In 1971, Bob Crimi, a young American painter who was living in Marseilles at the time, paid a couple of short visits to Paris, camera in hand. Two places in particular grabbed his attention: the Jeu de Paume, where France’s Impressionist and Postimpressionist collections were then housed, and Les Halles, where the food market’s elegant 19th-century pavilions, designed by Victor Baltard, were in the process of being torn down.
They were later replaced by the Forum des Halles, an underground shopping mall with a much-reviled aboveground structure that looked like mirrored umbrellas. That, in turn, was recently torn down and replaced by another much-reviled structure, the just-opened La Canopée, designed by Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti.
Crimi captured these haunting black-and-white images of Baltard’s pavilions at a critical moment. Here’s how he remembers it: “I fell upon Les Halles while the market was in transition. Fishmongers, butchers, and farmers
were still going about their day’s work as walls and roofs were being torn down around them. The raw filigreed beauty of the steel and glass of Les Halles attracted me, as well as the poignancy of its destruction. I was appalled and saddened that it was being discarded.”
In his novel Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris), Émile Zola describes Baltard’s pavilions through the eyes of the character Florent as “a series of enormous, symmetrically built palaces, light and airy as crystal, and catching on their facades, as though filtered through their endless shutters, a thousand rays of light. These narrow golden bars, gleaming between
slender pillars, seemed like ladders of light ascending to the dark line of the lower roofs, then soaring upwards to the higher ones, thus
forming an open structure of immense square halls.” (Translated by Brian Nelson: The Belly of Paris, Oxford World’s Classics, 2007.)
Opposition to the destruction of Baltard’s pavilions was fierce. Petitions were signed. In Paris, protesters chained themselves to the fences around the pavilions, and a preservationist set off a bomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery. Demonstrations were even held in front of the French consulate in New York. The architect Mies Van de Rohe and the artist
Max Ernst were among the prominent advocates of the preservation movement, and an American businessman offered to buy the pavilions for 30 million francs and rebuild them elsewhere. All to no avail. Only one pavilion, number eight, was saved and rebuilt in Nogent-sur-Marne,where it still stands today and is rented out for events.
Photo © Bob Crimi