The fin-de-siècle period in Paris

I am writing my paper on Paris at the end of the 19th century and its urban planning, with emphasis on the 1889 exhibition and the building of the Eiffel Tower. This period is also known as fin-de-siècle Paris . In order for me to even gain the smallest grasp on my topic, I first had to gain a working definition of what the term fin-de-siècle actually meant.

The fin-de-siècle period, literally translated to end of the century–roughly the years 1880 to 1900–was characterized by great cultural and political ambivalence, an anxiety for things lost, and a longing for the new. It is characterized by a fear for society due to the idea of it being a time of degeneration, but also a feeling of hope because of the start of a new century.

The term “Fin de siècle” is most commonly associated with French artists, especially French symbolism  and was affected by the cultural awareness characteristic of France at the end of the 19th century. However, the expression is also used to refer to a European-wide cultural movement. The ideas which were developed in this period went on to greatly influence the subsequent modernist movement. The major political themes of this era were those of revolt against materialism, positivism, the bourgeois society, and liberal democracy.

The fin de siècle encompasses a broader set of concerns, social and political, that often stand in tension with aestheticism.It was also a period of great cultural change including an outpouring of intellectual responses to the conflicting times from such eminent writers as T. H. Huxley, Emma Goldman, William James, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde. When talking about the fin-de–siècle in relation to art, the general meaning is of an artistic climate of sophistication, escapism, extreme aestheticism, world-weariness, and fashionable despair.


World Exhibitions and Urban Planning

The tradition of International Exhibitions began with the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition which was held in London. It expanded upon an existing European tradition of regional and national commercial fairs as well as a more recently emergent “exhibitionary complex,” enjoyed by the people of the time, comprised of museums, public monuments, panoramas, arcades, and early department stores. After this first international exhibition in 1851, exhibitions would become fixtures of European and American life, taking place every 1 to 5 years, mostly in major cities such as Paris, London, Chicago and New York. These Exhibitions became seen as symbols of a dawning culture of mass spectacle in the West, bringing together crowds of varied national backgrounds, gender, and class in a shared experience of visual consumption.

Historically, these Exhibitions had a major effect upon the Urban Planning of the city or area which is hosting the Exhibition. Nineteenth-century world’s fairs were the epitome of modern times, as were the cities that hosted them. Cities such as Paris, London, New York and Chicago were metropolitan centers that were truly examples of universal modernity during this period. These cities were cosmopolitan, financial, and cultural centres that concentrated and combined both national and international trends. World’s fairs were thus, the controlled portrayals of these cosmopolitan cores, as much as they were the cities greatest spectacles showing off the marvels of the city and its capabilities.

World exhibitions were conscious representations of what was thought to be the epitome of progress and modernity, and they were the ideal rendition of the modern city. Fairs embodied and fostered the primary components of nineteenth-century modern existence: the belief in positive, universal, and homogeneous truth; the presumption of freedom; the concept of ending history by summarizing the past and controlling the future; and the creed of nationalism as an intrinsic part of both international cosmopolitanism and economic imperialism. While in some instances the impacts of the Expos are barely visible, in other instances the strong impacts produced involves alterations to the structure and the urban forms of the city or of the wider territory in which the Expos have taken place. Exhibitions proved to be important instrument of renewal as a catalyst of urban regeneration with growing, substantial and lasting physical impact. Being that, landscapes are made by ideas as well as construction, and the last decade of the century was full of ideas about society and the city might be like in the future, the buildings created for the Expos were very cutting edge and modernistic.

The Small Town vs. the City

The main reason the I live in the Country. Photo taken at a private beach along Mara Lake.

So, as some of you know, I currently live and grew up in a really small town and have never really lived in a city larger than Williams Lake, and even then I lived 5 minutes outside of town. Perhaps due to this reason, I still live in a small town with my 100lb dog Buster. My drive is just over an hour each way to school so if I have class at 9:30 in the morning, I have to leave by 8:00. It is also much more expensive in the long run as I pay rent in Enderby plus I generally put around 800km on my car every week.

My childhood backyard (where my mom still lives) with my mom and I and our dogs last
winter 🙂


To many of you this sounds crazy, but for me it just seems to make sense. The city honestly scares me. It is busy and crowded. I get stressed out just entering the city sometimes, to be completely honest, I get stressed just going to Walmart as there are so many people there and all in a hurry. The funny thing about this is that a lot of my friends from home feel the same way and those that have moved to cities said that it took them a long time to adjust.

Small towns in my opinion have so much going for them, especially if larger centers are easily accessible for shopping and cultural activities. There is a wealth of community feeling in small towns. I know most of my neighbors and even many strangers in the grocery store smile and say hi.

A while ago in class (September 27th) we talked about the Crisis of the 19th century and the reason for planning movements that attempted to ameliorate the conditions of the cities by introducing elements of the country. At that time the London slums were becoming a worry to the middle class. They were afraid that the poor members of these slums would rise up in revolution so they attempted to make living conditions better. Georg Simmel believed that the city caused over-stimulation and thus nervous exhaustion. There is also an idea of an intensification of urban stimuli where noise leads to feelings of indifference not caring about anything.

Although in some ways the city has gotten so much better, it has also gotten worse in some ways. Cities have grown far larger than the cities of the 19th century and thus they have different sets of problems, including my personal nemesis, traffic! Planners of the 20th century have tried to address the sets of problems that stem from the sheer magnitude of cities, but to a person who has lived only in small towns; cities are still scary, loud, busy places that as Simmel says create nervous over-stimulation and exhaustion.

I know that there is a completely different viewpoint to this, and that life in a really small town is unthinkable to many who grew up exclusively in a city, or have grown accustomed to the society and culture that the city encompasses.


The Enderby cliffs. Photo taken this summer from the top. There is so much to do in the country especially if you are active.

Class Summary: September 20, 2012

For today’s class we were discussing the Birth of Modernism with reference to the Ringstrasse in Vienna.

We started out the class with a recap of last class and the challenges to urban planning. We referenced the role and interest of the state, the challenges of absolutism and high modernism. We said that High Modernism is basically the use of science to better society which came out of Enlightenment thinking. We quickly talked about Haussmannization in Paris and the creation of the three main boulevards and how they were symbol of the power of the state and showed the states greatness by their unobstructed views leading to great monuments, but we also noted that there was a definite and clear alliance between Haussmanns project and capitalism. We also looked at Madrid and the High modernism there where science drove urban expansion, for example with the train.

An important definition from todays class was that of technocracy which is when society places its trust in scientists and highly trained specialists, or in technological bureaucracy. In this model, the power is held by technical specialists. This is important to todays discussion because we are dealing with a period in which there was lots of technology becoming available and the people who understood it were the people with the power over society.

We also defined Modernism which is the pursuit of modern aesthetic. And we defined Functionalism which is where the appearance reflects function.

The reading for todays class was: Carl E. Schorske. Fin de Siecle Vienna, “The Ringstrasse, its critics, and the birth of urban modernism.”

We talked about the concept of a monolith where there is one powerful ruling body and how Vienna up until this period had been ruled by a monolithic power but how that had just changed. The Habsburg Empire/ Monarchy controlled a multi-ethnical empire and as such they were very conservative. The 19th century gave birth to a rise of liberal movements including a separation from the church, the quest for (limited) suffrage, and the rise of the merchant class. These liberal movements wanted a National State. With the election of 1890, the liberals were now in power in Vienna. In essence the power was held by the middle class. This middle class was wealthy and were happy to have some form of political power. They were out to further the interests of a certain group, themselves, rather than control society.

One of the main things that this new liberal government did was to build the Ringstrasse around Vienna. It was mixed usage area which was a combination of boulevard and commercial and residential buildings which replaced the fortifications and no man’s land that had previously surrounded the city. This embraced Liberal values as it made space for public institutions which reflected the advancement. The most celebrated buildings in the Ringstrasse were the museums, universities, the parliament, the theatre, and the city hall. We talked about how there is an emphasis on motion and how this motion was linked to technology and progress. An important part of this Ringstrasse was that the liberals knew that there was the possibility that the monarchs could take over again so the Ringstrasse was built as a liberal noose encircling the city to limit the power of the monarchy.

We also spent some time discussing the reactions to the Ringstrasse by critics Camillo Sitte and Otto Wagner

Camillo Sitte Otto Wagner
Thinks the Ringstrasse is missing Greek and Roman creativity- The human element. Hates historicism- sees it as a lack of creativity
Rejects the modern elements of the Ringstrasse- dislikes the primacy of the road and the fact that the buildings have no relationship to one another. Believes that we are living in a modern age and as such that we need our own style.
Wants to put nature back into the city. He believes that modernity has a disintegrating influence on society and that squares and such would give a sense of community. Loves capitalism and believes that, “necessity is arts only mistress.”