The New York Times (17/12/04)

In Paris, a Cautious New Vision for Les Halles By Alan Riding

Paris, Dec. 15 - The 'belly of Paris,' as the old market district of Les Halles was long known, has had many looks in its eight centuries. Everyone agreed, however, that its last makeover in the 1970's was a disaster. Now, after months of deliberation, the mayor of Paris has chosen a French architect, David Mangin, to oversee a fresh attempt to rescue the 15-acre zone.

In doing so Wednesday, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë acted cautiously. Of four competing proposals, Mr. Mangin's design was the least radical, focusing on Les Halles' place in the landscape of central Paris more than on sculptural innovation. Further, instead of adopting Mr. Mangin's plan to renovate a huge underground mall and transportation hub known as the Forum des Halles, Mr. Delanoë called for a new design competition for the Forum.

'We have not chosen any of the models,' Mr. Delanoë told a new conference in City Hall here. 'We have chosen an urban concept for the heart of Paris.'

Thus Mr. Mangin, 55, an architecture professor who heads the Seura firm, will act as coordinator of a project that will eventually involve other architects and may well change as it advances, much like the plans for the World Trade Center site in New York. Mr. Mangin's cost estimate of $130 million is also considered highly provisional, and the nearest date the mayor would offer for completion of work was 'a long time before 2012,' the year that Paris hopes to play host to the summer Olympics.

What seems likely to survive of Mr. Mangin's design is a broad avenue reminiscent of the Ramblas in Barcelona that will connect the 18th-century Commodities Exchange with the Forum des Halles through landscaped gardens. For the new Forum, though, Mr. Delanoë imagines a design of 'elegance, luminosity, lightness and creativity' that will stand as 'an artwork of the 21st century.'

Still, given the district's troubled history, the mayor's general caution seemed wise to many. In the 1970's, after Les Halles' elegant 19th-century pavilions were torn down and the city's meat and vegetable markets moved to the suburbs, the 'new' Halles was fraught with political and design squabbles, which resulted in a large hole for much of the decade. And when the project was completed in 1979, it looked ugly and dated to its critics.

As alarmingly, the district, which stands between the Louvre and the Georges Pompidou Center, was soon known as a gathering point for drug traffickers and petty criminals. 'Les Halles has become a place that Parisians avoid,' Mr. Mangin said in a recent interview posted on 'It should be a place people want to go to. It should become a major public space - like the Louvre or the Tuileries gardens.'

Inspired as much by social as by aesthetic concerns, then, Mr. Delanoë's decision to act won wide support, and the 125,000 people who visited an exhibition of the four competing models here this summer reflected intense public interest.

Significantly, while two high-profile architects, Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas, were also in the competition, public opinion here leaned toward Mr. Mangin's design, which was also backed by the Green Party, as well as by an association of local residents and Unibail, the company that owns the Forum shopping center, Europe's busiest. The fourth design, by Winy Maas of the Netherlands, was not considered a serious contender.

Now, in making the single most important decision since he took office in 2002, the mayor has spelled out his main preoccupation: 'We want something that will not have to be torn down in 25 years.'

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.

The perils are many. Les Halles-Châtelet station's five metro and three regional underground lines handle 800,000 passengers per day, while the Forum shopping center receives some 40 million visitors a year. With far more than the votes of the district's 7,000 residents at stake, then, major construction around the Forum seems unlikely to begin until after the spring 2007 elections.

Political sniping was not long in coming after the mayor's announcement. Jean-François Legaret, the conservative mayor of the city's first arrondissement, where Les Halles is located, spoke Wednesday of 'an enormous fraud.' Describing the competing models as 'four unrealizable monsters,' he noted: 'Bertrand Delanoë announces, 'I choose Mangin,' then adds that he is abandoning his project and will organize a competition to find an architect to carry it out.'

Further criticism seems likely when the Paris municipal council meets in February to debate the plan. However, Mr. Delanoë's coalition with the Greens has enough votes to insure it is approved.

In his news conference Wednesday, Mr. Delanoë said he was embracing audacity as well as realism, although the other designs were more daring: Mr. Nouvel planned three levels of gardens, including one 'floating' 90 feet above the Forum (Mr. Mangin proposed a glass roof over the Forum, but only 30 feet above the ground); Mr. Koolhaas sought to link the zone's underground and gardens through multicolored glass towers resembling derricks; and Mr. Maas offered glass windows in the gardens to throw light into the underground mall and metro stations.

For Mr. Delanoë, though, Mr. Mangin's proposal alone linked Les Halles to the city. 'The heart of Paris is once again reinserted into its body,' he said. But he also stressed: 'We are not at the end of the project. We have merely initiated a process. We want to be sure that, when we walk through the district in 25 years' time, we will contemplate its life and its beauty.'