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.