AN ambitious architectural project is about to be revealed in Paris to rid the city of one of its biggest acts of self-sabotage.

In the 1970s the outstanding 19th-century wrought iron market pavilions at Les Halles were bulldozed.

In their place appeared an underground shopping and transport complex generally viewed as a monstrous, mirrored carbuncle on the face of one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

Now though, after decades of arguments, protests and political anguish, the city fathers are preparing to make amends.

In the coming months an entirely remodelled Les Halles will be unveiled – crowned by a giant glass roof covering an area of 2.5 hectares (270,000sq ft).

This enormous roof known as the Canopy will comprise around 18,000 scale-like pieces of glass which will be held in the air by 7,000 tonnes of steel, and will open up a new panorama across the city centre.

However, it will be an expensive view – costing €200m (£150m) from a total refurbishment cost of €1bn (£757m).

Anne Hildago, the mayor of Paris, toured the structure as work continued apace to complete the project before its April opening, and vowed that the area – once described as an “urban catastrophe” – was ready to become “the beating heart” of the French capital.


JE ne regrette rien is a phrase made famous by Edith Piaf, but it seems there are some regrets over the past history of the site.

Architect Victor Baltard created what was hailed as his masterpiece of wrought-iron pavilions in the mid 19th century. They were designed to house the city’s wholesale market, which was described by novelist Emile Zola as “the belly of Paris”.

However, come the 70s the pavilions were razed, leaving a giant, gaping hole. So surreal was that blot on the landscape that Italian film director Marco Ferreri used it as a war-zone backdrop for his farce about the last stand of General Custer, the American cavalry commander.

Public transport in Paris serves 750,000 passengers every day, so the site became a huge transport hub with a gigantic intersection of suburban railway and metro lines – Europe’s biggest underground station – which has to be experienced to be believed.

This was paired with a giant underground shopping mall with a footfall of 37 million people a year.

Tourists tend to go there for a quick look, which is usually enough. It is so unappealing and difficult to navigate that even Parisians stay away if they can, and its reputation for drug dealing only served to make matters worse.


YES and no. The station and existing mall will be completely overhauled, a new stretch of gardens will be added, along with a library, a new music and arts conservatory (or should that be conservatoire?) and most importantly a hip-hop centre.

Yes, you read it correctly – a hip-hop centre, which is seen by the mayor as crucial.

Most users of Les Halles come from the suburbs of Paris, the banlieues, and the majority are younger people from France’s diverse social mix, which is sometimes not reflected in the centre of Paris.

The city chiefs wanted to include them instead of pushing them away, and why not? Spontaneous hip-hop and street dance in the station has always been a feature of Les Halles, and the refurbished site will feature recording and dance studios, along with arts facilities, which amateurs can simply walk in and use.

Says Hildago: “Everyone who uses the suburban train lines, whether they live in Paris or not, should be able to come here and find a place to express themselves.

“The idea is that for them, Les Halles will be a place of freedom away from the social constraints of the housing estates.”

Patrick Berger, the architect behind the new initiative, would not be drawn on the mistakes of the past, saying: “For an architect, constraints can become virtues.”

He did, however, promise the revamped Les Halles would be a new “gateway to the city”.


AS you might expect Parisians aren’t backward at coming forward and as part of the serious scrutiny, the project has attracted its fair share of critics and admirers.

Some architects had argued that the best option would have been to leave the street level open as a huge green space. They also queried the high cost and whether or not the project represented value for money.

Others have been more considered in their response. Architect and Paris University historian Donato Severo said the destruction of the original pavilions had been the most violent act ever committed against the heritage of Paris.

“It’s very difficult to imagine that scale of destruction today,” he said.

The biggest challenge now, he said, was to create a “fluidity” to Les Halles, to make it easier to walk round and less bewildering for locals and visitors.