For many visitors to Paris, the first glimpse of the city is the gloriously scruffy transport interchange at Chatelet Les Halles. For those living in the city, it is an almost unavoidable hub, welcoming 750,000 passengers a day. Creaking, crumbling, peeling and slowly falling apart, it somehow still manages to be efficient.
Welcome to the underground – the deep underground. The principal Metro and RER interchange is a submerged network of platforms and tunnels which itself sits underneath an underground shopping centre. This is the largest underground train station in the world, positioned beneath the largest underground shopping centre in the world.
Laying deep beneath the surface of the city, it is unsurprising to find a lack of natural light. It is a city of hundreds of thousands of fluorescent lamps and yet it remains brightly polychrome. This is a child of the 1970s, a creation from a time when colour was considered an essential element. The colours are codes if only we could follow them, but in today’s monochrome world we’ve forgotten how they work. Soon the whole system will be renovated and the colours will go; the red benches, the blue tiles, the yellow walls. In their place will come the standard, uniform aseptic white environment.
Chatelet – Les Halles is not loved, but it works. Back above ground, the district in which it is situated has been adopted by the communities who gather here, notably young people from the surrounding suburbs. In a report commissioned by the city of Paris on this theme based around interviews with this young population, the results point towards the maintaining of the current layout. Architects and urbanists have been queuing up to make their mark on this tender heart of Paris, but who would they be working for?
A typical comment from a suburbanites is that it would be impossible to make it better. The transport interchange works, the shopping centre is successful and the concrete gardens outside provide areas where young people can relax and not feel judged. If Parisians find the area ugly and the young people threatening, well they’ve still got Saint Germain, the Marais and just about the whole of the rest of the city for them.
A concept that appears in this report is ‘reparisianisation’. There is a fear amongst the young people interviewed that by renovating the area (work is scheduled to start in 2010) and making it fit more into a more typical Paris feel, the spirit of the place will be destroyed. It is a project based largely around esthetics that have proved not to be pleasing to Parisians, but is this not purely a bourgeois judgement on a part of the city that has never belonged to them? This is the famous ‘belly’ of the city, the previous home of a centuries old market that reeked of animal carcasses and alcohol. Today the population is another kind of proletariat, but Chatelet – Les Halles is still a celebration of diversity and a joyous display of colour in the face of what is often stifling conformity.