Monday, March 25, 2013

A New Look at Les Halles

It’s been a long time since I visited the Pompidou Centre, and the day I did was a lovely almost-spring day.  This is important because one of the best parts of the Pompidou is the outdoor escalators that let you float majestically to the top of the building.  An inspiring view of Paris slowly opens up as your rise towards the temporary exhibits, and suddenly you find yourself thinking:  to heck with Dali, I just want to gaze out at the rooftops.  It’s all there, Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower—just about every Big Name in the guidebooks peeks out above the grey roofs and limestone. 

One thing you can’t see is the construction at Les Halles.  Which is pretty amazing because it’s right nearby and gigantic.   The hideous 70’s era upper structure of the Forum des Halles is being pulled down, soon to be replaced by a futuristic “canopy” the size of a football field.   From the computer drawings it looks pretty cool – I just hope it’s not really that color yellow or it’s going to look, well, weird.  Weird seems to have been the watchword for architectural undertakings at Les Halles since they tore down the old central market with its graceful 19th century pavilions in 1971.   

When I was a wistful teenager, my family moved to Paris because my dad was on sabbatical.  It was 1978, the Forum just opened, and I found it terrifying.  Shopping centers were pretty new back then, but this one looked like it had been sucked into the ground by a giant, cement-eating monster.  There was a gaping hole where the building should have been, and if you looked down it was as if the building had been turned inside out.  Incredibly, there were stores down there, with people milling around in them.  I stayed away, afraid of being pulled in by some fiendish gravitational force.

While the RER station is still open, the rest of the shopping center and gardens is masked by a high metal wall, with the occasional grill that lets you see what’s going on inside.  All hell has broken loose, it seems, and the entire shopping center has disappeared—except for the hole, which continues to buzz with customers despite the apocalyptic activity going on above.  Like a wound that will never heal, it appears that the only solution is to cover it up in a way that allows air to circulate so it won’t fester.  The cover, which is being called La Canopée, is an immense, undulating sheet of glass and metal that “floats” over the hole and a new esplanade, as well as an assortment of light-filled public facilities such as a music conservatory, a library, and a Hip-Hop center (don’t ask me, that’s what it says on the official site).

While I’m still unsure about the color, I have to admit that the canopy looks like a vast improvement.  There’s something soothing about it’s wavy look, at least on paper.  I still think it’s a shame that they didn’t save a couple of those elegant 19th-century pavilions back in the 70s, but this does seem like a nice way for the city to make amends for its previous architectural crimes.  And maybe now that the hole will be safely covered, I’ll stop worrying about falling in.