Charles Garnier's Paris Opéra (1861-75) and Baron Haussmann's contemporary replanning of Paris (1853-70) supposedly represent the Second Empire of Napoléon III. But this case study of the Opéra within the context of its quarter of Paris contradicts the usual assumptions that the monument and the city were either the inevitable products or the characteristic political expressions of the state. First, a chain of events dating back to the seventeenth century is reconstructed in order to demonstrate that the decision reached in 1860 to site the Opéra on the Grands Boulevards at the end of a projected new avenue was less the consequence of an imperial plan than the pragmatic result of the often contingent urban history of Paris. Second, the parallel and equally pragmatic evolution of the characteristic Parisian façade of a giant order on an arcuated base is traced from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries in order to explain why Garnier's Opéra and Haussmann's surrounding buildings came to have the same form of elevation. Interpreted in light of both the Opéra's own ambiguous status as a state institution and the ambiguous nature of nineteenth-century bourgeois civil society, this evidence suggests that neither urban nor architectural forms are fixed in their meaning, but tend rather to adjust their meaning to the changing circumstances of their use. This article concludes that a city and its monuments find their meaning in the continuous process by which a city's inhabitants shape and experience their surroundings, rather than in the episodic political programs of the state.
- Copyright 1995 The Society of Architectural Historians