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The capital of the Reichsland and the modernisation of the city (1871-1939)

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The capital of the Reichsland and the modernisation of the city (1871-1939)

Strasbourg underwent profound change from 1871 onwards. The Neustadt tripled the city's total area, and the first features of a capital began to appear . The 20th century saw the development of the Strasbourg conurbation and a new stage in the city's urban growth.

Following the Treaty of Frankfurt, which put an end to the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871), the city of Strasbourg, which had previously been the main administrative seat of the département, was made the capital of the imperial territory of Reichsland Elsass-Lothringen, under the direct rule of the Empire. The city's new prestige required a whole series of new institutions, including an Imperial University, ministries and official buildings, while industrial and economic development needed to be encouraged in order to turn it into a modern city capable of dominating the Upper Rhine region. Its strategic position also meant it had to accept an inflow of Germans who would guarantee its loyalty should hostilities break out again with France.

Neustadt, a new town for a new capital

The first question to be resolved was how to organise the city's urban structure to bring it into line with its new status. The natural solution was to extend its boundaries beyond the 18th-century walls, an idea which would already been considered in the 19th century.

Following complex negotiations between the Empire and the City, the perimeters of the expansion were drawn up in 1875, which would triple the city's total area. The town hall called upon two architects, Strasbourg city architect Jean-Geoffroy Conrath, and Berliner Gustav Orth, to come up with an extension scheme. The architects' twin projects were given a public airing and examined by a committee of experts brought in from all over Germany. Conrath's project was given the thumbs up, although his final scheme, presented in 1880, took in a number of elements that were included in Orth's plan. The expansion plan was strongly influenced by neoclassical principles, in which could be seen more than a hint of Haussmann, and also by the new town-planning theories that had been devised a few years before by town-planning expert Reinhard Baumeister. On Baumeister's advice, the expansion plan was brought within an administrative and regulatory regime that would keep a tight check on its implementation and which was an excellent example of what was then considered as the essence of German modernity.

Part of the plan was, in fact, altered in 1895, under the influence of the principles and theories of Austrian architect Camillo Sitte, who preached in favour of a more irregular and attractive road layout.

Prestige architecture and urbanism

The University provided the cornerstone of the expansion plan, and its construction laid down the principles which would govern the organisation of the Neustadt. It was decided in 1871 to build the German Empire's largest university, which would also serve the purpose of accelerating the Germanisation of Alsace-Lorraine. In order to speed up the construction, the University was built upon the glacis of the old fortifications. The University complex comprised several buildings within its botanical gardens, which also housed the Observatory. The Kaiserplatz (the imperial square, now the place de la République) was at the other end of a broad, monumental avenue leading from the University, which also contained St Paul's Church. The need for a new monumental square (the Kaiserplatz) to show off the power of the burgeoning German Empire was a prime necessity and the original plan had it aligned directly with place Broglie, the power centre of the French city. While the final design showed a slight change in alignment, the new square was linked to the historical town by a clever series of perspectives, with the cathedral spire providing the vanishing point with the road leading onto the square. The monumental aspect of Kaiserplatz was increased by the official buildings constructed around the square and which represented the might of German rule: the Imperial Palace, the ministerial buildings, the seat of the Alsace-Lorraine assembly and the Imperial library. The Imperial Palace looks directly onto the University, the other end of the "axis of power", some 800 m away at the bottom of the Avenue

Changes in the Grande-Île: the Grande Percée

While extensive work had been carried out in the old part of the city to repair the damage caused during the siege in the summer of 1870, no major works had been carried out after the 1880s. This was to change with the new century.

A number of new buildings were constructed and existing ones renovated within the old city walls, often in a deliberately historical style, such as the Neo-Renaissance Caisse d’Épargne and the Petites Boucheries (1901), or with a strongly regional influence, such as the St Thomas School (1905).

The major works carried out in the 1900s in the old city centre were locally known as the Grande Percée (the great breakthrough) and the purpose was to clean up the area, by demolishing 135 insalubrious buildings, thereby easing the traffic situation and encouraging the development of local business. The new system, which was drawn up by the City as from 1907, was designed to link the southern part of the city, which was going through a major development phase with the building of the Rhine port, through to the train station in the west. Although only a single section, the 400 m of roadway from place Kléber to the Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux church (now rue du 22 Novembre), was completed before 1918, the rest of the plan was implemented without major change and completed in the 1950s.

The reorganisation of the city centre led to the demolition of many homes belonging to poor families, who were rehoused in a purpose-built garden city in the suburb of Stockfeld. The new estate, designed by young Strasbourg architect Édouard Schimpf, was inaugurated in 1910 and became only the second garden city to be created in Europe, after Dresden's Hellerau. It was also the first housing development undertaken by the city, many more of which would follow after 1918.

Continuity over and above geopolitical change: town planning through social housing

The return of Strasbourg under French rule after the First World War did not put a stop to the urban development of the city. The projects begun before 1918, including the Grande Percée, carried on throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The building regulations laid down in the German rule were considered by the city authorities to be more efficient than the previous ones and they were therefore kept in place. The 1910 Bauordnung building regulations, for example, which introduced the principle of zoning to the city and which set out the rules for the allocation of land and for the height and density of buildings for each district, were included practically word for word in the new law of 1923.

The period between the two wars saw continued development of the city's social housing programme. The creation of the HBM low-cost housing organisation and the determination of the then mayor, Jacques Peirotes, led to the completion of a number of housing developments of excellent quality, both inside and outside the city walls. Many low-cost housing developments were built along the route of the Grande Percée, notably between Grand’Rue and la place de la Bourse in the 1930s and 1950s.

The city becomes a conurbation

Although many discussions had already been held before 1918 on integrating the outskirts of the city, it was only when the law removing restrictions on building within the limits of the outer wall was passed in 1922 that a real breakthrough was made in the city's urban planning objectives. In 1925, competition was announced for designing the city's expansion beyond its walls. The resulting Laforgue plan for the development, expansion and embellishment of Strasbourg was set out in 1937 and took in the city's faubourgs as well as several suburban communes as part of a single urban conurbation. Implementation was prevented by the start of the Second World War, and plan was not subsequently introduced in its initial form.