Les Halles update

January 17, 2006By Heidi EllisonWhat's New Potpourri

To Market, To Market

Seura’s overview of what the new Halles quarter will look like, from the Bourse du Commerce (bottom) to the Cdntre Pompidou (top).

Back in the 12th century, a marketplace was built on a former swamp in what is now the heart of Paris. Over the centuries, Les Halles (the French word for a covered market) grew haphazardly, overflowing its original boundaries. Shoppers could buy food, clothing, flowers, notions – just about anything. When Napoleon the great planner came along, he ordered the reorganization of the market and the regulation of animal slaughtering. Some 40 years later, further renovation was required, and Victor Baltard won the architectural competition with his plan to build covered pavilions with cast-iron columns and glass-paneled roofs. Ten were built between 1852 and 1870 and the last two in 1936.

These pavilions stood proudly in the middle of Paris for a century, until tragedy struck in 1969, when the transfer of the wholesale market to the suburb of Rungis was begun. When the massive evacuation was completed in 1973, the pavilions were demolished, an act that would later be deeply regretted. (They did not completely disappear, however: one was rebuilt in Nogent-sur-Marne and the other in Yokohama, Japan.)

In the place of the market’s handsome pavilions, the city built an underground RER (suburban train) and Métro station. It was inaugurated in 1977, but plans to create a world trade center were abandoned, leaving a gigantic hole in the center of Paris for nearly 10 years while officials squabbled over its fate. The underground shopping mall known as the Forum des Halles was finally completed in 1986.

Although considered a hellish blight on the city and an architectural disaster by many, the Forum is also immensely successful, with the RER and Métro pulling shoppers in from the entire Paris region. The center also draws many unsavory characters and drug dealers, and the area around the Forum, populated by fast-food restaurants and cheap clothing stores, now has a seedy feel. A garden completed in 1986, complete with cast-iron structures inspired by Baltard’s pavilions, is more aesthetically successful than the Forum, but it, too, is frequented by less-than-wholesome types.

Now more change is afoot. In 2002, the Council of Paris decided to redevelop the Halles quarter (bounded by the Rue de Rivoli, the Boulevard de Sébastopol, the Rue Etienne Marcel and the Rue du Louvre). An urban development competition was launched and the projects of the four finalists were put on display in the Forum des Halles so the public could have a look and express its opinion.

In the end, to the dismay of many who had hoped for the daring choice of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’s radical plan, complete with candy-colored towers, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë chose what was considered one of the most conservative projects, by the Paris-based agency Seura, headed by architect David Mangin.

The project includes the renovation of the garden, the underground train station and shopping areas, aboveground buildings and access points. A new glass canopy, the “Carreau” will serve as the point of entry to the underground spaces and will be designed by an architect chosen from an international competition. The expanded garden will be become an unenclosed “garden of light,” with special lighting to make it feel safer at night. Natural light will reach three floors down to the underground shopping area.

The architect for the Carreau building will be chosen in mid-2007, and work should begin on the garden at the beginning of 2008. The much-denigrated arches and “umbrellas” by architect Jean Willerval will be razed.

Meanwhile, people who live in what was once the “belly of Paris” can buy all the clothing and gifts they want in the neighborhood but have a hard time finding something for dinner. To ease the situation , the city has opened a food market with around 20 vendors on the Rue Montmartre, open on Thursday from 12:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. – something of a comedown from the heyday of Les Halles.

Heidi Ellison

© 2006 Paris Update

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