Agence Reuters (09/05/04)

New Face for Paris's Unloved Shopping Colossus
Sun 9 May, 2004 15:41

By Kerstin Gehmlich
PARIS (Reuters) - Just a stroll away from the Louvre and the river Seine lies a monstrous underground shopping mall in the center of the French capital -- a huge concrete colossus many Parisians shun and which is slowly falling apart.
Some 30 years ago, the construction of the giant Forum des Halles caused an outcry in the historic commercial district of Paris that had housed food markets since the Middle Ages.
Residents were divided over the destruction of the old market's pavilions, which left a gaping hole in the center of Paris for several years which was finally filled with a maze of neon-lit hallways, shops, cinemas and a large underground train station.
Now, the city wants to tear down the decaying structure and is presenting proposals for another controversial revamp.
"The Forum is ugly, dirty and it is aging in a very bad way. Paris deserves something better to represent its city center," said Alain Le Garrec, president of the SEM Paris organization charged with managing the redevelopment project.
Rather than just renovate leaking roofs, replace cavernous concrete or revamp the gardens -- which have become a notorious hangout for drug dealers -- the city wants to rebuild the entire area, covering the space of about a dozen football fields. But for many local residents around Les Halles, the plans bring back bad memories.
Jean-Jacques Gouret, who has lived in Les Halles all his life, led protests against the old market's demolition in the early 1970s. He still feels bitter about the construction site he had to negotiate for years before the Forum was finished.
"It was like a crater. That just mustn't happen again!" Gouret said, standing by his fifth-floor window and looking at the Forum's dirty glass structure and uneven terraces.
Some 3,000 people work at the Forum, which opened in 1979 and attracts 41 million visitors a year. Many Parisians like the Forum for its diversity -- apart from 180 shops, it features playgrounds, a public swimming pool, cinemas and exhibitions. But many middle-class Parisians wound rather shop elsewhere than mingle with the many youngsters who hang around the Forum. Gouret said the mall also no longer offered a proper market to locals. "We used to play football between the old market's pavilions. And the stallholders would sell their products cheaper to the poor after midday," said the 64-year-old. The pavilions were known as the "belly of Paris." But in the ever-expanding capital, the site was plagued by hygiene problems -- a shop window in the area still exhibits stuffed cat-sized rats found there in 1925 -- and the market moved to the suburbs in 1969. "There's no point being nostalgic," Gouret shrugs. "But now, I want them to build something that actually fits into the neighborhood."

Parisians can see the redevelopment proposals of four architects in an exhibition at the Forum before the city council takes a final decision later this year.
French architect Jean Nouvel proposes an elevated "hanging garden" on top of a refurbished shopping center, with green lawns and plants and even an artificial river in which visitors can swim while enjoying a view over the rooftops of Paris.
Rem Koolhaas from the Netherlands, who won praise for his bold Grand Palais concert hall project in Lille, plans to inject more light into the underground structure through transparent towers, which poke above the surface in different shapes.
His compatriot Winy Maas wants to lay a giant window over a large part of the garden, on which trees could be planted and which could be illuminated from underneath at night.
But many residents say the plans are too extravagant, mockingly calling Koolhaas's proposals a "giant pinball game."
Gilles Pourbaix, a web site designer and residents' spokesman, said he slightly preferred plans by a French team under David Mangin, who wants to redevelop the gardens and put a 475 feet-long glass roof over the mall. "But we don't need a new construction at all," Pourbaix said. "The Forum should just be renovated. This quarter won't stomach another 10 years of
works. Many shops would just die."

The Forum, France's most popular shopping center, generates some $565 million in revenue per year, said Marguerite des Cars, vice-president of the Espace Expansion group that manages the complex. "Our commercial activity must not be disrupted during the works," she said. "We just can't have something like the construction site of the 1970s again."
But she agreed a revamp could help improve the mall's image and help solve some of its problems. "People easily lose their sense of direction here. You are underground ... It's normal." Works could start late next year, Le Garrec said, hoping the train station and many shops would remain open. Paris aims to present some visible results by 2007 and have the project completed well before 2012, when it hopes to stage the Olympics.
But many locals remain skeptical. "This whole project seems to be a race between architects to leave something extraordinary behind -- with their name written all over it. What good is that to us locals?" said resident Barbara Blot.