Text: Thirza Vallois
Last week, walking along rue Pierre Lescot, threw me back forty years: the Forum des Halles, currently under partial demolition, afforded me a surreal “déja vu” vision of the demolition of old Les Halles market in the early 1970s. Once more one has an unobstructed view to the Bourse de Commerce and the church of St-Eustache through a peeping hole in the fence surrounding the site. Except that forty years ago, it was the entire market that was gutted out, including its underground area. A gigantic gaping hole – le trou des Halles - filled the site, a spectacular desolation left as it was for ten years because the philistines who were quick to destroy Victor Baltard’s remarkable architectural legacy, couldn’t agree on what to replace it with.
The disgraceful Forum des Halles that eventually rose out of its ashes was all they could come up with. Worse: it was the lifeblood of Paris that was destroyed, as expressed by Louis Chevalier’s book title, L’assassinat de Paris, together with 800 years of continual history. For ten years the old soul of Paris was mourned by Parisians who made this a destination; gazing, incredulous, at this gigantic open grave. Occasionally there were even riots of angry protesters. I was one of the many who came to the site, and now, as I was walking down rue Pierre Lescot, nostalgia incited me to stop for a bite at Le Père Tranquille. We all used to come to Les Halles for onion soup in the very early hours of the morning, after a night out. They no longer serve onion soup at Le Père Tranquille, although they still do at Le Pied de Cochon. But what’s the point these days?
One has to read Emile Zola’s Belly of Paris to take the measure of what was lost. There were ten iron and glass pavilions at the time of his novel – the only original construction erected in Paris in the 19th century, according to Zola’s protagonist and mouthpiece in this instance, Claude Lantier, who was inspired by Paul Cézanne: “the only one that is not a copy from somewhere else but has sprung naturally out of the soil of our times.” Indeed, Baltard’s pavilions were the avant-garde architectural expression of the Industrial Revolution under way, a revolutionary milestone which paved the way for the likes of Viollet-le-Duc (the revivalist restorer of Notre Dame, Carcassonne and Pierrefonds) and Gustave Eiffel, to the golden age of the railway stations and department stores, to the great halls of the Universal Exhibitions and to Art Nouveau. The new market was commissioned by Napoleon III who, impressed by the iron frames of the new railway stations, instructed Baltard to “Make me umbrellas!” and inaugurated in person the first pavilion, in 1853.
The old market also “buzzed with life”, according to Lantier. It was already celebrated as such by 15th-century poet François Villon, and also more recently by Raymond Mason’s colourful sculpture inside the church of St. Eustache. It depicts the departure of the fruit and vegetable market on 28 February 1969, “the last vision of natural life in the city”, implying a life centred around a community rooted in its soil, a “village” of 5,000 people in the middle of the 20th century, shopkeepers, café owners and waiters included. The Forum des Halles, on the other hand, a shopping mall combined with the city’s largest RER and Metro station, has a floating population of transit commuters and shoppers. Architecturally unwholesome, easily accessible by public transportation, it has also become a draw to drifters and drug traffickers.
Robert Doisneau’s current photo exhibition held at the Hôtel de Ville, brings alive the old market and its demise, going back to 1933. Aware that the market’s days were numbered, Doisneau felt urged to record it for the future. For forty years he came here every week from his home in Montrouge, taking the pulse of the neighbourhood, observing its mutation, rising at 3 in the morning in order to capture the arrival and unloading of fresh goods before day break (as did Zola in his novel, who was also a photographer), a challenge when he was hampered by the lack of light. His personable nature and empathy allowed him to befriend the people of Les Halles and gain their trust, a godsend for a photographer who tried to capture his subject from life. He loved the people and had the flair to bring out their personalities.
The exhibition focuses on the architecture as well, featuring some magnificent vintage black-and-white photos of the Pavillon Baltard. Unexpectedly, there are also colour photos from the 1960s, reminding us that this was a colourful place (which Zola also brings out in his novel). Then comes the demolition and the crowds that come to watch the wreckage, the move to Rungis and the birth of a new age, a fabulous selection of predominantly vintage prints, selected by Doisneau’s daughters and curators of the exhibition, Annette Doisneau and Francine Deroudille.
The renovation of Les Halles is scheduled to be completed in 2016. It will have a new garden, and most visibly, a gigantic undulating glass canopy that will stretch 14.5 metres above the Forum and will bring in the day light. Not unlike the Louvre Pyramid and the Pompidou Centre in their time, not to mention the Eiffel Tower, the canopy is likely to lead to controversial reactions. New generations who are plugged to iPhones will not bemoan a world they didn’t know. Those sensitive to the past will have the fantastic testimony of Robert Doisneau to hang on to.
Doisneau, Paris les Halles, to 28 April 2012
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About the Writer…
Thirza Vallois is an expert on all things Parisian and is the author of the internationally acclaimed Around and About Paris series, Romantic Paris and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia. A long-time Parisian, Thirza also lectures to art societies and educational organisations throughout the world and writes for the international press.
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