Joyless Concrete Jungle Gets a Second Chance

If we can believe the NY Times news report (July 7’07), and Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe’s timeline, by 2012, Les Halles (Paris’ former wholesale market district) will finally get back its soul.

Les Halles (pronounced ‘lay owl’), Metro: Les Halles or Chatelet, located in Paris’s 1st arrondissement on the Right Bank, is a hop, skip and a jump from Rue de Rivoli and the Louvre yet it might as well be could light years away when it comes to architectural sagesse. It’s hard to imagine how a city renowned for its brilliant architecture could also have sponsored some of the world’s most colossal flops. If there ever were an era that lacked vision, it certainly was the late sixties and seventies. In those days, the ‘powers that wrought architecture’ envisioned a world of superhighways connecting the dots.

It was about this time (1969) that Paris’s president Pompidou authorized the razing of the old ‘Les Halles’ wholesale market. Since those days, the wholesale market has been relocated to Rungis in one of Paris’s southern suburbs.

Much has been written about the consequent attempts to create a new ‘something’ from the void. In Paris, Paris,Journey into the city of Light David Downie devotes a chapter to Les Halles entitled Belly Ache: Les Halles in which he gives the gruesome blow by blow details of current Paris mayor Delanoe’s attempts to remedy the city’s bad case of acid reflux.




If by any chance you’ve had the misfortune to stumble upon the Forum grounds as the shopping complex that replaced Les Halles is now called, you’ll wonder why they didn’t just call it ‘Sans Issue’ or Dead-end. You can climb rows upon rows of steps that go nowhere in particular, or the place you might think you’re going has been closed for a long time. There’s a videotheque at the top of these steps that I’ve never had the courage to enter because the area is so dreary. I’ve been too depressed to open the door. On occasion we’ve visited the shops in the underground Forum shopping mall. More dreary. I bought a suit in one of the shops which quickly was donated to good will.

According to Alan Riding’s July 9th report, the new architects, Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziuti, will create a sort of glowing green canopy which will complement 11 acres of gardens designed by architect David Mangin. So they have five years to pull a rabbit out of their hat. I hope that they stick to the 11 acre commitment to a ‘garden’, and that their definition of ‘garden’ includes living things such as trees.

Granted you can’t grow money on tress, especially to the tune of $500 million (according to Downie’s story, that was the annual revenue private leaseholder Unibail raked in from the Forum,) but Paris residents deserve some beauty in their lives – and joyful surroundings after decades of dreariness.

If Patrick Berger, Jacques Anziuti, and David Mangin are going to take on this project, they, their children and their children’s children should want to live and play here in the Belly of Paris. In fact, maybe that should be a proviso for any architects working in Paris. You build it, you sleep in it.