Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Les Halles Redux

While the Ile de la Cité is the historical heart of Paris, Les Halles was its ventre - its belly - for about 800 years. Now it’s in the process of becoming the new heart of the French capital.
     One reason for this is the mass transit system deep underground, at the geographic crosshairs of Paris. Five Métro lines and three RER regional express commuter lines cross at the Châtelet-Les-Halles station, north-to-south and east-to-west, pumping 750,000 people in and out every day.
Forum des Halles
     Another reason is what is already housed in the Forum des Halles under the site of Baltard’s twelve pavilions, both in the spaceship-styled multilevel section opened in 1979 and then in the second more airy and streamlined section opened in 1985. High on my list of favorites are the FNAC bookstore, where I’m able to find just about any book, CD or DVD I want, and also the 19-screen CinéCité multiplex, where you’ll often find me in the ticket line for the 10 a.m. cheap(er) show. There are many other shops of all sizes selling all sorts of merchandise to as many as 150,000 customers each day, as well as several purveyors of fast food, plus a public mediathèque with CDs in all the musical genres. There’s also an Olympic-size swimming pool across from the movie theater, with a huge picture window so people can gawk as they wait for their show to start. Miraculously, all that will remain open during the construction project, with work on the underground part taking place between 10 pm and 8 am, when businesses are closed.
Trou des Halles, by Doisneau
Last surviving Baltard pavilion, top left
Willerval "umbrellas"
     Nonetheless more than 30 years have passed since the Trou des Halles was filled, reformatting this neighborhood. While the underground part has aged relatively well, the above-ground part has not fared as well. Designed by Jean Willerval, the dated white "umbrellas" sheltering the main entrance to the Netherworld below have never been what I’d call pretty and not many people will regret their passing. I hope the jugglers, who used to gather there, will come back though. It was always good fun to take a moment and watch them practice and initiate the young to the marvels of anti-gravity. The new, much larger Canopée (canopy) that will replace the umbrella feature will be made of glass and steel. Its North Wing will house public facilities: a cultural center, a library, an auditorium, and rehearsal rooms for the arts. The South Wing will become a music conservatory for the four central arrondissements of Paris.
     The garden area will also see major changes. It was never very appealing and there were barriers that prevented people from strolling through it. You were rerouted a longer way and had to stick to graveled paths. Now it’s to be turned into trees and vast lawns where, unlike many French parks, the grass will be open to picnics and bare feet.
The new project has been in development since 2002, shortly after Bertrand Delanoë, a Socialist, became mayor of Paris. Initially, the Parisians were asked to choose between four projects. One had colored glass columns to bring light into the underground "city"; another was similar in purpose but more bizarrely geometric in shape. Fun, but neither was a good fit for the neighborhood. None of the four won over the hearts of the Parisians, so the mayor ultimately picked one: the least intrusive. Work began in 2010 and by now all of Willerval’s umbrellas are gone. That was the easy part.  Now the hard part begins.

For a video of all this, click on

The old Les Halles, vanished
photo by Doisneau, title by me

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