Paris Hopes Billion-Euro Revamp of Les Halles Can Become City's 'Beating Heart'

Angelique Chrisafis In Paris, The Guardian, February 1, 2016

For 40 years, Paris has carried the shame of an incredible act of architectural self-sabotage. The heart of the city has never fully recovered from the brazen 1970s bulldozing of the magnificent, 19th-century wrought-iron market pavilions at Les Halles and the creation, in their place, of an airless underground transport and shopping complex seen as a monstrous, mirror-glassed carbuncle.

But after decades of cultural spats, protests and political handwringing, the city is finally attempting to make amends. Later this spring, Paris will unveil an entirely reworked Les Halles crowned with one of the most ambitious architectural projects of the decade – a giant, undulating glass roof spanning 2.5 hectares, which hopes to literally put a lid on the problem.

Workers work on the building site of Les Halles.

Workers work on the building site of Les Halles. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP

Known as the Canopy, the enormous, undulating roof is made up of 18,000 scale-like pieces of glass held in the air by 7,000 tonnes of steel at a cost of over €200m (£150m). It was designed to open up a new panorama across the city centre.

As the Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, toured the structure amid the rush to finish work on the €1bn refurbishment before the opening in April, she vowed that the area she once described as an “urban catastrophe” would now become “the beating heart” of the capital.

But a history of errors and regrets still hangs heavy over the site.

Related: Designers prepare Les Halles for a facelift

In the mid-19th century, architect Victor Baltard created what was hailed as a masterpiece of wrought-iron pavilions to house the city’s wholesale market, described by Emile Zola as “the belly of Paris”. But the pavilions were bulldozed in the early 1970s. The giant gaping hole that was left there for years was so surreal that the Italian film director Marco Ferreri famously used it as the war-zone backdrop of his zany farce about the last stand of the American cavalry commander, Gen Custer.

The site was turned into a giant transport hub, with a massive intersection of suburban railway and metro lines that serves 750,000 passengers a day. It is Europe’s biggest underground station, teamed with a giant subterranean shopping mall that has a footfall of 37 million people a year.

But until now, the complex was seen as so unappealing and difficult to find your way round that Parisians and tourists kept away if they could. Its reputation for petty drug-dealing made matters worse.

The refit aims to reconcile France with Les Halles by completely overhauling the station and mall, while adding a new stretch of gardens, a library, a new music and arts conservatory, and – most importantly – a unique centre for hip-hop.


Les Halles in Paris

A worker looks at the building site of ‘La Canopée’ (the canopy), a curvilinear building inspired by plant life and designed by French architects Jacques Anziutti and Patrick Berger. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP

For Hidalgo, the hip-hop centre is crucial. The highest number of users of Les Halles come from the banlieues, Paris’s suburbs. Most are young people from France’s diverse social mix, which is not always reflected in the centre of the capital. City hall wanted to include them, not push them away. Les Halles has always been a site of spontaneous hip-hop, particularly street dance in the station, so the space will have recording studios, dance studios and arts facilities that amateurs can walk in and use.

“Everyone who uses the suburban train lines, whether they live in Paris or not, should be able to come here and find a place to express themselves,” Hidalgo said. “The idea is that for them, Les Halles will be a place of freedom away from the social constraints of the housing estates.”

Architect Patrick Berger promised it would be a new “gateway to the city” and politely refused to comment on the errors of the past. “For an architect, constraints can become virtues,” he said.

The project iscoming under heavy scrutiny. Some architects and urbanists initially argued that the best option would have been to leave street-level totally open as a vast green space.


Les Halles in 1969

Les Halles in 1969. Photograph: AFP

Albert Lévy, an architect and urbanist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told the Guardian: “It seems to me like a megalomaniac project. Was there really the need to build a canopy this costly? It’s debatable. There could have perhaps been something lighter, more discreet, less costly and more in the spirit of Baltard – whom Napoleon III had asked to create a covering for the market as light as an umbrella.”

Donato Severo, an architect and historian at Paris University, said the destruction of the 19th-century pavilions had been “the most violent act against Paris heritage ever committed”. But the city, from that point on, had become extremely cautious about its architectural heritage. “It’s very difficult to imagine that scale of destruction today,” he said.

He felt the biggest challenge now was to create a fluidity to Les Halles, to make it easier to walk around and less bewildering.

“Ultimately,” he said. “This is an attempt to heal a wound that never closed.”

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This article was written by Angelique Chrisafis In Paris from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.