"Since the beginning of the century only one original building has been erected, only one that is not a copy from somewhere else but has sprung naturally out of the soil of our times, and that is Les Halles." For Claude Lantier, Emile Zola's bohemian painter in 'Le Ventre de Paris' the iron and glass constructions - "as light as crystal" and the vibrant market life they sheltered were the antithesis to the new dull, bourgeois - and derivative - Second Empire city.
The new buildings designed by Victor Baltard were "a series of palaces", regal constructions built in the honour of the true French sovereign - food. The 'pavillons' also reinforced the reputation of the area - Les Halles - as one of the world's largest and most prestigious markets, a reputation it had first built under Philippe Auguste in the 12th century.
Baltard's constructions eventually lasted a century, before being chopped down (although one survives out in Nogent sur Marne) when the market - and the accompanying motor traffic - outgrew its narrow city-centre surroundings. In its place came another temple, this time mostly underground, and this time celebrating the more recent rise of fashion.
But these days time spins to a different beat, and a third incarnation is now ready to be unveiled - with a design somewhat implausibly known as the 'canopée des halles', and supposedly apeing a tropical rainforest. Ahead of the opening (scheduled for April 6), I was kindly given a sneak preview.
Conceived by architects Patrick Berger and Jacques Antiziutti, the green structure is certainly impressive, as is the goal of the project - to make Les Halles the centre of Paris once again. Whereas the previous construction - the work of several architects and a hotchpotch of conflicting visions - was more akin to a bunker, this time the aim is to open the forum to the light and make it a place of passage.
A colossal project - arguably delivered late and over-budget - it has of course already attracted much criticism. One writer recently described it as a 'bony whale', the mouth wide open and ready to swallow a shoal of krill (the hordes of shoppers who will shortly be diving into its depths). In the same article, the metallic structure is also compared to a 'horizontal Eiffel Tower', and one can only hope it follows a similar trajectory - rejected at first, adopted and loved later.
Whatever the merits of the design may be, and how relevant a mega shopping complex is in a world moving online or back towards the small-scale, the engineering is worth celebrating. The roof is at once open and closed, providing an air escape to avoid transforming the centre into a gigantic wind tunnel but with panels positioned at an angle that ensures rain doesn't slip through. In fact, not only does it stop the rain, but it also captures it, channeling it towards new fountains being put in place in the surrounding gardens.
All architects seek the perennial, hoping that their construction - particularly one as central and historic as Les Halles - will become a new visual symbol. Will the 'canopée' last longer than the previous design (barely 40 years)? Looking at photos of that design (such as the one below), I'm surprised to note that I can hardly recognise it. Demolished only a couple of years ago, it has already been erased from my consciousness, perhaps a sign that it was never saved there in the first place.
Unloved and unmissed, the 1970s design did at least provide one function. At the centre of a new transport network with tentacles stretching out across the city's suburbs, it became a safe place to concregate for young people from these neighbourhoods. What will happen to them now? The canopée is very clearly a move upmarket, an attempt to match the shopping forum to the designer district in Montorgeuil and Etienne Marcel. It is a design chosen largely by - and for - local residents, but will it still be a place of welcome? Certain initiatives have been incorporated - a hip-hop cultural centre, Centr'Halles Park (an indoor facility dedicated to parkour) - but it is noticeable that the new curved and open design provides no angles where groups can gather.
How will the new forum function? As the history of Les Halles has shown us, it is the people who decide.
With thanks to Agnès from Publicis Consultants for the preview visit.