Cover image for Making Modern Paris: Victor Baltard's Central Markets and the Urban Practice of Architecture By Christopher Curtis Mead

Making Modern Paris

Victor Baltard's Central Markets and the Urban Practice of Architecture

Christopher Curtis Mead


$117.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05087-4

324 pages
9" × 10"
157 b&w illustrations

Buildings, Landscapes, and Societies

Making Modern Paris

Victor Baltard's Central Markets and the Urban Practice of Architecture

Christopher Curtis Mead

“This book promises to make an important contribution to the literature on nineteenth-century French architecture.”


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Winner, 2015 Alice Davis Hitchcock Book Award, Society of Architectural Historians

Making Modern Paris was featured in conjunction with a major exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris (Victor Baltard 1805-1874: le fer et le pinceau). Christopher Mead was invited to present a lecture on the occasion of the exhibition opening in October, 2012. The text of that talk is now available permanently on their website.

The name of the architect Victor Baltard is inseparable from the Halles Centrales of Paris, the complex of iron-and-glass pavilions built between 1854 and 1874 in the historic heart of the city. Making Modern Paris is the only comprehensive study to address systematically not only the role Baltard played in the markets’ design and construction but also how the markets relate to the rest of Baltard’s work and professional practice. Christopher Curtis Mead interprets the Central Markets as a cogent expression of Baltard’s professional experience as he adjusted his academic training to new criteria of municipal administration, urban planning, and building technology. Considering his entire career over the three decades he worked for the Prefecture of the Seine, this investigation of how architectural and urban practice came together in Baltard’s work offers a case study of the historical process that produced modern Paris between 1840 and 1870.
“This book promises to make an important contribution to the literature on nineteenth-century French architecture.”
“Finally we have a thorough and nuanced monograph on the architect Victor Baltard, his contribution to the design of the world's most renowned public market, and his rightful place—and that of his oeuvre, including the markets—in shaping the modern French capital.”
“In this outstanding work of scholarship, Mead (Univ. of New Mexico) subjects the career of Victor Baltard, architect of Les Halles, the Central Markets of Paris, to an examination that commences with a discussion of the skepticism that has hovered over Baltard's reputation since the 1870s. . . . Highly recommended.”
“The great value of Mead’s meticulous study resides in his expert demonstrations of Baltard’s exceptional sensitivity to history and to historical context. These constitute a valuable contribution to our understanding of the architect’s approach, and help open our eyes to heretofore obscure aspects of midnineteenth-century French planning more broadly.”

Christopher Curtis Mead is Regents’ Professor of Architecture and Professor of Art History at the University of New Mexico.


List of Illustrations


Chapter 1 Reconsidering Victor Baltard

Chapter 2 Classicism and the Architect’s Education

Chapter 3 Representing Paris

Chapter 4 Decorated Construction

Chapter 5 An Urban History of the Central Markets

Chapter 6 Housing the City

Epilogue on Function and Typology in Baltard’s Urban Architecture

Appendix: Career Chronology of Victor Baltard




1 Reconsidering Victor Baltard

The reputation of Victor Baltard (fig. 1) is inseparable from the Halles centrales, or Central Markets, of Paris (fig. 2), the complex of iron-and-glass pavilions built to his plans between 1854 and 1874 in the historic heart of the city. And yet, starting with accusations that he stole ideas from rival projects by the radical architect Hector Horeau and the engineer Eugène Flachat, his ability to design one of the defining works of nineteenth-century Paris has been subject to persistent skepticism and doubt.2 As Charles Garnier observed in the perceptive obituary he delivered in 1875 as Baltard’s successor at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the architect’s accomplishment would be forgotten precisely because he had realized in the markets such a self-evident and widely imitated solution to a fundamental problem of his times:

Thanks to the Central Markets, the name of Mr. Baltard should never be forgotten; and yet one can fear that, because of its very excellence, this building will be powerless to preserve the memory of its builder, at least for the crowd. . . . I have said that the markets have already been copied many times. . . . This sort of plagiarism is becoming common, and indeed almost necessary, since the practical solution is actually found through this way of understanding a market. But this abundance of similar buildings . . . is destined to overwhelm the original monument. The creation of one man will seem one day to be the creation of everyone, and when in the future one admires these great constructions, one will perhaps no longer be able to distinguish the first monument or recognize then the name of the eminent architect who created the original type.3

In 1928, Sigfried Giedion validated this judgment when he identified Baltard as the accidental author of his most famous work: neither “a great architect nor a great constructor,” Baltard, according to Giedion, “laboriously had to patch his buildings together from the ideas of others.”4 But if Garnier proved to be presciently on target, both in grasping the ease of reproduction made possible by the Industrial Revolution and in anticipating Baltard’s future reputation, he was also making a larger—at once more substantive and discriminating—point. Suggesting that Baltard could as easily have become “an excellent doctor or a remarkable politician . . . a scholar or an industrialist, a poet or a businessman,” while observing that his versatility as “a distinguished writer, prolific speaker, skillful designer, wise administrator, and ingenious builder” made him seem a jack-of-all-trades, “condemned never to surpass in the arts what is usually called a respectable average,” Garnier acknowledged that other criteria were needed to evaluate an architect who had been brought by the nineteenth century and its new methods of production to practice architecture outside the conventions and traditions of his art.5 The present book unpacks this nuanced argument, which Garnier condensed into twelve deceptively short pages, in order to make the case that the circumstances and significance of the markets’ construction, and the parallel circumstances of architectural training and professional experience that equipped Baltard for the task of designing them, both need to be reconsidered.

Historically, there have been two ways to think of the Central Markets. The earlier one looks to the fact that these were the first public buildings in Paris to be assembled entirely from a standardized and prefabricated structure of iron, brick, wood, and glass. Constituting an important moment in architecture’s industrialization, the markets turned the decayed medieval quarter of the Halles into an orderly grid of pavilions and streets, and they were recognized from the start as important instruments in Prefect George’s-Eugène Haussmann’s renewal of the city between 1853 and 1870. The ten original pavilions and connecting covered streets functioned as specialized spaces of marketing and distribution for a rapidly growing metropolis, at once zoned for different categories of food and integrated by their streets into an efficient transportation network. Part of the same circulatory system that circled nineteenth-century Paris with boulevards and railroad stations, the Central Markets concentrated in one place daily arriving foodstuffs in order to disperse them again throughout the city. Émile Zola appropriated a metaphor already in use by 1854 to name them the belly of Paris in his novel of 1873, Le ventre de Paris. But this was the mechanized belly of an industrial age, “a vast modern machine, some kind of steam engine, some kind of boiler serving the people’s digestion, a gigantic metal belly, bolted, rivetted, made of wood, of glass, and of iron, with the elegance and power of a mechanical motor.”6

Where the sumptuous decoration and stone façades of state monuments like Hector Lefuel’s New Louvre or Charles Garnier’s Opéra (fig. 3) stood for the nation’s continuity with its classical past, the skeletal metal frame of the municipal markets signified the city’s transformation from cultural artifact into object of utility (fig. 4). Abandoning the opaque, if permeable, boundaries of a masonry wall, which had acted until the Industrial Revolution to shape the city into a dense hierarchy of public and private spaces, the markets’ immaterial curtains of brick and translucent glass, held in place by a filigree of cast and wrought iron beneath continuous roofs, seemed socially as much as architecturally to propose another urban identity and order for Paris. Transparent and rational, the markets displaced the familiar differences of building and street, inside and outside, private and public, with the functional abstraction of a scientifically conceived and technically realized theory of the city. Space could now be organized programmatically without being bounded physically. At the markets, architecture was reformulated from its classical conception as a unified, bounded, and self-contained whole, to become instead an additive and open-ended system of repeating, interchangeable units, which, from the structure to the spaces, could be extended indefinitely until a program’s quantitative demands had been met.

A century after their construction, the decision in 1971 to demolish the Central Markets produced a second reading of their significance. At the time, the destruction of the markets touched off a fierce debate between functionalists, who argued that the pavilions had outlived their singular purpose, and preservationists, who claimed that the pavilions, far from being narrowly utilitarian structures, were instead wonderfully flexible spaces that could be adapted to a wide variety of needs.7 Built on a site reserved for the markets since the Middle Ages, their central location in an increasingly populous and crowded city had complicated the distribution of foodstuffs from the start and doomed them to obsolescence once refrigeration eliminated the need to supply perishable foods to the city on a daily basis. By the 1950s, the Halles quarter was being targeted by planners intent on eradicating what they saw as a site of drug trafficking and prostitution. The Situationists Guy Debord and Abdelhafid Katib celebrated the Halles in “psychogeographical” maps that delineated the quarter as a place of vibrant, if unpredictable, cultural (rather than purely commercial) exchange, but only nostalgia delayed until 1969 the removal of the markets’ functions to the transportation hub of Rungis, on the city’s periphery.8 From 1969 until 1971, the Halles actually became a site of cultural exchange, with performances, exhibitions, and events that turned the pavilions, according to the sociologist Henri Lefebvre, “into a gathering place and a scene of permanent festival—in short, into a centre of play rather than of work—for the youth of Paris.”9 Their demolition left behind a void stretching for blocks and filled, incompletely and unconvincingly, with the clutter of a subway station, a shopping mall, and a park.10

While the debate over their usefulness came too late to save the markets, it did prompt scholars to reexamine their history. First, in the pathbreaking Système de l’architecture urbaine (1977), Françoise Boudon and a team of scholars placed the markets within an “urban tissue” of housing blocks, aristocratic mansions, churches, and other public buildings, which had shaped the Halles quarter as a “system of urban architecture” since the twelfth century.11 Next, in Les Halles de Paris (1980), Bertrand Lemoine complemented Boudon’s urban history with an architectural history of the markets’ design, tracing the sequence of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century projects that led up to Baltard’s definitive project of 1854.12 And third, in Building Paris (1994), David Van Zanten plotted how a new kind of “commercial urbanism” was formulated between 1845 and 1854 through three phases of planning based in the speculative logic of property lines, lot plans, and real-estate transactions.13 Even though all three continued to define the markets in Haussmannian terms, as instruments of renewal that radically transformed the existing historic quarter, Boudon, Lemoine, and Van Zanten demonstrated in their research how the gridded layout of pavilions had been generated through a historical process of urban development, negotiation, and compromise rather than from a single predetermined master plan. In so doing, they opened the way to the typological, rather than functional, definition of the markets to be considered here. Fundamentally indebted to Aldo Rossi’s argument for the “complexity of urban artifacts” in his seminal study The Architecture of the City (1966/1978), this typological approach to the city and its buildings is further informed by Anthony Vidler’s critical formulation in 1976 of a “third typology” aimed at understanding “the nature of the city itself, emptied of specific social content from any particular time and allowed to speak simply of its own formal condition.”14

The shift in critical perspective resulting from the markets’ destruction did not, however, close the interpretative divide that continues to separate the buildings from Baltard. At issue are not the facts of his involvement, at least since Lemoine straightened out the project’s design chronology, but rather the specific content of his contributions within the context of an otherwise conventional career (as outlined in the appendix).15 Following in the footsteps of his father, the Neoclassical architect Louis-Pierre Baltard, and encouraged by family friends who included Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, Baltard studied under his father at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he won the Prix de Rome in 1833. He went on to spend thirty years working for the municipal administration of Paris, from the July Monarchy through the Second Republic and Second Empire, climbing the bureaucratic ranks until 1860, when Haussmann appointed him director of the newly reorganized architectural service in the Prefecture of the Seine. During the 1840s and 1850s, Baltard decorated, restored, and modified the city’s medieval and Renaissance parish churches. Engaging Ingres’s students among other artists to decorate these churches with cycles of mural painting, he also adjusted their building fabric to the planning realities of Haussmann’s Paris, most notably when the Boulevard de Sébastopol truncated the apse of Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles. In the 1850s, Baltard modified the Hôtel de Ville, adding a grand staircase and iron-and-glass roof to its central courtyard, and designed the two Neo-Renaissance annex buildings that face city hall from either side of the new Avenue Victoria. Finally, in the 1860s, he built the church of Saint-Augustin for a triangular wedge of land at the intersection of the Boulevard de Malesherbes and the Rue Portalis: responding volumetrically to a site shaped by its streets, the church’s masonry shell is reduced to an eclectic curtain of stone draped over an exposed structure of iron. If these works collectively tended toward pragmatic adjustments of historic precedents to the dictates of modern planning and industrial production, in none of them did Baltard seem able to break free of nineteenth-century historicism to imagine the frank embrace of modernity realized so exceptionally at the Central Markets.

More interested in the markets than their architect, Lemoine documents Baltard’s projects without addressing the professional or critical context of their design. Van Zanten considers the architect’s career more generally in a chapter from Building Paris titled “Haussmann, Baltard, and Municipal Architecture.” Surveying the operations and employees of the city’s architectural service, whose sphere of action expanded exponentially under Haussmann, Van Zanten credits a new kind of authority to Baltard, one at odds with the traditional responsibilities of a Lefuel or Garnier to represent the city or state in conventional forms, because Baltard controlled the conventionally invisible yet finally more consequential realm of “the city’s functions and texture.”16 Faced with the apparent contradictions in Baltard’s work between historicism and industrial commercialism, Van Zanten concludes that he was an architect of “unresolved juxtapositions,” who accepted “the loosening of the consistencies of art in the face of anonymous technology . . . empowered by the concrete needs of municipal architecture and made plausible by the shadow of adherence to the niceties of traditional design.”17

Pierre Pinon, in his 2005 biography of Louis-Pierre and Victor Baltard, argues that father and son alike merit study precisely because they were each so typically “representative of their times.”18 Steering clear of “polemics,” Pinon believes that the unfounded if rancorous accusations of plagiarism launched against the architect are “explained by the fact that everything had been too easy” for this privileged member of the architectural and municipal elite: at the markets, Baltard was simply doing his job, producing a work whose metal structure demonstrated his technical competence yet that finally lacked the intellectual substance found in the more thoughtful architecture of a Henri Labrouste or Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.19 Proving by contrast the eclectic norm of his practice, the markets were Baltard’s single excursion into “the realm of experimentation,” the one exception to the architectural “bricolage” of ad hoc and ultimately indiscriminate assemblages of historical styles, building technologies, and functional programs characterizing the rest of his work.20 Baltard is credited with the Central Markets’ design but remains surprisingly irrelevant to their conception in any sense beyond the very narrow one of specialized expertise.

More than any other source, the testimony of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, prefect of the Seine and the administrator to whom Baltard answered as architect of the markets, explains this historical skepticism. Though Baltard’s commission predated the prefect’s arrival on the scene, Haussmann appeared at a crucial moment in the markets’ history, and he claimed years later in his Mémoires (1890–93) to have salvaged the architect’s appointment.21 Construction of an earlier design, mixing stone walls with a cast-iron roofing structure, had started in 1851, but this project carried with it political expectations that, while outside Baltard’s control, complicated his task. Laying the cornerstone on 15 September 1851, President Louis-Napoléon had pronounced the project to be in the entire nation’s interest: “In setting the first stone of a building whose purpose is so eminently popular, I confidently yield to the hope that, with the support of all good citizens and the protection of heaven, we will be able to place on the soil of France some foundations on which will be raised a social edifice solid enough to offer a shelter against the violence and mobility of human passions.”22 Instead, in 1853, the first pavilion provoked a storm of protest: the austere and monumental mass of stone that had been praised in 1851 was now being attacked in the press for seeming more like a fortress than a market hall.23 Market employees submitted a petition of complaint to Napoléon III, who returned as emperor on 3 June 1853 to a site he had last visited as president, and ordered that work be stopped.24

Haussmann intervened sometime after he was sworn in as prefect, on 29 June. As recounted in his Mémoires, Haussmann went to Napoléon III for instructions: “The emperor, enchanted by the Gare de l’Est . . . conceived the Central Markets as being this type of hall roofed with an iron-and-glass structure. . . . ‘What I want are vast umbrellas, nothing more,’ he told me one day, charging me with receiving, organizing, and submitting to him the counterprojects that he had provoked [by dismissing Baltard], and sketching for me, in a few pencil strokes, the silhouette he had in mind.”25 Sketch in hand, the prefect returned to his office in the Hôtel de Ville, where he coordinated the imperial silhouette with his master plan of the market as two groups of pavilions divided by a main central street. Haussmann then summoned Baltard and told him to produce a new scheme based on the emperor’s sketch and his master plan: “Quickly, make me a project that follows these guidelines. Iron, iron, nothing but iron!” Baltard supposedly protested that iron “was fine for engineers; but what did an architect, ‘an artist,’ have to do with this industrial metal?”26 When, however, Haussmann made it clear that Baltard’s career was at stake, the architect capitulated and developed the requisite iron structure. Taking this scheme to Napoléon III, Haussmann presented it as his solution to the imperial command: “I told His Majesty that I, trying to follow his ideas, had had a project drawn up that I hesitated to place before his eyes. . . . ‘Let me see,’ the emperor said. And as soon as he saw it, he cried: ‘But that’s it, that’s exactly it!’”27 In May 1854, the emperor viewed a model of the markets at the Hôtel de Ville, fabricated on orders from Haussmann, and used the occasion to reinstate Baltard by decorating him with a Legion of Honor cross, at the prefect’s suggestion though supposedly without realizing this was the architect of the original pavilion. Confessing his deception, Haussmann mollified the emperor with an epigram: “It is the same architect; but it is not the same prefect.”28 Haussmann accused Baltard of “ingratitude” when the architect failed to acknowledge his crucial role by dedicating to him the Monographie des Halles centrales.29

Seamlessly self-aggrandizing, Haussmann presents himself as an adroitly manipulative administrator able to outwit a naive, if enthusiastic, emperor, who was so inattentive as to be duped into honoring a disgraced architect whom he had already met several times before. Haussmann’s account, however, contradicts what actually happened in the summer of 1853.30 On 5 July, Baltard did in fact submit three alternative schemes to the prefect, two of which were either entirely or predominantly in iron.31 But these variant designs are dated 13 June and had already been presented to the emperor a week before Haussmann arrived in Paris on 28 June; the project described by Haussmann in his Mémoires, incorporating the new master plan, was not drawn up until the following October. Redating this later project to his arrival in Paris several months earlier, the prefect collapsed two distinct events in June and October—only the second of which took place when he was present—into a single fabricated moment of decisive intervention. Far from being the main actor at a pivotal juncture in the history of Paris, saving Baltard’s career even as he pushed him to redesign one of the most important public works of the Second Empire, Haussmann turns out to have turned up too late, nearly a month after the emperor communicated his desires on 3 June, and two and a half weeks after the architect had seized the initiative—on his own volition, not Haussmann’s orders—by radically revising the markets’ design.

Acknowledging only a “few words,” Baltard never specified the imperial criticism he received on 3 June.32 Napoléon III might have mentioned the Gare de l’Est, completed by François Duquesney and Pierre Cabanel de Sermet in 1852, though he was more probably thinking of the Gare Saint-Lazare, whose train shed had just been expanded by Eugène Flachat in 1851–53 (fig. 5): visiting Saint-Lazare after his inspection of the markets, the emperor was reportedly struck by the contrast between the pavilion’s massive stone construction and the shed’s light iron structure, which “allied boldness and elegance with the advantage of great economy.”33 Either way, train stations were presented to Baltard as models of industrial modernization, causing him to write defensively to the emperor in mid-June that “as for the system of construction [of the original pavilion], we wanted, it is true, to distinguish it from what is generally employed in railroad stations.”34 Yet both the Gare de l’Est and the Gare Saint-Lazare, with their iron-and-glass halls held behind Neo-Renaissance masonry façades, were fundamentally similar in conception to Baltard’s market pavilion. If, as Haussmann later claimed, the emperor really did demand “umbrellas,” it could have been with the more radical example of the Crystal Palace in mind (fig. 6). Inaugurated on 1 May 1851 (not long before Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état of 2 December 1851 and the plebiscite that legitimized his Second Empire on 1 December 1852), this factory-manufactured iron-and-glass exhibition hall had been designed by Joseph Paxton under the patronage of Prince Albert, the royal consort of Napoléon III’s political ally Queen Victoria. To the anglophilic emperor, whose desire to modernize Paris was inspired by the example of London, the significance of this building, produced by the world’s leading industrial nation, must have been obvious. National chauvinism dictated the rhetorical substitution of a French for an English example, with Flachat’s shed providing a timely analogue, but the fact remains that the Crystal Palace was more like the emperor’s “umbrellas” than the train stations of Paris.

What, then, was Haussmann up to when he recast as historical fiction an actual series of events? According to Eugène Rouher, a frequent political adversary of Haussmann, the prefect had “an ability to assimilate information so highly developed that in the wink of an eye he made his own—and believed to be his own—all the ideas of his collaborators.”35 Haussmann’s fable is so cavalier in its disregard for a verifiable set of dates because he really did believe what he published in 1890, a story he had probably been telling and polishing for years, from the moment he reached Paris in late June 1853. To him, the story was true because it dramatized his appointment and measured the administrative distance between the cautious decisions of his predecessor, Jean-Jacques Berger, and his own vigorous push for change: “It is the same architect; but it is not the same prefect.” Haussmann was going to transform Paris.

This psychological truth needs to be kept in mind when trying to understand why histories of Second Empire Paris, from the classic studies by André Morizet (1932), Brian Chapman (1957), and David Pinkney (1958) to the recent biographies of Haussmann by Jean des Cars (1988), David Jordan (1995), Georges Valence (2000), and Michel Carmona (2000), have all accepted the prefect’s account of what happened in 1853. Correcting a few dates, as Lemoine did in 1980, and proving in the process that Baltard took the initiative to save his own career, has not shaken the conviction that, without Haussmann, this architect could never have rethought his design of the markets in the emphatically industrial terms demanded by Napoléon III. After the fact, Baltard seemed to corroborate this judgment. In his Monographie des Halles centrales, he noted drily that the markets’ original design had been rejected because “a pronounced enthusiasm for metal constructions, of which railroad stations offered interesting examples, dominated public taste, alienating it from stone constructions.”36 Ten years later, in his supplement to that monograph, Baltard came bluntly to the point: “As far as we are concerned, we have always thought that the true system of construction for public markets in our climate is to be found today in a reasoned combination of stone for the surrounding walls and iron and wood for the interior supports and roofs.”37 In thought, if not in actual deed, Baltard had resisted the command to redesign the markets in “iron, iron, nothing but iron!”

To Haussmann, Baltard was a man of contradictory parts, an architect whose “talent, like his character, presented some singular contrasts.” On occasion, “this intransigent classicist by birth . . . this knowledgeable and faithful imitator of past masterpieces,” showed glimmers of originality as a “decorator full of imagination and taste.” Yet Baltard’s regard for an artist’s prerogatives put him at odds with the hierarchy of a municipal bureaucracy and made him at best a “functionary in spite of himself.” In a closing barb, Haussmann regretted that the architect’s “character as a whole . . . lent itself poorly to sympathetic abandon, to generous transports, to [the] disinterested self-sacrifice” that the prefect expected from his employees.38 Because he was academically trained, Baltard seemed ill equipped to grasp the progressive industrial potential and urban scope of the markets and so had to be forced to act. As Baltard’s other critics implied when they accused him of plagiarizing the projects of Flachat and Horeau, the job seemed better suited to an engineer, or at least to an architect who recognized the need to forsake classicism’s aesthetic conventions and reinvent architecture according to quantitative criteria of economy, structure, and function.

This portrait justifies the conclusions reached by Van Zanten and Pinon that Baltard was an architect of “unresolved juxtapositions” and “bricolage.” But defining Baltard by the supposed contradictions between his academic training and his principal work is as limiting historically as identifying the Central Markets as uniquely utilitarian products of industry and planning. Just as the markets have been rehistoricized in studies that look beyond clichés of utility to recover their actually complex urban development, so the circumstances of Baltard’s professional training, experience, and career must be reconsidered before any conclusions are drawn about his role, conservative or otherwise, in a history of nineteenth-century French architecture and urbanism. The issue needs to be rephrased, from the negative assumption that Baltard, despite his technical expertise, lacked the requisite depth of intellect to conceptualize the markets, to an acceptance of the possibility that he did possess that depth, for the simple reason that he proved this as their architect. The question in this case is no longer whether Baltard should be credited with the markets’ design but rather what he meant as their architect when he insisted that, having conceived their frankly industrial metal structure, he had always preferred a “reasoned combination of stone . . . and iron.”