Paris Les Halles, as they are today
Photo: Roel de Gama

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Mayor of Paris selects design
for regeneration of Les Halles
By James Monaghan, Feature Editor

9 Janaury 2005: The Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, has announced a vast new initiative at the heart of Paris - Les Halles - which will revolutionise the life of the centre of the city and which is part of his ambitious plans to change the face of Paris.

Les Halles is named after the market founded 1183, when King Philippe II Auguste enlarged the previous marketplace in Paris and covered it, making a series of halls. It functioned as the main source of foodstuffs for Parisians for almost 700 years. Emil Zola's 1873 novel Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris) revolves around Les Halles.

In the years after the Second World War, the site had become run down and not fitted to the demands of a modern commercial centre. It was also to become the point of convergence of the RER, a network of new express underground lines, which had been inaugurated in the 1960s. Three lines leading out of the city to the south, east and west were to be extended and connected in a new underground station.

The decision by General de Gaulle to demolish the elegant 19th pavilions, to transfer the market to Rungis in the suburbs and to build a vast partially underground multi-story commercial and shopping centre, led to what came to be known as, "le trou des Halles" – a deep hole in front of the historic church of Saint-Eustache and between the Louvre and the George Pompidou Centre. This lasted for most of the Seventies. Construction was only completed in 1977 on Chatelet-Les-Halles, Paris's new subway hub - and the largest railway station in Europe - and on the commercial centre of Forum des Halles, opened in 1979. Prior to that it had been a wasteland, plagued by petty crime and drug-trafficking, and this reputation remained. Also, after ten years of political and architectural wrangling, no one was satisfied with the design, which seemed by then outdated.

On the other hand, Les Halles exhibits a collection of undisputed superlatives. As Mr Delanoë said in his speech introducing the project, “For the different publics, who ’inhabit Les Halles’, 800,000 travellers a day, tens of thousands of neighbours, of visitors, of customers of the numerous businesses, in total 40 million people a year, it is a permanent questioning of the sense, the harmony and even the national and international identity of this place”.

Also, Les Halles is the largest commercial centre in Paris. It has 160 shops, twenties of restaurants on five levels. The Forum’s 41 million visitors a year have an average age of 29, a third of whom come from Paris and two thirds from the outskirts. The commercial centre generates 3,000 jobs and represents for the owners 475 million euro in business. Of this more than a third is for Fnac, the largest bookshop in the world and the destination of 44 per cent of Les Halles’ visitors.

Politics are a factor. Mr. Delanoë, a 54-year-old Socialist, enjoys considerable popularity and looks well placed to win re-election in 2007 - if he does not decide to make a bid for the French presidency that same year. And he is all too aware that mishandling of the latest ‘new’ Halles would damage his political standing. On housing, Mr Delanoë pledged at his election in 2001 to reintegrate the Parisian population by making available 3,500 new homes, mainly in the select 8th and 13th arrondissements (districts) annually, and thus even out the city's already flagrant east-west divide.

Mayor Delanoë was also elected on a pledge to control car traffic and the associated pollution. He pointed out, that “private motorists, who make up a quarter of road users, use up 94 percent of Paris’s road surfaces”. He set out to combat this by restricting access to cars in the city centre. By reserving lanes on major routes for buses, taxis and cycles only and thus restricting cars to one or two lanes, he made taking a car into town unattractive. He wants to eventually eliminate motorised traffic on both banks of the Seine completely and plans a new tramway in the south of Paris by 2006.

The Les Halles project will be fronted by French architect David Mangin, who produced the most conservative of the four bids listed. But in a surprise move Delanoë said that the proposal centres on a broad landscaped avenue from the 18th century Commodities Exchange to the Forum des Halles, and that additional architectural detail will be added later. The budget looks certain to rise from the present figures of 200 million euro. The base line is a concept that will still be satisfactory in 25 years time.

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