Townsend on Park, 'Ideals of the Body: Architecture, Urbanism, and Hygiene in Postrevolutionary Paris'

Sun-Young Park. Ideals of the Body: Architecture, Urbanism, and Hygiene in Postrevolutionary Paris. Culture, Politics, and the Built Environment Series. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. Illustrations. xi + 372 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4528-4

Reviewed by George Townsend (Birkbeck College, University of London)
Published on H-Material-Culture (September, 2021)
Commissioned by Colin Fanning (Bard Graduate Center)

Printable Version:

In Ideals of the Body: Architecture, Urbanism, and Hygiene in Postrevolutionary Paris, Sun-Young Park situates her analysis of the postrevolutionary metropole (spanning the period 1800-50) in the context of the urbanism of the Second Empire (1852-70) and the impact on Paris—and on modern urbanism in general—of Emperor Napoleon III's prefect, Georges Eugène Haussmann. The Second Empire has been a popular focus among studies in urban and architectural history in the last few decades, from Jean Des Cars and Pierre Pinon's 1991 Paris-Haussmann, David P. Jordan's Transforming Paris: The Life and Labors of Baron Haussmann (1995), and Matthew Truesdell's 1997 Spectacular Politics: Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte and the Fête Impérial, 1849-1870, through to Stéphane Kirkland's Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City (2013) in the new millennium. Such studies have, Park argues, tended to find in the Second Empire's "resplendent department stores" and the "astonishing remnants of its World's Fair" the roots of their own late twentieth- and twenty-first-century commercial and urban culture, tracing the "origins of our modern urbanism to the airy boulevards, public parks, and sewer system reconfiguring the cityscape ... in pleasurable as well as sanitizing ways" (pp. 5, 6). Ideals of the Body provides vital nuance to this tendency. Alongside David Harvey, Park questions the myth (propagated not least by Haussmann himself) of a sudden, unprecedented explosion of modernity into the decaying medieval city and delves in granular detail into the earlier spaces and institutions of "hygienic" (that is, health-promoting) pedagogy and recreation through which modernity "percolated" (pp. 12, 295).

In advancing this alternative origin story, however, Park challenges not only Haussmann’s timeline but also the account of top-down progress and the power that accompanies it. This is a volume that is (as the title indicates) attentive to ideals, of the body and of the city, threading together bold and sometimes unrealized architectural plans with prints and cartoons of men, women, and children engaging in practices of healthy leisure and self-improvement—all of which project precisely an aspiration toward progress, a "proto-eugenic" optimism about the relationship between postrevolutionary subjects and their environment (p. 14). Yet this is also a volume rife with anxieties, transgressions, appropriations, and false starts, and it is partly Park's exploration of the tensions between program and use, space and subject, that makes Ideals of the Body a valuable work beyond its specific historical and geographical purview. Park provides for students in particular an excellent model of how to respond to a challenge that has remained pressing for architectural historians since at least the 1980s and Michel de Certau's The Practice of Everyday Life (1984): how to navigate the relationship between the design, ideals, and official history of a given space and the complexities and corporealities of its actual use.

As a way of mediating this dual interest in space and subjectivity, and anchoring the book's discussions in questions of hygiene and the body, the book's five chapters are organized around a series of "social figures": the soldier, the schoolboy, the demoiselle (a young woman or schoolgirl), the lionne (a fashionable woman about town), and the sportsman (p. 17). Echoing the literary genre of character-type studies or physiologies popular in France in the 1830s and 1840s, each of these figures embodies a different aspect of the transition to modern urban subjectivity underway in the period, while enabling Park to move fluidly between different kinds of texts and artifacts in her analysis.

In chapter 1, she charts the rise of the gymnasium as a site of bodily experimentation, where France's military and its broader self-image as a "warrior nation" were to be regenerated, in reaction against a Romanticism that prized above all the reclining, effeminate form of the "ephebe" or adolescent (pp. 25, 32). Here, she moves from the widely influential writings of German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Anne-Louis Girodet's painting The Sleep of Endymion (1791) to political cartoons and caricatures that rebuke Romantic and aristocratic dalliances with gender ambiguity, and beyond into the texts, prints, and illustrations of the new gymnasium movement—particularly exploring the extraordinary impact of Francisco Amorós y Ondeano, a visionary Spanish-born soldier and gymnasiarch who established his first gymnasium in Paris in 1817 and whose influence is felt throughout Park's analysis in this book.

By contrast, chapter 2 opens with an account of anti-institutional resistance, as Park attributes an epidemic of student revolts in 1819 to a void opened up by Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo: "a restless adolescent population," she argues, "had lost its awaited field of action" (p. 74). As we observe through a series of unrealized plans for the reorganization of the Royal College of Louis-le-Grand, Parisian public schools struggled during this period to spatialize within the cramped areas at hand their shifting educational priorities, particularly the desire to create a more insular educational environment—for the body and the mind—less susceptible to the influence of wider social unrest. Perhaps Park's most original insight in this chapter lies in her analysis of the previously little-explored role of private schools in Paris at this time as sites of freer experimentation, sites that, with their inclusion of flexible and naturalistic spaces of recreation and exercise, provided a crucial precedent for the urban campus model of public school that would flourish later in the century.

In chapter 3, we follow the ambivalent figure of the demoiselle, presented in several sources as a future mother who must be physically fit and healthy for the purpose of child-rearing. Park finds her fantasizing of the world beyond the boarding school and gaining through new gymnastic programs a strength and performative physicality that blurs gender boundaries. This new emphasis on hygiene and physical culture also gestures toward the demoiselle's occupation of public space in adult life: "Through this exercise, athleticism and beauty conflated, directing the public gaze on the mobile female body" (p. 183).

Chiming with Lynda Nead's work in Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London (2000) on the history of women as they move through and are represented in urban space, chapter 4 examines the recreational world of the "lionne"—a kind of female dandy or woman about town. Breaking from the Romantic ideal, dominant in the 1830s, of female beauty that is "pale, worn by silent suffering, intangible," the lionne "roared and bounded, and plunged into the fray of Paris life, shaking her mane, breasting the breeze, strong in the consciousness of her power, the free play of her muscles" (p. 195). And one of the primary spaces in which this new woman made her appearances was the public garden—often sited on suburban, formerly aristocratic grounds. A highlight of this chapter is Park's account of the history of the "montagne russes," a precursor to the modern roller coaster (p. 197). While bold lionnes could be spotted hurtling with distinctly un-feminine abandon down these precarious contraptions, they were also framed and marketed in writing and print media as "hygienic promenades," on the basis of the supposedly healthy exhilaration and exposure to fresh air they afforded (p. 19).

We then come full circle in the fifth chapter, returning to predominantly male physicality in exploring the world of the sportsman. Arenas of boxing, swimming, and horse-riding are examined in fine-grained detail, as is the movement into the public realm of the kinds of gymnasium we encountered in a military context in chapter 1, with Park keeping as careful an eye as ever on the relationship between the designs and ideals of a given space and its corporeal reality. In a section titled "The Aquatic World," for instance, this relationship is laid out particularly clearly, with subsections titled "Forms" and "Representations." In the former we encounter both relatively workaday barges-cum-swimming-schools on the Seine and extraordinary heterotopias such as the "Gymnase nautique" (p. 262). Situated on the Champs-Élysées, the interior of the Gymnase consisted of a long, expansive pool, extending off toward the vanishing point and topped with a lofty arched roof of glass and metal. On either side were arcades and balconies decorated with lavish drapery and orientalist patterns; down the middle ran a leafy artificial island adorned with fountains, bridges, and a large clock atop a pillar. In "Representations," such utopian visions of exoticized escape and the harnessing of nature are then definitively brought down to earth, with Park examining the (often crowd-inducing) egalitarianism of these pools, where the "conceit of social distinction" was habitually unmasked (p. 267).

Ideals of the Body is a highly ambitious work, working across numerous disciplines and setting out to straddle a daunting host of dichotomies: space and subjectivity, masculinity and femininity, public and private, pleasure and hygiene, to name but a few. On the whole it achieves this convincingly and with flair, with particuarly nuanced and insightful relationships emerging throughout the book—which is lavishly illustrated—between word and image. At the very least this will be an invaluable reference work for students and scholars interested in any of the panoply of spaces, practices, and social figures that Park brings into focus, and as a whole it marks a significant contribution to the fields of urban and architectural history; the history of hygiene, leisure and education; and the Anglophone history of Paris.

Citation: George Townsend. Review of Park, Sun-Young, Ideals of the Body: Architecture, Urbanism, and Hygiene in Postrevolutionary Paris. H-Material-Culture, H-Net Reviews. September, 2021.

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