During the city's last gasp of Indian Summer earlier this month, I was strolling down the Rue Montorgueil enjoying a scoop of gelato when I came upon a lovely site. The enormous green and yellow construction barricades can't hide the gradual destruction of one of the city's ugliest monuments, the Foum des Halles.
For many centuries (a phrase you strangely get used to saying when you live here) Les Halles was home to the city's central food market. Emile Zola called it The Belly of Paris. Under Haussmann's reconstruction of Paris during the Second Empire (1850-1870) the market was modernized with the addition of ten glass and iron Pavillons de Baltard, each one devoted to a different market product: grains, fruits & vegetables, meat, fish, etc.
But by 1969 this wholesale market in the center of town was overcrowded, unhygenic according to modern standards, and simply not big enough to handle the city's needs. The market was moved to the suburb of Rungis (near Orly airport), and the pavillions were torn down.
The 1970s, in my humble opinion, was a decade of general architectural stupidity in Paris. Former Mayor Chirac and Presidents Pompidou and Giscard d'Estaing can be thanked for approving some of the more atrocious changes to the city such as the express-ways along the Seine and the high-rise housing developments on the outer edges of the city, but the Forum des Halles -- right in the center of the 1st arrondissement -- takes the cake as the biggest eyesore in town.
The market was replaced by a 1970s shopping mall that descends four levels below ground, and a public transport hub at Châtelet-Les Halles for five metro lines and three RER train lines that goes two levels deeper. This "trou", or hole, took almost a decade to construct. The parts that appeared above ground looked like some sort of bizarre retro vision of the future (does R2D2 live here?)...or a bit like Minneapolis-St Paul Airport.
I must admit it wasn't all completely bad. They spared the beautiful late-Gothic/early-Renaissance St-Eustache church (above) and the circular Bourse du Commerce (Commodities Exchange, now home to the Paris Chamber of Commerce), which both gave the neighborhood a bit of historic character. They also covered much of the mall with a public garden, playgrounds, and lawns that were actually quite nice on sunny days.
Unfortunately, like the never-ending tunnels of the Châtelet-Les Halles station, they were also a dangerous place to be wandering around alone after dark. In my student days I actually worked as the night manager of an Irish bar in Les Halles (no longer open), and would borrow the owner's big dog when making the trek through the park to Quigley's Point (another Irish bar, still going strong).
The central location of the mall, its cinemas, its cheap teen clothing shops and fast-food chains have always been a popular meeting place for Parisians and those coming in on the suburban trains for the weekends. I've always thought of Les Halles as a place for skateboarding teenagers and the occasional band of disgruntled youth looking for trouble, a place to be avoided for its ugliness during the day and its shadowy alleys after dark. I would stick to the Montorgueil district just to the north of Les Halles (the old meatpacking district) or the Châtlet area between Les Halles and the Seine.
Unsavory reputation aside, the buildings themselves have aged badly (both physically and aesthetically), and despite many attempts to "modernize" the Forum des Halles without completely demolishing it, Parisians generally still hated it. When Bertrand Delanoë was elected mayor in 2001, one of the first things the people asked for was to tear down Chirac's mall. Since then there have been many different plans rejected, approved, rewritten, replanned. "We want to build something that won't have to be torn down in 25 years," says Delanoë. How very forward thinking.
And so the deconstruction has begun to make way for a light, airy, modern, safe and efficient mall and transport hub that won't scare off the locals or traumatize the locals who got lost on the way from the Louvre to the Pompidou Center. The trees and gardens came down first (they'll be replaced, supposedly), and now the last of the white metal and glass structures are under the wrecking ball. The project will take about five years to complete. See some "before" and "during construction" photos of the buildings and surrounding gardens on the official Projet les Halles website. You can also visit the free exhibition on what the future will hold at Les Halles (and the rest of Paris, for that matter) at the Pavillon de l'Arsenal.
And here's a video from a French news channel showing images of what the area will look like when done, what it looks like now, and what it used to look like back when it was a market pre-1970 (all in French, images start at 23 second mark):