The former food hub of Paris has languished for decades, but now Les Halles is set for a renaissance, writes Karen Kissane.
Christine Baltay remembers Les Halles when it really was "the belly of Paris", as Émile Zola described it in the 1870s. Inside the graceful iron-and-glass pavilions built by Napoleon III was a huge wholesale food market that fed the city. "It was like a food cathedral," she says of Les Halles in the 1960s. "It was particularly lively at night. If you wanted dinner at two o'clock in the morning, there was no trouble getting it there. Every night [the farmers and truck drivers] would bring the food into the city and then they would have to eat somewhere. It was very loud, very joyous - bon enfant is the French expression for it, meaning like a child. Good, clean fun.
"I remember my husband and I, having been to the theatre, would turn up at 11pm for dinner and eating at the next table would be two butchers with bloodied aprons. It was a jolly place." Baltay, emeritus professor of art history at the American University of Paris, still laments the loss of Les Halles. In 1969 the market was moved to an outer suburb and the pavilions were soon demolished, despite widespread opposition.
Now the quarter is once again the focus of an enormous building project. For years after the demolition of the market halls, all that remained was a mud-filled pit; Parisians called it le trou, the hole.
The complex that eventually filled the hole failed to win a place in their hearts. Forum des Halles is a multistorey 1980s underground shopping mall lit by fluorescents. While useful - it has 23 cinemas and the city's most popular swimming pool - it is soulless and never attracted the high-end retail outlets envisaged for it.
It sits over the largest rail hub in the city: five Metro lines and three suburban train lines, delivering 800,000 people a day to the station. Dirty, dingy and damaged, this main gateway to the city offers international visitors arriving by train from Charles de Gaulle airport a malodorous welcome.
The sunken gardens backing on to the Forum had become known as a hangout for drug dealers and a site for gang fights, with "little hidden corners… [tending] to favour a certain delinquency", says Les Halles project director Dominique Hucher. In 2010, Paris's then-planning chief Anne Hidalgo called the project "an urban catastrophe".
But many locals regarded the gardens as much-needed poumons verts (green lungs) in Europe's most densely inhabited city. So in 2002, when the city mayor announced a competition to redesign the area to open it up and attract more visitors, residents mounted a campaign to save the old gardens and demanded the new complex include services such as crèches.
"Everybody feels they own Les Halles, so everybody is concerned, and the problem with architecture is always that everyone wants something different," says architect Catherine Haas of GA Paris, who runs guided tours of the city for architects and urban planners.
The winners of the competition were Patrick Berger, who has redesigned the Forum and the rail station, and David Mangin, who planned the gardens. Berger's vision for the entrance to the complex is a 14,000-square-metre curving glass roof latticed by pale green steel in the shape of a giant leaf, inspired by a rainforest canopy and designed to allow dappled light into the levels below. It will consist of 18,000 glass panes and 15 louvres and will capture solar energy. "It's commercial architecture but I like it because it's going to bring light into a dark hole," says Hass.
Mangin's four hectares of gardens are flat and open, with a broad central axis leading from the Bourse de Commerce building at one end to the new Forum at the other. They include a water garden and music garden, giant chessboards, a pétanque court and two playgrounds. Says Hass: "David Mangin's central axis is like the axes you have to monuments everywhere in Paris, like the Arc de Triomphe. That is very French. He also has parterres and lawns but it's a very structured garden; it's not like an English garden trying to imitate nature. It's a modern interpretation of French garden design."
In 2009 it was estimated that the new Les Halles would cost more than €800 million ($1.2 billion) and work began in 2010. The garden for children aged seven to 12 opened in 2012 and the canopy and its renovated interior should be finished this year, as well as the handover of the north-west section of the garden. The final two entrances, the reconfiguration of surface roads and the renovation of the suburban train concourse should be complete when the whole project winds up in 2016.
Haas sees the project as emblematic of the challenge that has always existed in Paris to maintain heritage while accommodating the needs of residents. "I think it's about how architects in the 21st century can respond to history."
Read more: Gourmet Traveller's insider's guide to Paris.