07 July 2007

Urban Planning 2007: Remaking les Halles

No, seriously: This is the real design approved by the city of Paris.
(Image from the Mayor's Office)

The newly-approved proposal for the eastern edge of the Halles is so monumentally ugly and badly thought-out, that it makes you wonder what proposals got rejected. I made it my business to find out.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Emile Zola wrote a novel, Le ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris), about the city’s central marketplace, les Halles. Le ventre's protagonist is a revolutionary, leading an insurrection against Napoléon III, and in its day, les Halles were revolutionary, too. Contemplating its lofty, graceful pavilions of steel and glass, and its tiled stalls burgeoning with colorful fruits and vegetables, gleaming fish and squawking poultry, Zola declared les Halles the equivalent of a Gothic cathedral, so inspiring was the ultra-modern marriage of technology and art. (There happens to be an unfinished cathedral, Saint-Eustache, just to the northwest of the old market.) Roughly a century later, most of those pavilions had decayed, and the city’s wholesale food business decamped to the town of Rungis. The city fathers opted to scrap the market entirely, salvaging only a couple of pavilions to be resurrected at Rungis, and in its place they put up … an eyesore.

Today the Forum des Halles is dominated by an ugly, mirrored-glass shopping mall and a tatty, mostly inaccessible park above ground, with an even bigger shopping mall and bustling rail and Métro station plunging several stories below. It’s the worst kind of soulless, graceless, committee-approved 1970s architecture. It started falling apart almost as soon as then-Mayor Jacques Chirac cut the ribbon on opening day, in 1981. One of the city’s red-light districts extends along the eastern boundary of les Halles, dotting the Rue Saint-Denis with sex shops, hip-hop stores, mendicancy, public drunkenness and urine-drenched pavement. Nearly a million commuters, pimps, mall rats and real rats swarm and pass through here every day. But why would you want to be one of them?

I never go there if I can help it, and I’m not alone in this aversion: mention the place to a Parisian, even one who traverses it daily, and he’ll start complaining. For years the city government has kicked around ideas to renovate les Halles, though the best possible solution — tearing the whole thing down and starting over from scratch, maybe even rebuilding the old pavilions and pretending nothing happened — has been rejected as impractical.

A proposal to remake the park was approved in 2004, and it’s bound to be an improvement. At least this time trees are part of the plan. Most of the underground mall and station won’t be touched, but the rest of the above-ground structures face (at last) the wrecking ball. Hopeful though this may sound, the newly-approved proposal for the eastern edge of the Halles is monumentally ugly and badly thought-out.

Though the canopy is transparent, and presumably will protect Parisians from the rain (and snow, if we ever have any again), it will permanently deprive us of the one thing that makes a pleasure of sitting in a sidewalk café or park in this city: direct sunlight. It's a beautiful thing, when it happens. But the canopy will leave us mercilessly exposed to another of Paris' elemental trademarks, the frigid winds of autumn, winter, spring, and (this year, at least) summer. The canopy promises to be a kind of roach motel for pigeons: they’ll fly in, but will they fly out? Sure, the sight lines will be excellent for targeting suspected hoodlums, a consideration similar to that which led to Baron Haussmann's sweeping redesign of Paris under Napoléon III, but law-enforcement in this neighborhood already has a well-documented reputation for harassment and excessive force. The fact that they dress like Imperial Storm Troopers out of Star Wars doesn't help matters.

Moreover, on a purely aesthetic level, did I mention that it’s ugly? Set aside its shape, like the tent of a traveling circus too poor to afford poles. Because, as if there weren’t enough people pissing all over the neighborhood (and there are, there are), the damn thing is piss-yellow. Which of course will make us all look so healthy. I mean, did the glass factory run out of blue?

It’s all so badly conceived that it makes you wonder what proposals got rejected. I made it my business to find out. Here are a few of the other candidates:

1. Architect: Noé Zéabond, Paris

Recalling the enormous quantities of waste formerly generated by the city’s central market, the new design calls for the dumping of several tons of garbage all over the neighborhood each day. And in a nod to the area's more recent past, a central alley will feature a gigantic trough, some 500 meters long, 200 meters wide, and 3 meters deep, into which Parisians can urinate.
The neighborhood is already full of garbage. The pissoir, however, has potential.

2. Architect: Rémy A. L’Expéditeur, Paris
The old pavilions of Les Halles were known for their grace. Since the word grâce is so close to the word graisse, the architect proposes wrecking all existing above-ground structures and installing a gigantic grease pit covering several city blocks. Visitors will be able to congregate around the pit, smell it, and dip things into it. And since “grace” and “grease” are so close in English, even tourists will understand! How cool is that?
The neighborhood is already a grease pit.

3. Architect: Consolidated American Amalgamations, Inc., Los Angeles, CA

Since les Halles already boast an American-style shopping center, why not add the next-best thing — an American-style amusement park? EuroParis™ proposes fake medieval castles, fake Baroque palaces, and fake little half-timbered cottages. Colorfully costumed characters from favorite fairy tales scamper about the cobbled streets, greeting tourists and selling overpriced snacks and trinkets. Among the featured rides and attractions, “Monsieur le Taxi’s Wild Ride” takes visitors on a harum-scarum spin through urban congestion, reaching a top speed of 1 kilometer per hour while the meter continues to run. "Snow White's Adventure" takes visitors through a Parisian banlieue; at the end of the ride, each gondola is turned on its side and burned.
You see, we’ve already got one.

4. Architect: Mr. Wiggins, of Ironside & Malone, London

A twelve-storey block combining classical neo-Georgian features with the efficiency of modern techniques. The tenants arrive in the entrance hall here, and are carried along the corridor on a conveyor belt in extreme comfort and past murals depicting Mediterranean scenes, towards the rotating knives. The last twenty feet of the corridor are heavily soundproofed. The blood pours down these chutes and the mangled flesh slurps into these….
Very seriously considered, with many ardent defenders, this proposal was rejected at the last minute. An abbatoir wasn’t really what we had in mind. Nice though the abbatoir is.

Footnote for students of French: The h in Halles is aspirated, meaning there's no liaison: one doesn't say "Lay Zall," one says "Lay All." Make a mistake here, and the French will take you for a tourist. Which is the last thing you want.