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The Belly Of Paris Gets A Face Lift

When Emile Zola wrote “The Belly of Paris” in 1873, Les Halles was newly-built. His intricate, beautifully detailed story is of the markets there, a story of wealth and poverty set against a sumptuous banquet of food and commerce. It was Napoléon III who had it erected on the site of the old covered market built during the reign of Philippe-Auguste (1183). Napoléon wanted vast shelters in the shape of an umbrella, hence twelve strange iron structures designed by the architect Baltard were installed to cover the markets.

In 1962, the market began its transfer to Rungis, 145 kilometers south of Paris and all but two of the iron pavilions were destroyed. Leonard Pitt, historian and author of “Paris Disparu,” over coffee last week, tol
d me the story about his friend, Orrin
Hein, an American who sought to buy all of them in 1971. The government denied his request, claiming they were too complicated and delicate to disassemble, handle and ship. He mounted a campaign to publicly challenge Georges Pompidou, then President of France, and managed to save two of them. One is still visible today at Nogent-sur-Marne called “Pavillion Baltard” where concerts and other events are held. The other is in Yokohama, Japan.

During six years, the “trou” (hole) at Les Halles stayed gaping, more than six stories deep. It was so terrible a sight that it actually attracted tourists and balconies were built as public observation platforms. Meanwhile, a new, an enormous new central Métro station was put in and lines of the suburban RER trains were run through the deep bottom of the hole.

During this time no less than ten architects succeeded one another with their plans to resuscitate the area. The request to construct the convention center was refused and among the ideas that followed was one to divert the Seine and fill the hole with water to create a pleasure-boat marina. In 1977, Jacques Chirac launched his new Les Halles and declared, “Je veux que ça sente la frite. L’odeur du peuple sans le peuple!” (“I want to smell French fries. The scent of the people without the people.”) As I understand it, his aim was to create a place where you could really feel the sense of humanity without the humanity actually being there!

Finally, the hole was filled with corridors and chambers and an inverted pyramid of shops, with the advantage of providing daylight while being almost invisible at ground level, was approved.

In 1978 the Forum des Halles was completed and the above-ground area began to take shape. From the outside, the “new” Halles shared certain design elements with its ancestor. It consists of a half-dozen glittering aluminum and glass “umbrellas” not too unlike those torn down years age.

Most would argue that the “trou” was better than what followed. In my humble opinion, it’s exactly the opposite — a place where there is no sense of humanity, but where there are hordes of humanity. Mayor Delanoë recently said that Les Halles was “the worst urban disaster in the history of the city.”

So, once again, it’s about to undergo a major face lift…as four design firms have offered up their proposed plans for renovation, the council studies and argues over them and the Parisians dispute them over café, restaurant and dining room tables.

In December of 2002, by a vote of the city council, a project to rectify the mistake was awarded to the Société d’Economie Mixte (SEM). In June 2003, they selected four teams to present their ideas: two stemming from Jean Nouvel and David Mangin and two from Holland, Rem Koolhaas and Winy Maas. Their mission: put in a worthwhile garden, requalify the public space, facilitate and secure access to public transportation and reduce automobile traffic.

The unveiling of their proposals on April 7th elicited a big surprise…a suspended garden, swimming bool and view of the rooftops of Paris by Nouvel, a five-meter-high glass cover to diffuse the light the entire length of the complex by Maas, twenty-two multicolored pyramidal towers by Koolhaas and two grand escalators descending to different stages all the way to the foundation, covered by a roof of copper and glass by Mangin.

In late June, the council will select its favored design, but you have your opportunity now to view them and select your favorite, too. There is a special exhibition in the Forum des Halles’ Grande Galerie (level -3; Porte Eustache) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Sunday. For more information and a video tour of Les Halles past, present and the four designs for the armchair traveler, visit

We’re talking about it, too, in today’s issue…and offering up some properties for sale in the immediate neighborhood that will one day be worth a whole lot more, thanks to the regentrification of the neighborhood.

I’m not looking forward to the mess the entire area is sure to be in for several years while what is there is disassembled and what will be there is erected…but regardless, I’m sure there will be much controversial debate (the French have perfected the art of conversation) no matter which design is chosen and that will keep the repartee lively for a long time to come.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris
E-mail: [email protected]

P.S. A special thanks to Sibel Pinto, our IL Paris Office Intern who assisted in catering to the hungry hordes at large gatherings such as cocktails and dinners chez Leeds…the 20 from the Paris Poetry Workshop and the 35 from the Travel Writer’s Workshop all sent rave reviews on every morsel.


Each week Paris Property Picks features a range of properties which we believe are on the market at the time of writing. These properties are featured in order to give readers a sample of what is currently available and a working example of prices being asked in various districts of Paris. As we are not a real estate agency, these properties do not constitute a sales listing. For those readers seriously interested in finding property in Paris or France, you can retain our services to do the whole thing for you. For more information, visit /frenchproperty/insider/propertyconsultation.html
or contact Jocelyn Carnegie at [email protected]


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