Architectural blight
December 15, 2004 9:17 AM   Subscribe

The stomach of Paris. Finally, after months of deliberation, Paris city hall awarded the task of reworking the site of Les Halles to French architect David Mangin: the winner has a vision of a Barcelona Ramblas-style walkway integrating Les Halles with the surrounding cityscape. Among the losers, Rem Koolhaas. The Les Halles site was first built in 1135 when King Louis VI moved the market there from the nearby Place de la Greve. The site was endowed in the 1850s with the huge metal halls for which it became famous; but in the 1970's the old market moved to the outskirts of the city. Then-mayor Jacques Chirac ordered the redevelopment of Les Halles -- it was supposed to re-emerge as a bustling tourist attraction. Instead that project gave birth to an architectural WTF? of a gigantic disaster. Unpopular and difficult to maintain to boot. (warning: the words in italic link to a French-language page)
posted by matteo (31 comments total)
Bravo! Great post.
posted by Quartermass at 9:36 AM on December 15, 2004

Ditto Quartermass.

posted by Keith Talent at 9:41 AM on December 15, 2004

[C'est bon!]

I'm rather glad Koolhaas didn't win. I don't think this was his kind of project. It will be very interesting to see how it all turns out. A bit of Barcelona/Las Ramblas charm in Paris might be a nice change for Les Halles.

Kunstler's chapter on Paris in The City in Mind gave me a hankering for a more detailed book of the history of Paris. Anyone have any recommendations?
posted by shoepal at 9:45 AM on December 15, 2004

I actually like Les Halles as is--it seemed that Parisians (of a class and race that usually doesn't have a space for themselves downtown) had really taken it over for themselves, and, of course, H&M was there. : >
posted by amberglow at 9:46 AM on December 15, 2004

Niceness, thanks for the comprehensive rundown.

Can I use this space to express how comprehensively bored I am with Rem Koolhaas?
posted by adamgreenfield at 9:48 AM on December 15, 2004

Now this is what a post should look like. Interesting? Check. Did you see it in the NYT this morning? No? Good. Is there a political agenda or other ranting? No? Check. Is it an op-ed from a newspaper or widely-reviled blog? Ok then.

I ♥ matteo.
posted by zpousman at 9:50 AM on December 15, 2004

Now this is what a post should look like. Interesting? Check. Did you see it in the NYT this morning? No? Good. Is there a political agenda or other ranting? No? Check. Is it an op-ed from a newspaper or widely-reviled blog? Ok then.

I ? matteo.
posted by zpousman at 9:51 AM on December 15, 2004

? = ♥, duh
posted by zpousman at 9:51 AM on December 15, 2004

Interesting - Les Halles has always struck me as a kind of guilty reflection of the deprived immigrant social housing estates in the banlieu to which it is directly connected by the RER high speed trains. You can cut the racial/social tension with a knife. For that reason, I'm not sure an architectural revamp will make a huge amount of difference, but it always seemed ironic that its architecture seemed to mimic those estates.

On preview - like Amberglow I like the *idea* of Les Halles, but I certainly didn't like walking through there at night.
posted by chrispy at 10:06 AM on December 15, 2004

I bet they make it an upscale mall after redevelopment, shutting out the Parisians that use it now.
posted by amberglow at 10:11 AM on December 15, 2004

well, it's always a delicate social and ethnic balance -- but I personally won't miss those who now use it as an open-air toilette, amber
posted by matteo at 10:13 AM on December 15, 2004

chrispy, it is the tensest part of Paris I generally frequent. Very unpleasant - and this from a New Yorker, supposedly inured to all such feelings. (I totally buy your thought about the RER, too.)

Short of developing a sudden national sense of integrity with regard to the legacy of colonialism, etc., though, I agree - I don't think an architectural intervention is going to change that.
posted by adamgreenfield at 10:14 AM on December 15, 2004

Do you have any links to pictures of those "huge metal halls", matteo?
posted by plasticpool at 10:32 AM on December 15, 2004

Anyone have pictures of the current setup?
posted by delmoi at 10:36 AM on December 15, 2004

i was hoping to see pictures of Paris Hilton's stomach.
posted by yedgar at 11:11 AM on December 15, 2004

here's one pic, and here's more

Inside is just a 2 level mall, with train tracks below that.
posted by amberglow at 11:19 AM on December 15, 2004

scroll down here for some views about it as it is now.
posted by amberglow at 11:27 AM on December 15, 2004

OT: I'm always struck by the lengths cities go to create and re-create and re-architecture spaces for non-denizens (i.e. tourists), sometimes (more often than not) to the detriment of those few locals that actually tried to use it. Often going so far as to create a simulacra of what once was but no longer is because the simulacra is completely useless to a local and filled with stores/restaurants/etc. that only non-local folks would want.

I remember having to go WAY outside of Paris to experience Paris, which made me really sad. In London you have to go outside the m25.

The (swelling) cores of cities like Paris, London, Tokyo, Vienna, NYC, etc. are in such a race to disney-fy themselves for the mighty tourist dollar that they no longer retain the charm or even the denizens that made them tourist destinations and all the architects in the world can't fix them. They're beginning to remind me of (american) suburban sprawl but clothed in fancier or in most cases simply older architecture.

Damon Albarn's lyric "All the High Streets look the same" comes to mind.

And yes, I love all these cities, despite the fact that they are just architectural shells of what they once were.
posted by shoepal at 11:57 AM on December 15, 2004

Excellent post. Maybe linking to Google translations of the pages in French would have been helpful?
posted by interrupt at 12:00 PM on December 15, 2004

I'll look through the texte plus tard, but what I'm interested in is the extent to which the current structure will be removed. I cannot think of a more horrid example of urban architecture; from the shopping mall spaces, to the smelly RER (I'll assume it's still SMELLY) to the time it takes to get to the street, to the....on and on I could go.
posted by ParisParamus at 12:10 PM on December 15, 2004

What shoepal said.
I remember Rue Mouffetard as vibrant and authentic, but it's been a while.
Good neighbourhoods are built from the inside out.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:45 PM on December 15, 2004

Speaking of that, shoepal (and i'm totally with you--our "new" 42nd st. is completely not for us), Fulton Fish Market (downtown by Wall Street/South St. Seaport) is being shutdown, and moved to the Bronx--we're all wondering what will go in its place.
posted by amberglow at 12:57 PM on December 15, 2004

Amazing how hard it is to find images of the old Halles (as plasticpool requested). The only one I've come across so far is the little one at the top of matteo's "ordered the redevelopment" link. Why is this?

Oh, and (almost needless to say) great post! I like Mangin's plan for the site.
posted by languagehat at 1:20 PM on December 15, 2004

Thanks, matteo, that's a great post. I spent several years going through Les Halles almost every day, and I'm really impressed that they're doing something about how badly the entire space sucks for people using it.

The interviews on the site are really striking in their differences. Rem Koolhaas talks for five minutes without saying anything intelligible to me, throwing out phrases about a "critique of previous ideas of modernity".

Winy Maas puts his finger on what makes Les Halles dysfunctional: all the little closed-off passages in the garden and underground. But then he launches into drooling concept-speak about "a huge valley of glass and colors", that "turns into a kind of new dance floor", an "endless puzzle", a "composition of different addresses".

Jean Nouvel also asks a good question: how can Parisians want to go to Les Halles, and feel like they are at home in Paris? But his answer is that the project is really a series of more than 20 projects: 3 gardens, different squares, a market, various new buildings. I couldn't make any sense out of all the details.

The winner, David Mangin talks about drawing lessons from the failure of the current architecture, preserving the existing chestnut trees, solving the problem of how the underground car tunnels cut off walkways, and making sure that life can go on in the neighborhood during construction. He's practical and he cares about pedestrians. Sounds to me like they made the right choice.
posted by fuzz at 1:55 PM on December 15, 2004

flickr Les Halles (tags)
posted by shoepal at 1:56 PM on December 15, 2004

PP: stinks like crazy. wtf?

I dunno, I always like Les Halles. I admit it's a clash, but from street level it's very art nouveau, which is exactly what it's supposed to be. I mean, if you don't like Les Halles, then you probably don't like the Grand Palais either...but I don't hear anybody complaining about IT.

With that said, it was incredibly touristy and FULL OF PEOPLE. Who cares if it's a simulacrum if, 20 years after its creation, it's still vibrant with a life of its own?
posted by taumeson at 1:57 PM on December 15, 2004

Hmmm... I've always thought of Les Halles as Paris' one totally Americanized accomodation - well, that and the mawl over at the Louvre.

But it's a contemporary American mall experience in the middle of vieille Paris! It's not exactly scenic, but there's lots of concrete, glass, a bunch of underground stuff and a multiplex theater that plays American-style burger-films in fabulous V.O. (that's 'version originale', for those unchastened by a year or two abroad. as a temporary ex-pat, sometimes all you want is the crappy Bruce Willis movie, with the stilted Shane Black dialogue...).

Whatever urban eyesores at the current Les Halles, a permanent remedy can't possibly be broached without dealing with the monstrosity down the street. Whether or not the mall is still there, the street-performers and other highwaymen will persist at gathering near the Big Top.
posted by vhsiv at 3:56 PM on December 15, 2004

I actually like the Centre Pompidou (architecturally), vhsiv, despite the fact that it is indeed an abomination that in no way blends in with or benefits the surrounding neighborhood(s).

Recently, the US seems to be on a similar path of erecting monstrosities (convention centers, stadiums, museums and their ilk) within established city neighborhoods for no apparent reason, causing traffic problems, gentrification, etc. Such is the american way, I suppose. Can't go having functioning neighborhoods with character and charm...
posted by shoepal at 4:20 PM on December 15, 2004

it was incredibly touristy and FULL OF PEOPLE

On the inside, and on the Rue St. Denis side, but not on the other side, over by the commerce building and St. Eustache, actually in the gravelly green area. That's never been good.

Matteo called it the stomach of Paris and the New York Times called it the belly, but what I remember reading (and see in a couple of the links) is that in the years between when they shut down and tore out the old market, everyone just called it le trou, which is plainly the hole, but what they meant was the asshole. So: Les Halles, the Asshole of Paris.
posted by Mo Nickels at 4:42 PM on December 15, 2004

Also, the comment "Les Halles has become a place that Parisians avoid" by Mangin requires comment.

What he meant was, "Les Halles is often dominated by poor black and Maghrebian immigrants from the banlieu; this makes white Parisians and rich foreign tourists uncomfortable."
posted by Mo Nickels at 4:48 PM on December 15, 2004

ah, la peur du m├ętissage
posted by matteo at 4:13 AM on December 16, 2004

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