Au revoir, Les Halles, to make way for 'orientation, a concept of space'


FRANCE: The French are going to demolish a 'crime of urban planning' which disfigures the centre of Paris, reports Lara Marlowe

Les Halles is known as the belly or heart of Paris and, for decades, the shopping centre and esplanade in the 1st arrondissement has been a crime of urban planning and botched architecture which epitomised the worst modern taste of the 1970s and early 80s.

The good news is that the city is about to tear it down and start over. The bad news is that they don't seem to know where they're going.

The socialist mayor of Paris, Mr Bertrand Delanoë, yesterday announced the winner of a year and a half-long competition for the "market of definition" to rebuild Les Halles.

He is the French architect David Mangin, whose main project to date was covering the Canal Saint-Martin with tree- lined walkways. His plan for Les Halles is essentially a big lawn with a wide Spanish-style rambla or path down the middle.

Mangin planned to cover the present opening to the shopping centre, called the Forum, with a huge, flat two-hectare roof made of large cubes of greenish bronze and glass.

Between late June and mid- September, 125,000 people visited an exhibition of the four finalists' proposals; 12,600 filled out questionnaires and Mangin's plan was the most popular.

It also had the favour of the Green Party, the second most powerful group on the city council. But critics called Mangin's project banal and old-fashioned.

For their part, the socialists and communists preferred the design by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who wanted to build at least six transparent coloured towers dubbed "derricks" or perfume flacons on the esplanade. These towers would have served as entry and exit points to the underground shopping centre, similar to I.M. Pei's pyramid at the Louvre.

Mangin is to be appointed chief architect of the ZAC (urban development zone) which will demolish and rebuild Les Halles.

But as Mr Delanoë's speech made clear, nothing is yet certain. "Today we are choosing an orientation, a concept of space," the mayor said.

Work should begin before the end of 2006 and Mr Delanoë promised it would be completed by 2012, "whether or not Paris hosts the Olympic games".

In theory, shopkeepers and the 800,000 public transport users who use Les Halles' underground metro and railway station every day will not be inconvenienced.

The worst nightmare of the neighbourhood's inhabitants is that recent history will repeat itself. Mr Delanoë yesterday blamed the Gaullists for moving Paris's main wholesale food market from Les Halles to Rungis, south of Paris, in 1969.

Two years later, 10 lovely wrought-iron and glass pavilions built by Victor Baltard in the mid- 19th century were destroyed.

For more than a decade, the site in central Paris was an enormous, muddy hole known as le trou des halles. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, then president of France, said he would cover it with a French garden, but nothing happened.

In 1977, Jacques Chirac was elected mayor of Paris and proclaimed himself "chief architect" of Les Halles.

The project completed in 1985 combines a soulless, labyrinthine underground shopping mall with inaccessible gardens frequented mainly by drug-dealers and outdated white metal and glass "umbrellas" reminiscent of Stephen's Green in Dublin.

Because it is a public transport hub, young people from the banlieues converge on Les Halles on evenings and weekends. It has one of the highest crime rates in Paris. "It's a real coupe-gorge [ throat-slasher]," one of Mr Delanoë's deputies, who lives in the neighbourhood, admitted to me.

The area's unsavoury reputation was one reason the city decided to rebuild - but there was not a word about security in Mr Delanoë's speech.

Precise plans for Les Halles seemed to get lost in the gentle folds of the French language, as smooth as Mr Delanoë's charcoal grey velvet suit and silk polka- dot tie. There was a lot about "vibration, soul, beauty and vitality" but no hard facts to go on.

The end result may look nothing like Mangin's plans and Mr Delanoë announced yet another international competition to rebuild the present Forum des Halles.

"It will create a lasting work of art of the 21st century," he predicted. The chief criteria would be "elegance, luminosity, lightness and creativity".