There were "red cabbages, which the dawn seemed to transform into superb masses of bloom with the hue of wine-lees, splotched with dark purple and carmine. At the other side of the markets, at the crossway near Saint Eustache, the end of the Rue Rambuteau was blocked by a barricade of orange-hued pumpkins, sprawling with swelling bellies in two superposed rows. And here and there gleamed the glistening ruddy brown of a hamper of onions, the blood-red crimson of a heap of tomatoes, the quiet yellow of a display of marrows, and the somber violet of the fruit of the eggplant; while numerous fat black radishes still left patches of gloom amidst the quivering brilliance of the general awakening." These were the picturesque words Emile Zola found to describe the heart of Paris, but they no longer apply at all to the zone around Palais Royal and the Louvre. Life around the former market halls in the city on the Seine is profane and certainly no longer colorful and loud.
Once the city's wholesale market stood here, spread across 12 glass and metal pavilions. The complex dated back to halls erected in the 17th century and was designed back in 1848 by Victor Baltard, and built between 1852 and 1870; the two last halls were added in 1936. However, the wholesale market soon proved not to be a viable downtown proposition, as there was no justifying the trucks, the dirt, the smell and the noise. In 1959 the city authorities resolved to relocate the halls to Rungis. Yet another ten years were to lapse until the market finally closed its doors and its demolition was ordained. At the same time, protest arose, with people advocating that the halls be retained. By 1971, it was a matter of a fait accompli and six years later the ribbon was cut on the huge "Châtelet-Les Halles" Metro station. In 1978, the underground shopping and recreation center "Forum des Halles" opened, and has survived to this day. Gradually the food wholesalers in surrounding streets packed up, with their stores morphing into chic boutiques or cafes, such as Phillippe Starck's legendary "Café Costes". The second part of the Forum was commissioned in 1985 – a garden with postmodern lines of plants. Gentrification followed and persists to this day.
For many years, people have regretted the loss of the fantastic cast-iron hall structures. The halls are gone, among other things because in their place a traffic node had arisen that Parisians should no doubt still be happy about, for it handles some 800,000 passengers a day. If the committed citoyens of the 1970s had got their way, the halls might still be standing and would probably house a collection of small shops that would after closing for the night become home to any number of down-and-outs. In other words, precisely what has happened on a commercial section of the complex, cascades of pavilions inspired by post-modernism and roofs made of profiled sections that are hard pushed to conceal the fact that urban planning here has meant nothing other than finding the smallest common denominator for the functionally bland. Including corners to piss in. For many years, this hole, the "Trou des Halles" as the French call it, stood open, for after the halls were torn down and the Metro station was built there was no clarity on what shape the new buildings should take.
That's the history, in the course of which the changing views of what a big city is can be clearly seen from the buildings in the vicinity. Almost every visitor to Paris has passed through here, and knows how precarious the urban setting is, wedged between dilapidated, covered Metro station entrances and the dark-zone architecture of the 1970s shopping mall beneath. The subterranean shopping floors are lit by the central atrium, unfortunately poorly proportioned and dysfunctional, with elegant waterfall-like façades dropping down a full 13 meters to form its walls. A good 40 million shoppers throng here in the course of each year, but that does not make the Forum popular.
As early as 2004, the famed location, the ongoing urban-planning dilemma and the need to ensure the key transportation and commercial functions were upheld, prompted an initial architectural competition, which was won by the French urban planners at Seura. They envisaged a huge roof over the shopping levels and the Metro entrances, with the hitherto unused atrium being transformed into a central communications center and access avenue. This, however, aroused discontent as well, and in 2007 a new competition was staged. Even the ideas put forward by Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas were not particularly convincing. Admittedly, Koolhaas proposed an aesthetically attractive solution that was beautiful in visual terms: a jewel-like, colored standalone. However, the fact that multi-storey buildings would have been pretty hard to use given the relatively small footprint, made the proposal seem not particularly meaningful. There are now two main companies working on the project: Seura is responsible for urban planning assignments, such as the areas of greenery and parts of the infrastructure, Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti for the new building "La Canopée" and the renovation of traffic hubs. The conversion means open-heart surgery on the city, and the plan does not require anything in the complex to shut. The football-pitch-sized shopping hangar (it will cost €800 million) is supposed to open to the public by 2016.
So what does such a massive intervention do to the locality, to the microeconomy of a district such as Les Halles that thrives on tourism? And what does it say about the society that chooses this solution, albeit not the worst one. The proposal is functional, planted in the area like a standalone and without breaking the large feel of the building down to a more human scale. In some respects it still breathes the spirit of the outdated transportation functionalism of the 1970s. It's hard to imagine that the detailing of the façades and the interfacing of outside and inside will create really pleasant urban spaces. In an age in which local inhabitants often intervene vociferously in urban planning, it is hard to convince all the locals that this is a vision. There's a great risk that what is chosen as being good today will fail to convince future users. In such long-term projects, ideological objections, megalomania, cronyism and bad taste increasingly tend to produce an explosive blend.