13 July 2013

Le chantier des Halles à Paris

I went to the central Les Halles market in Paris only once. It was in 1970, and I was spending two weeks in the city as my spring break from classes in Aix-en-Provence. The weather that March was cold, gray, and wet. I wandered around Paris in the bluster and gloom. It snowed when I went to see the park and château at Versailles.

Here's what's going on at Les Halles these days. The Eglise Saint-Eustache sits once more on the edge of a gigantic construction project.

One day I took the metro from the hotel in the Latin Quarter where I was staying and went to see Les Halles. The old market pavillions were in the process of being demolished one by one. The market was being moved to the suburbs, and a new transit center was going to be built underground on that land in the heart of the city. Paris was too congested, and the streets around Les Halles were just too narrow to accommodate all the car and truck traffic that the central wholesale food market attracted.

When it's finished, the "new" Forum des Halles will look like this. You can see
the Saint-Eustache church in the background in this artist's rendering.

When I arrived at Les Halles all those 43 years ago, the whole scene made me uneasy. It was too busy and too grimy for my young American sensibilities. There was something raw and crude about it. It was already a construction, or demolition, zone — an open wound in the middle of a beautiful but worn-out-looking city. I didn't stay. After just a few minutes, I fled to more tranquil, less disturbing neighborhoods.

Temporary "containers" house architects' and engineerss offices around the latest Les Halles construction zone.

Ten years later, I would be living in a small apartment just north of Les Halles, a few steps off the now-trendy rue Montorgueil. By 1980, the area that had been Les Halles and a throbbing, chaotic market was known as « le trou des Halles » — "the hole at Les Halles." As a pedestrian, you crossed it on temporary boards and plywood planks thrown down on the muddy ground. Instead of tunneling under the neighborhood, the authorities, engineers, and construction crews had dug a deep, wide hole in the middle of Paris and were putting in a huge metro station and shopping center on a site that resembled a pit mine.

Another old neighborhood landmark at Les Halles is the Fontaine des Innocents, which dates back to the French Renaissance in the 1500s.

Even when finished, the underground shopping center — Le Forum des Halles — was left open to the sky. Rain poured in, and dampness took its toll on the stone and tile of walls and walkways. Then fairly ugly, garish buildings in glass and sheet metal were built all around the edges of the big hole in the ground. Now in 2013, the Les Halles neighborhood is again being completely redone. The ugly above-ground buildings are gone, and a gigantic steel and glass canopy is being built over the Forum shopping center to protect it from the elements. Les Halles is once more a construction zone. It will be interesting to see how it looks when the work is finished.


  1. I've only been there once, and I won't be going anywhere near it again until I can be sure it is finished. Ghastly place.

  2. I spent two months in a little flat on Rue Montmartre, just thirty seconds walk from the back of the church. The only things I liked about the Les Halles pit was the FNAC and the cinema - I could be out my door and at the ticket booth for a VO film in 5 minutes.

    It was quite a shock seeing the new hole on our visit to Paris just after we saw you guys in Feb.

  3. i wish I had visited during the time I was there in 1969 but I think we avoided that area competely

  4. I remember the mess of 'le trou' on a visit to Paris with my mother. She found it deeply unsettling as she remembered the original Halles [in the 50s]. According to her it was the best place for onion soup if you were still up the morning after the night before.

  5. Ken

    Good thing you were travelling last WE and not this WE after what happened at Brétigny sur Orge. Looks like all the trains from Gare d'Austerlitz were cancelled last evening .

    Happy chateaux visits

  6. Hi Antoinette,
    Your mother was right about the best onion soup! Things of the past!

    Bonjour Cousine,
    I'm sure they now can divert trains on different tracks since those trains are not TGV. In any case that sure was mess.

  7. I really dislike malls and shopping. Les Halles, or rather, le Forum des Halles is one place in Paris I can't "stomach".

  8. I'm still not sure if I understand what's going on at this point, Ken-- is the old Forum des Halles mall still there, but just being covered over? Or was that whole mall demolished?

  9. Merci, Ken, for your update. I would have tried that onion soup,too. One can only hope this time the architects will get the design right for such a glorious spot in the centre ville.

  10. We visited there only once but we kind of liked it.

  11. I note the vehemence of some of these comments and the strong feelings people have about the Les Halles neighborhood. Pourtant, on n'arrête pas progrès, selon le dicton.


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