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Les Halles: Plastic Surgery for the Belly of Paris

Michael Herrman writing for VINGT Paris

LesHalles2

Nearly two years after the Conseil de Paris approved  the makeover plans for Les Halles, the looming question is whether 40 years of discontent will finally end. A massive renovation of this centrally located area of Paris is set to begin in early 2010.

Les Halles served as Paris’s food market since the Middle Ages. In the 1850s, elegant glass structures were made to house the various markets. The dramatic impact of the neighbourhood was famously captured by Emile Zola’s 1873 book, Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). Films such as Irma la Douce (1972) added to the mythological intrigue of the life in and around the market.

The problems with Les Halles began with the official reasoning for the destruction of the market: to make room for the large subterranean interchange station of the new RER suburban train network, and to connect it with the Paris Metro. The daily traffic jams and unsightly afternoon leftovers created by the market, located steps away from many of the city’s most-visited sights, were certainly other factors behind the market’s destruction. As a result, after nearly a millennium in the center of Paris, the glass market buildings were destroyed, and the food markets were permanently displaced to Rungis, a suburb south of the city.

What was left was a large hole in city center that urban planners and city authorities were eager to see evolve into a modern complex of high-rise North American-style buildings. However, soon after the destruction of the markets, public outrage began to mount over the 1963 completion of the loathed 210-meter (689-foot) Tour Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. Plans for building office towers at Les Halles were quickly scrapped. Thereafter, no one dared propose the construction of any kind of visible towering structure on the site. A hole in Paris’s “belly” was left gaping for nearly a decade, as authorities struggled to agree on what should be built. The shopping center as we know it at present opened in 1981 as a subterranean complex. It extends further below ground than above ground, almost in reaction to the high-rise structures of the 60s and 70s. The adjacent gardens were conducive to and fast associated with criminal activity; Les Halles quickly gained a reputation as a dangerous place at night.

Talk of renovating the area began in 2002, and in 2004 a competition was held for a makeover that focused on building a new structure over the existing shopping center.  French architect and urban planner David Mangin won the competition with a proposal for a flat glass roof structure. However, the public found the project unimaginative and too conservative, so a second competition was held in 2007. This time Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti won, with a proposal for a massive undulating green glass roof canopy to hover over the subterranean complex. David Mangin was given free reign to redesign the 11-acre adjacent gardens. Aspiring to Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens and the Ramblas in Barcelona, he plans to transform space: a place for pedestrians to pass through, and a place for lounging and relaxing. According to Berger and Anziutti, the form and color of their winning glass canopy design was inspired by the trees of the adjacent park. Their glass canopy will also reference the nineteenth-century glass structures that once stood on the site. The new structure will house a music conservatory, a museum, and additional shops and restaurants, with a large patio that opens onto the gardens. 

Redesigning the gardens and replacing the ground level of the mall with the new canopy will certainly change the image of the site. The banal labyrinthine mall and RER train station, however, will remain mostly unchanged. More wide-ranging approaches to restructuring the urban fabric of the metropolitan area may be the true solution to the problems with Les Halles. In 2010, Paris will begin to get a better-looking belly, but only time will tell if more extensive surgery is necessary to end the city’s chronic stomach pains.

Michael Herrman is an award-winning American architect and author based in Paris. To learn more about his work, visit http://michaelherrmanstudio.com


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Comments

Mel

Nicely written.

sachee

Clear, informative and very well-written. Bravo!

Connie Barney Wilson

Sorry, the Montparnasse tower was not completed in 1963. I know this because I lived in that neighborhood in 1966-7 when they were condemning entire blocks of charming old buildings for the wreckers ball. Coupled with the subsequent and regrettable destruction of Les Halles, these were sad days for lovely Paris.

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