Sunday, March 18, 2012

Le Ventre de Paris - A Brief History of Les Halles

The twelve Baltard pavilions
The neighborhood called Les Halles has gone through a lot of changes over its lifetime. And is undergoing yet another facelift as I write this. To understand what it represents to Paris, it might be helpful to go over a bit of history.
St Germain des Prés
     In the beginning Paris was a fishing village on what is now the Ile de la Cité. But as it grew, it spilled over onto both banks of the Seine. By the end of the first millennium, the southern bank, Rive Gauche, had focused on the Sorbonne, churches and St. Germain Abbey, all of which used Latin and that’s why it became known as the Quartier Latin. The northern bank, Rive Droite, became the commercial district, in great part because of the sandy area - the Place de Grève (grève means beach) - where boats could land to load or unload goods. Just up the banks from the beach was the central marketplace, where City Hall stands today.
     In 1190, King Philippe-Auguste built walls around the city to protect it from invaders such as the Vikings in the past and his Plantagenêt cousins, the kings of England, in the future. He also moved the central market to the location where it would stand for 800 years. Two covered pavilions were constructed to make the market more sanitary and from then on the district became a blend of similar pavilions and regular shops. The market came in very handy when the Louvre, part of the city’s fortifications, became the royal residence under King Charles V in the 14th century. Now that the king was in the neighborhood, it was even more important for food to be handy, for his many feasts. Gradually more and more merchants arrived to supply both the court and the ordinary citizens, and Les Halles became Zola’s Ventre de Paris, the Belly of Paris.
Baltard pavilions, by Doisneau
     Market life carried on through good years and bad, through wars and revolutions. Then in 1960, President Charles de Gaulle decreed that the market would be transferred from the 1st arrondissement of central Paris to a modern site outside the city limits. That would free up a neighborhood of narrow streets that had changed little since the Middle Ages, in spite of the widespread modernization carried out by Napoleon Bonaparte after the French Revolution and later under Baron Haussmann in the mid-1800s. Even today, some streets still bear the names they were originally given to indicate their trade: rue des Déchargeurs (street of the market porters), rue de la Lingerie (linen drapers), rue du Plat d’Etain (pewterware), rue de la Ferronnerie (ironworks)...
Forum des Halles
     In 1969, market activities were exiled south to Rungis, near Orly Airport. The rats had to look elsewhere for their three square meals a day (see March 9 blog). For two years, Victor Baltard’s twelve cast-iron-and-glass pavilions were used for cultural events. Then in 1971, the six eastern-most pavilions were razed to make way for the RER regional express train station and the Forum des Halles shopping center, to be built - eventually - in the huge hole called the Trou des Halles. When it was all over, only one pavilion survived: Number 8, the egg and poultry market, transferred to Nogent-sur-Marne, where it serves as a cultural center to this day. The Japanese city of Yokohama bought the upper half of one other structure. The rest was sold for scrap metal.
Fontaine des Innocents
     If you wander through Les Halles today, all you’ll find left on-site is the domed Bourse de Commerce, built twenty years before the French Revolution to house offices for the police and the weights-and-measures officials on its ground floor, with huge wheat granaries on the upper level. There’s also the Fontaine des Innocents, a fountain built in 1549 and shifted slightly twice as the neighborhood evolved. And of course the transcendent Saint Eustache Church, whose construction lasted from 1532 to 1640... and which has protected the raucous souls of Les Halles throughout all of its mutations - past, present and future.

Eglise St. Eustache

This is the third in a series about Les Halles, which is undergoing yet another total re-make. The buildings that were eventually built on the site of Baltard’s pavilions have now been torn down and a whole new concept will gradually become the new reality of this old neighborhood.
Part 1 - Aw, Rats! (March 9)
Part 2 - Doisneau - Paris Les Halles (March 15)
Part 3 - A brief history (March 18)
Part 4 - The modern projects (March 21)


  1. Sometimes remodeling tears down old and builds new without regard to the charms of antiquity. I hope that is not the case this time.