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 www.projetleshalles.com.
'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.'