Barricades and Boulevards: Material transformations of Paris, 1795-1871

by Carl Douglas

“Destroying and constructing are equal in importance, and we must have souls for the one and the other”.1

Large-scale urban violence is a tumultuous, messy and distressing affair. Materials and patterns of everyday life are blown apart. Amongst death and disarray, important spatial operations that take place in urban conflict are easily overlooked. However, the construction of street barricades and boulevards in Paris between 1795 and 1871 transformed the city. The struggles over these transformations can be described as both the disruption and the policing of what Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible”. 2

The barricades built in the streets of Paris in the revolutionary years that followed the Great Revolution of 1789, and closed with the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871, were not the first or the last artefacts of urban insurgency. Nor was Paris the only city in history – even European history – to be barricaded. However, in Paris, barricading became a revolutionary technique, the development and decline of which can be traced with some precision. Barricading served complex social purposes, of which defense was only one, and not always the most significant. Thus, barricades are also an ephemeral city-scale architecture occasioned by, and changing, the social.3

History and Tectonics of a Rubbish Heap

At first, the Parisian barricades were temporary barriers, or walls erected quickly across streets. They were built by anonymous groups of insurgents from whatever loose materials could be found nearby: carts, furniture, barrels and, most typically, paving stones torn up from the roadway. They were constructed en masse. In July 1830 there were over 4,000 barricades; in June 1848 there were as many as 6,000.

The first recorded instance of barricading in Paris occurred in 1588, when the popular Comte Cossé de Brissac lead Parisians in a rebellion in response to the posting of soldiers in the streets of the city. Chains were sometimes used to close streets to traffic, and these points of closure were reinforced with barrels (barriques) filled with stones to restrict military movement. In 1648, the arrest of a popular politician lead to the erection of over a thousand barricades in the city. Thereafter, barricades did not recur for nearly 150 years, playing no part in the Revolution of 1789. When they did reappear, with the Jacobin uprising of 1795, it was in a different context. While civil disobedience had previously been used as a way of gaining leverage over political leaders, the intention was now the complete overthrow of the state. Between 1795 and 1871, historian Mark Traugott records twenty-one instances of barricading (1993: 315). The most famous of these incidents were the July Days of 1830 (portrayed by Delacroix in his 1830 painting La Liberté guidant le peuple), and the revolutions of February and June 1848. According to Traugott (316), while barricading, by 1848, had achieved ”a genuinely international status as a tactic of revolt”, it was already losing effect in the face of mobile artillery and improving military tactics.4
In the streets of Paris, the last time barricades were used in a major way was during the Paris Commune of 1871, when the socialist government of the city declared itself independent of Versailles. Although barricades continued to be used in other cities in Europe, including Barcelona and Berlin, and reappeared in Paris in 1945 and 1968, barricading as a technique had ceased to be decisive in urban insurgency.

1. Paul Valéry, quoted in Pallasmaa (200: 6).
2. For Rancière’s political philosophy, see Disagreement:Politics and Philosophy (998), and The Politics of Aesthetics (2004), which contains a useful glossary of  Ranciére’s terms.
3. The barricades’ history is in some ways distinct from the history of ad-hoc fortifications (trenches, seige works, emplacements) in general. For the barricades, see Corbin and Mayeur (997) and Mark Traugott (99). In addition, nearly all historical accounts of the French revolutionary period mention the barricades, but few consider their significance in a sustained manner. For the general historical context, see Hobsbawm (962) and (975).                         3. The French uprising of 848 sparked others in cities across Europe, incluing Brussels, Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Milan, Naples, Budapest, Frankfurt, Prague and Dresden.
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