The Murder of Les Halles, by Robert Doisneau
Nine-thirty a.m. was a perfect time to get in the line to see the “Doisneau, Paris les Halles” exhibit at the Hôtel de Ville (on until April 28th). That was just this morning, on a cold, damp and windy April day. Timing it right means not having to wait too long in line, as a friend did when she arrived at 3:30 p.m. — the peak hour and at least a 1.5 hour wait.
It’s a popular exhibit, not just because these are photos by Robert Doisneau, the French photographer who is famous for his photo Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville (“Kiss at the Town Hall”) and was given the title of “Chevalier” of the Order of the Legion of Honor in 1984, but because it’s his account of what one of my friends termed “the murder of Les Halles.”
Les Halles was the original large central wholesale market, even before 1183 when King Philippe II Auguste enlarged the marketplace by building shelters for the merchants, who came from all over to sell their wares. In the 1850s, massive glass and iron buildings designed by Victor Baltard were constructed and it became known as the “Belly of Paris,” as coined by Émile Zola in his novel, “Le Ventre de Paris,” set in this busy marketplace of the 19th-century.
It thrived more than a century, then moved outside Paris to Rungis and replaced in 1971, thanks to President Georges Pompidou and the Préfet Diebold who wanted to build a modern shopping center and save money by building the future Métro station Châtelet les Halles under an open sky. On August 2, 1971, the Baltard Pavillons were demolished while the Parisians were on vacation. Only one Pavillon has been maintained and transferred to Nogent sur Marne where today this Pavillon has become an event center. Meanwhile, their ‘grand plan’ has been deemed by Mayor Bertrand Delanoë (and many others) as “the worst urban planning disaster in the history of Paris.”
Right he was, because it’s now undergoing a second face lift under the auspices of architect David Mangin along with architects Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti. The design incorporates a massive curvilinear building inspired by plant life: “La Canopée.”
Doisneau took his first photo in Les Halles in 1933 — Les Filles au Diable (Girls on the Dolly) at the foot of the church Saint-Eustache. The 214 images spanning the years up through its demolition tells a tale of a pulsating ‘belly’ of Paris that we effectively ‘murdered’ and of one which we all yearn to resurrect.
While the site was under construction in the 70s, the enormous pit was nicknamed the trou des halles (hole of the halls) and was a black mark on the landscape next to one of the city’s most beautiful churches, Saint-Eustache. When you see Doisneau’s poignant images of a bustling, thriving market, under a beautiful iron structure much like Le Carreau du Temple and others from that period, with Saint-Eustache as the backdrop, it will bring tears to your eyes to think those days are long gone, never to return no matter how hard the city leaders try.
And here we are, once again faced with a new construction site, which may look less like a “trou,” but is just as unsightly. Will Mangin’s concept once again prove to be a poor excuse for the centuries-old marketplace that Doisneau so successfully captured with his Leica?
I’m afraid so.
A la prochaine…
Editor, Parler Paris
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