Strasbourg started off as a Roman outpost, established in 12 BC on ground high enough to avoid flooding by the Ill and the Bruche, its four sides covering an area of some 19 ha, which nowadays would run from place du Temple-neuf to the Hôtel du Préfet, and from the Saint-Étienne school to rue du Maroquin.
The original palisade was replaced in the 2nd century A.D. by a double wall interspersed with watchtowers. The actual layout of the sector has not changed all that much over the centuries and the main thoroughfares of the time are what are now rue du Dôme (via Principalis), rue du Parchemin, rue des Juifs and rue des Hallebardes (via Decumana).
Medieval and Renaissance Strasbourg
Construction of the pink sandstone Cathedral of Strasbourg began in 1176 and was completed in 1439. Building began with the Choir and the North Transept in the Romanesque style, but a team of architects arrived from Chartres in 1225 and made a radical switch to the Gothic style. Victor Hugo's "gigantic and delicate marvel" has an extraordinarily richly decorated facade, while its spire soars up 142 m into the sky, the highest in the country until Rouen cathedral was built in the 19th century.
The city centre can boast a large number of buildings dating back to the Middle Ages or the Renaissance and they are part of what makes the city so attractive, especially around the cathedral (rue Mercière, rue du Maroquin) and in the Petite-France (rue du Bain-aux plantes).
Embellishment in the 17th and 18th centuries
After Strasbourg was annexed to French rule in 1681, the city began to see a new style of French-influenced architecture, which included the palais des Rohan (1732, architect Robert de Cotte), the Hôtel de ville (town hall - 1728, architect Joseph Massol), initially the Hôtel de Hanau-Lichtenberg and then Hesse-Darmstadt, and the Hôtel du Préfet (1730, architect Jean-Pierre Pflug). Place du Marché-Gayot was built after Gayot, a royal moneylender, decided to turn a section of the city which had been destroyed by fire into a herb and poultry market. The square was built in 1769 by architect Jean-François Blondel, who was tasked with enhancing Strasbourg, but who, for want of funds, was only able to build put the Aubette (1764) in place Kléber on his list of achievements. At the beginning, the square had its covered stalls only on the side running along the rue des Écrivains, but Klinglin, another royal moneylender, managed to sell the right to build further stalls around the common land to some of the city's inhabitants. Gradually, these stalls were replaced by small houses of one or two storeys, which marked the boundaries between the square and rue du Chapon, rue des Frères and rue des Sœurs. Nowadays, the square is a hive of cafes and restaurants with terraces which quickly fill up once the weather turns warm.
Place Broglie and the Fossé des Tanneurs
The Fossé des Tanneurs (or Tanners' Ditch) was dug in 1400 and filled in in 1840. Part of the river system running through the centre of Strasbourg, it started from the arms of the Ill river to the east, flowed through what is now place Broglie, went down rue du Fossé des Tanneurs and ended up in one of the canals of the Petite-France. Filling the Fossé des Tanneurs proved to be a significant step for the city as it allowed the completion of place Broglie (previously place du Marché aux chevaux), which was begun in 1804 by Marshall de Broglie, by the construction of the Opera, designed by city architect Jean Villot.
Neustadt - the major urban extension
The plan for the extension of Strasbourg, drawn up in 1880 by the city's chief architect, Jean-Geoffroy Conrath, who was allowed to stay in his job by the German authorities after Alsace was annexed, tripled the city's surface area and brought the Contades park within its boundaries.
The plan set out to give Strasbourg and Alsace the public buildings that would offer a worthy image of German power and influence. Place de la République (previously known as Kaiserplatz) is lined by a series of monumental buildings which previously housed the offices of the city government: the palais du Rhin (the Kaiser's Palace, designed by architect Hermann Eggert in 1888), the old Ministry of Alsace Moselle (which became the Préfecture once Strasbourg came back under French law), the Imperial library (built in 1895 and now the National and University library of Strasbourg), and the seat of the representative assembly of Alsace-Lorraine (completed in 1899 and now the Strasbourg National Theatre). The latter two were designed by architects August Hartel and Skjold Neckelmann. The square gives a direct view onto another symbol of German monumental architecture, the University, some 800 m away down the road.
The plan also provided for a large housing program, built along wide avenues and which resulted in a quite singular road structure, featuring a highly eclectic mix of neo-Renaissance and neo-Barqoue villas sitting alongside contrasting neo-Gothic and art nouveau buildings.
The new district was designed to be linked to the old centre of the city by a clever series of perspectives of major features such as the cathedral and the buildings between the Grande-Île and the Neustadt. This was particularly successful as regards the avenue running between place de la République and place Broglie and between the Palais de Justice and the Schoepflin school. Further links were provided between the "old town" and the Neustadt with the building of a number of bridges and walkways on the Fossé du Faux-Rempart.
The modern period
While the post-war period was initially given over to motorists and their cars, the city made a conscious decision to claw back the streets for pedestrians and cyclists. As a result, the area around the cathedral was designated a pedestrian zone in 1976, while the new tram system was introduced in 1994 in the Grande-Île sector, followed in 2000 by avenue de la Marseillaise and avenue de la Paix.
Projects for the 21st-century
Ongoing projects in the Centre district feature the renovation or conversion of major buildings and sites such as the National and University Library of Strasbourg, the Palais des Fêtes (1899, architects Joseph Kuder and Richard Müller), the Palais de Justice courthouse (1899, architects August Hartel and Skjold Neckelmann) in the Neustadt, and the old Hôtel de Police (1732) in the Grande-Île.
The projected review of the plan for safeguarding and enhancing Strasbourg, which includes the Grande-Île and the centre of the Neustadt, will help preserve and enhance the magnificent architectural and urban heritage of the whole of the Centre district.