It is a complex, unloved knot of rail and Métro interchanges, traffic feeds, heavyweight retail and resonant historical location, it teems with 800,000 users a day, and it is a long time since most Parisians had a good word to say about it.
The destiny of Les Halles, at the heart of France’s capital, is of huge symbolic importance: it was the principal wholesale food market - “the belly of Paris” - from the twelfth century until its departure to the suburbs in the 1960s. Its nineteenth century glass and iron halls, unappreciated at the time, were destroyed. For years afterwards it remained no more than an immense, dispiriting, undeveloped hole, and ever since its completion in the mid-seventies, Parisians have shown little affection for the drab cocktail of underground mall, stations, lacklustre pavilions and gardens that endures today. Intermittent problems with drugs, gangs and petty crime after dark have not helped its reputation.
Les Halles, in other words, has been going wrong since the middle of the last century, and no one involved in its next rebirth can countenance the idea of messing it up again. David Mangin, having masterminded the project since 2004, is acutely conscious of his
responsibilities. His conversations with the French media, and in this week’s WAN podcast, always return to the delicacies and difficulties involved in bringing his project to fruition.
At surface level, the crucial innovation will be expansive, elegant public space. Until now, Les Halles has been emphatically off the tourist trail for most international visitors: Mangin’s vision of a vast stretch of uninterrupted urban garden will place the development in the clear context of historic Paris, connecting key sites, such as the Louvre, the Bourse, the church of Saint-Eustache and the Pompidou Centre.
Deeper challenges, logistical and imaginative, lie underground. None of the mind-boggling array of interested parties must be alienated during the renovation, or by the end result. Yet there are many potentially conflicting voices, from the armies of commuters, to the rail unions, to the local residents, to the rural and suburban French who arrive by rail and venture no further into Paris than the subterranean shopping centre. The challenge is for Les Halles to re-emerge as an outstanding venue in itself, as well as a streamlined gateway to a unified, modern city that tempts visitors well outside the central area: le grand Paris, as the policy documents call it.
It is tempting to draw parallels between Les Halles and major urban renewals elsewhere, but few can stand the comparison. In London, Mangin notes, Covent Garden is a paradigm of ancient market site successfully turned over to retail and tourist activity. There is also the restored St Pancras Station, proud of its heritage and set to thrive as a modern international rail terminus. And we can consider Elephant & Castle to the south: a tired shopping complex and historic road gateway to central London, due for drastic remodelling from 2010.
But Les Halles alone is all these things and more, stacked on top of each other, massively interconnected and situated right at the
sensitive heart of a great world capital. Mangin wryly acknowledges the scale of his task by summarising the French national mindset in the podcast: “Les Halles is the centre of Paris, and Paris is the centre of France, and France is the centre of the world”.
He is only half joking. The people and politicians of Paris will inevitably look to Les Halles to boost their amour propre. And to the outside world, there is now another context: Sarkozy. Innovative socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoë may have lit the fuse for the project, but it will become a reality on the watch of the new President, whose enthusiasm for modernising the French has already caught the world’s eye. His torrent of new initiatives seems to confront every aspect of Gallic life, not least its built environment. Notions such as the establishment of ten new ‘ecopolises’ of 50000 people may not be directly related, but Sarkozy’s initiatives and ambitions will certainly form the backdrop to the completion of the new Les Halles. Construction will be well underway, and possibly finished, near the end of his current term in office in 2012, and the project’s success or failure will inevitably link itself to the reputation of the President. He is bound to be watching progress closely.
With expectations running so high in so many quarters, Mangin and his colleagues can be excused for treading carefully as they prepare to rebuild the centre of the world.
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