the Pantheon. Charles Marville 1853

Brushfield Street and Christ's Church Spitalfields Keith Greenough 2015

Brushfield Street and Christ’s Church Spitalfields Keith Greenough 2015

Construction of the avenue de l’Opéra, Charles Marville 1876

Construction of the avenue de l’Opéra, Charles Marville 1876

Bishopsgate Institute

Refurbishment of Bishopsgate Institute Keith Greenough 2015

More research into Haussmann, Marville, Baudelaire and the modern day redevelopment of East London needed…

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