les halles: new architectures and the past

Tired of trying to find your way through the labyrinthine construction site at Les Halles? Wish you could just fly through it? Well, you can, virtually of course; and the discourse of City Hall seems to be, “if you are getting impatient with the construction, try lifting bloody, fly-ridden pallets of meat all day.”

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© SemPariSeine – Franck Badaire

Nearly three years into the renovation, construction (as such, i.e. seeing things take form) at Les Halles seems to have just begun, the beginning of what is called the ‘canopy’ taking shape at the east end of the park/shopping mall/public transit nightmare complex. I’ve been casually following the progress of the réaménagement at Les Halles since the close of the competition over its new design in 2008, strolling by from time to time, peeking through the construction fences until the city created vantage points where one could soak in the view of stacked steel beams and poured concrete. However, the project’s off-site communication had evaded me.

Finally checking out the official website at ParislesHalles.fr, I came across this (somewhat creepy) fly-through vision of the future, as well as some incredible archives of les halles of yesteryear, including some stunning photographs from Robert Doisneau that were exhibited at Les Halles this past summer. The latter video focuses on the problems posed by having Paris’s main food market in the center of the city, and on the terrible working conditions that existed there. The kind of dialogue between the 3D motion architectural rendering (populated by “ghost” people) of the future site and these images and voices from the past brings up a set of discursive issues around the space, form, and urban politics. Does pre-1960’s Les Halles have anything to do with the current project, Les Halles’ 3rd incarnation, and its vision for the future of Paris’s center? Or does its phantasmagoric revival in these images, serve to erase the Les Halles of the recent past (i.e. from the late 60s until a few years ago), its aesthetics, social dynamics, and concreteness?

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Image courtesy of: Atelier Robert Doisneau

The 3D motion video presenting the new Les Halles gives one the feeling of weightlessness, transparency, light – a vision to soothe our memory of that big concrete block they sunk into the ground after destroying the original Les Halles, the stomach of Paris, both romanticized and stigmatized in the “Destiny of Les Halles” video. It allows us to project ourselves at once into the space as the city suggests we will experience it, with other avatars roaming around the halls and open spaces of the new Les Halles, and at the same time gives us impossible vantage points. Another interesting aspect of the video is its focus on the cultural spaces planned for the “Canopy,” one of which will be a hip-hop dance center, a practice that ran deep at Les Halles before the renovation, though official communication doesn’t acknowledge that this informal activity existed.

Rather than stigmatizing the place torn away from people who loved it, in proposing a new vision for Les Halles in a disembodied rendering, practice is presented as coming out of thin air, like the viewer of this video’s perspective and the avatars who populate the rendering. Discursively tying this to romantic images of the past and témoinage of the problem of Les Halles lets us know that perhaps these renderings are less about the architecture itself, and more about prescribing practice (and convincing the city that their architecture will put those practices into motion, and inhibit others).

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