If you look at a map of Paris, you will find that the geographic center is home to an area called Chatelet – Les Halles. It is also the main crossroad of all subway and train lines in the city. It has been one of the busiest parts of the city ever since the Middle Ages, and it was, for the longest time, a central food market, sheltered, during industrial times, by huge steel roofs. That gave it the aspect of a huge open hall, hence the French term given to it, Les Halles.
Les Halles’ steel structure designed by Victor Baltard and put in place in 1854
Interior of one of the 12 pavilions hosting the market, 1878, Charles Marville
This area is a historical curiosity, for it is both ancient, if you look at the medieval side streets (some of the oldest in town), and it is ever-evolving. The main Parisian cemetery, Les Innocents, used to be located there. During the 19th century the sanitation movement redefined standards and planning for living and circulation in the city. The cemetery, overcrowded by demographic expansion from the industrial era, became obsolete and health issues became a concern, with risks of plague and disease related to the proximity of the living, food, and the dead.
1895 – Leon L’Hermitte’s painting of Les Halles, depicting the intense market activity expanding all the way to the side streets
The cemetery was therefore banished and new cemeteries were created in the outskirts of the city at the time. Those still thrive, the main ones being Montparnasse, Père Lachaise, and Montmartre. The fountain and side market of the Innocents still shows nowadays the place where the cemetery of the Holy Innocents used to be.
The fountain and side market of the Innocents pictured in 1858 by Marville, yards away from Les Halles
The disappearance of the two major elements (cemetery and market), gave rise to numerous modern projects to redesign the area and adapt it to the new needs of the town’s citizens and visitors. With the creation of a dense railroad network and the ever growing passage of people through the underground of Les Halles, a major project was adopted in 1979 to create a massive mall, connecting the underground and metro zones with the broad surface above. The surface became a huge park, and the underground became a multi-tiered mall.
Les Halles, general view, in 2007 before destruction
Success, however, was not complete. The prestigious historical center evolved into an unsavory zone, considered by many as an unsafe place, rife with illegal activities such as drug dealing and prostitution. Because of its easy access by train, many suburban juvenile delinquents were drawn to the Les Halles complex, far more in numbers than their Parisian brethren, who preferred the tamer milieux that could be found only a few hundred yards away in numerous charming side streets.
The most recent project was decided after a competition of projects, massive brainstorming and multiple ideas and suggestions. In 2007, the Paris City Hall decided to hold a new design competition to select new projects for the future of Les Halles. The winners were Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti, and construction (preceded by a certain amount of destruction) began in 2010. It is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.
The Canopee project for Les Halles, outside view, pictures of the official website http://forumdeshalles.com
The Canopee project for Les Halles, inside view, pictures of the official website http://forumdeshalles.com
The face of Les Halles is now transformed. Again, all Parisians seem skeptical about the look and final aspect of the project. The theme is based on the profile of trees. The metro and mall are the underground roots, and trunk. There are many cultural centers and a group of cinemas, and the top of the place is compared with the top of a tree (the canopy, or canopee, as it is called in French). You can stroll around the complex, in the fresh air, in a dynamic, enjoyable park. It is interesting that City Hall adopted a name which refers specifically to the jungle environment. It is a confirmation of the awareness of urban policy makers regarding the intense activity which takes place in that part of town, and accepts the untamed aspects of the turnover of so many people.
The operation of seduction of Parisians and tourists is now put to the test. Will the changes in the structures induce a change in the neighborhood’s life and the identity? Time will tell! One thing is certain however: Les Halles will remain a major element of Parisian identity, whatever the style.