The New Les Halles

This week was unveiled a vast and keenly awaited new building in the center of Paris. While the new Les Halles brings new amenities to Parisians and is without doubt an improvement on what was there before, it is also rife with failings and missed opportunities.

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It is inconceivable today how the authorities of the late sixties came to the conclusion that the soaring metal structure of the Les Halles market designed by Victor Baltard in the 1850s should be pulled down. But since that decision was made, Les Halles has been one of the most problematic high-profile sites in Paris.

Shortly after being elected to office, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë decided that the catastrophic shopping center that had been built in 1986 needed to be demolished and replaced. Two competitions were held, and, after many twists and turns, Patrick Berger, one of France’s most gifted architects, won the commission with his partner Jacques Anziutti, with a design based on an urban lay-out by David Mangin’s firm SEURA.

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The architecture of the building has received mixed reviews. Indeed, it is difficult to see what Berger and Anziutti’s design bring to the original canopy. It may be more spectacular, but it loses the virtues of the simplicity and purity of Mangin’s design, with a heavy structure sagging uncomfortably in places, and, as Oliver Wainwright noted in the Guardian, it is of a decidedly unfortunate color.

Whatever the architectural qualities, the essential thing about this site is that it is the central hub of the regional transportation network and therefore a place that draws a tremendous number of people into the city center. The critical question therefore has to be how the area will function as a public space.

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The new scheme deeply modifies the organization of not just the complex, but the whole neighborhood, in a very positive way. It opens up new connections, alleviates bottlenecks and carves out a rich space at the center of the complex. Whereas flows previously went around the site and down into the shopping center, there is now a more dynamic movement centered around a much better-functioning heart of the site. This will presumably be further improved when the part of the park directly to the west of the Canopée is opened.

The access from the east was previously the main entrance to the lower floors and a permanent bottleneck. Now the crowds flow in easily to the center of the site through a broad entrance. There is a new visual and functional link across the site east to west. The space under the canopy is visually rich and, at least on the first weekend after the opening, dynamic and full of people.

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A broad staircase leads from the park down to the lower levels of shops and to the transportation hub. This organization will vastly improve flows. It will also increase the prominence of the north and south accesses to the site and thereby contribute to a broader area around the complex. And it is much more appropriate to the security procedures that now need to be incorporated in Parisian buildings.

The actual design of the public spaces is, however, weak. There is in essence, no design, just open spaces. This functions acceptably in areas that serve for the passage of large numbers of people, but does not serve the other basic human needs of people in public spaces.

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The most striking example is the Place Carrée, the sunken square at the center of the canopy. It is a barren public place, of baffling poverty. How the designers thought human beings might use this space is a mystery. As a result of the absence of any sort of usable feature, people sit on the floor around the edges of the space or stand uncomfortably in the corners. It is amazing that in a scheme of hundreds of millions of euros it was not possible to engage someone who had some notion of how public spaces work.

The contrast with the nearby Place Joachim du Bellay, about which I have previously written, could not be more striking. One on hand we have a vibrant urban space, with a multiplicity of possible uses. A few meters away, we have an empty expanses that people are struggling to appropriate.

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Unfortunately, this is characteristic of a design that seems to have placed a premium on elegance and technical prowess, but does not seem overly concerned with the fact that the space will ultimately need to be used by people.

Another example of the lack of concern for the human functioning of the space related to the cultural facilities that the City is very proud to have incorporated in the rebuilt complex: a library, an amateur performing arts center and a center for hip hop culture.

These facilities have been remarkably poorly integrated into the design. They are relegated to anonymous lobbies with the architecture of a low-grade corporate campus, with no dynamic relation to the urban space whatsoever. Their presence brings nothing to the complex.

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One can only imagine how the hip-hop artists will feel in this new home of vinyl flooring and false ceilings – one suspects they will not take to this space offered by the cultural bureaucrats and will continue to prefer places with more asphalt and more urban energy. This is, of course, an enormous missed opportunity. What could have been a centerpiece of the design that gave it a character distinctive to Paris’s new urban culture has not been given any special role at all in the scheme.

The Les Halles project has been very controversial for its cost and for the transactions between the city and the private owner of the shopping center. Despite all this, the decision having been made to rebuild at great cost, Parisians are entitled to expect an exemplary realization. There are strengths to what has been done and there is no doubt that the building improves on the very low standard set by its predecessor. But in terms of the quality of public spaces especially, this project is far from what should be achieved on such an emblematic Parisian site.