Crowded with people, chock-a-block with attractions and crammed with tempting activities day and night, the ‘premiere arrondissement de Paris’ is unquestionably the city’s hot spot and fashionable area.
Being the geographical centre of Paris and a major transport hub through which most metro and RER lines are routed, it is essentially a place that brims with numerous iconic and historic landmarks and with quite a few of the world’s most visited tourist sites. The Louvre, which is perhaps the most elegant and artistic museum of fine arts in the world lies within the first district. The Royal Palace located opposite the north wing of the Louvre and embellished with landscaped gardens, colonnaded archways and wonderful architecture is a major attraction for history buffs.
Contrasting strongly with all this Parisian ethos and refinement stands a thirty-year old underground shopping centre that is distinctly different from other building structures within the first district. Known as the Forum des Halles, it is a massive and colourful shopping mall filled with trendy fashion stores, food markets, restaurants, cafes and entertainment spaces.
All this seems familiar. However, one has to consider as well the distinctive and controversial outside architecture of Les Halles to determine whether this project was a success and an enrichment or a failure and a calamity to the city centre. Initiated in 1971 when the former old marketplace was demolished and completed in 1986 when it was opened with great fanfare, it has been in the mouth of Parisians ever since.
One elegant ‘Parisienne’ referred to this project as a stopgap, a filling-up structure intended to hide the big hole that remained when the traditional central market was demolished. Another Parisian lady informed me that some shops have closed up while others intend to close in the future. "Go inside" she said, "and check for yourself. La plupart des magasins sont vacants ou fermes, n’est-ce pas?" But why? Paris is not an underground city and Parisians prefer to buy from small specialized street-level shops rather than from characterless department stores. The adjacent Rue Saint Honore filled with luxury boutiques that sell cutting-edge fashion brands of international renown is a case in point.
A senior citizen whom I met in the below-street-level open-air central area reading Le Monde was less critical of the project. He said that rightly so, the shopping mall was intended to hide the metro traffic further down. With a sigh of relief, he added that within the whole city of Paris, there’s no better place to relax and enjoy the summer shade than on a seat within one of the three recreational areas of Les Halles.
I have visited the majestic Forum des Halles several times since its opening in 1986. The number of elegant shops, chic boutiques and first-class traditional restaurants that formerly embellished the shopping mall are gradually becoming less and far between; in most cases, they are being taken over by fast-food outlets. High quality design clothing stores and charming bourgeois cafes that were frequented by locals and tourists alike are giving way to poor quality clothing outlets and gastronomic tourist traps.
However, throughout all these years of commercial activity, one thing has remained intact. It is the avant-garde architectural design that stands as a breathtaking evidence of the artistic skill of Jean Willerval who was responsible for the plan and implementation of the ground level structure. Love it or hate it, praise it or criticize it, Jean Willerval’s design stands out for its uniqueness and originality. Consisting mostly of rows of orderly web-like concrete curvatures that twist and straighten again to form huge archways that are pleasing to the eye and architecturally unique, the structure is more aesthetically artistic than functional. The recreational outdoor spaces thrown in to complement the whole structure are dotted here and there with modern artistic sculptures that add to the exquisite design of the area.
Architecturally unique and pleasing as it is, Les Halles has not succeeded in fulfilling the delicate character of the people of Paris. Some have called it a steel-and-glass mushroom, others referred to it as a bombastic jungle of concrete while others used the traditional nickname of ‘le ventre de Paris’, the latter being a reference to Emile Zola’s novel with the same name set within the walls of the old marketplace in the 19th century.
The days of Les Halles as we know it are counted since a new architectural design intended to renew the area is in the pipeline. It is said that a huge glass canopy will protect the new recreational outdoor areas in view of making them usable day and night both in summer and winter. One has to wait quite a few years to see how this major renewal project will proceed and affect the architecture and functionality of the area. Parisians will undoubtedly comment on the outcome.
Even if Les Halles is not your Paris favourite or you regard its architecture as nothing more than a tangle or maze of jumbled concrete pillars, the area in its close vicinity and within walking distance incorporates several redeeming factors that offer visitors a blend of historic and modern works of art.
One structure that will unquestionably satisfy your crave for anything historical is L’Eglise Saint Eustache, a masterpiece of late Gothic architecture. Located a stone’s throw from Les Halles and detached from its ground level by a small landscaped garden, it is a magnificent edifice whose lacy exterior architecture complements the detailed conglomeration of its interior Renaissance decorations. Parisians are proud of their historical heritage and they consider L’Eglise Saint Eustache as a monumental edifice few other churches in the world can surpass with regards to architectural magnificence. However, it is rarely advertised in tourist brochures although it encloses in a nutshell a diverse range of rich architectural styles and historical artefacts. In addition to this, consider visiting the church on a Sunday evening when you can enjoy a free organ recital of church music played on the largest and most elaborate church organ in France. I found a graffiti written in French on a garden wall near the church on Place Rene Cassin. It read like this:
"Plus d’une eglise, ce monument historique est un palais de fees."
Also within walking distance of Les Halles but on the opposite side of Boulevard de Sebastopol lies the answer to Madrid’s Reina Sofia, the most exquisite museum of contemporary art in Spain.
Named after the ex-prime minister and later president of France Georges Pompidou, it stands for all that is modern and radical in Paris and symbolizes change, creativity and innovation. Georges Pompidou, long gone, is immortalized through this ‘grand project’ of modernism and originality.
On looking at the huge front elevation of the structure from Place Georges Pompidou, one gets mixed feelings about its queer and peculiar architecture. Is it strikingly beautiful? Is it pleasing and fine-looking? Or is it ugly and dreadful? On looking carefully however, one concludes that the exterior architectural style of Centre Pompidou with inside recesses turned outside is not only surprisingly queer but also practical. The rows of protruding trumpet-like circular windows are charming and eye-pleasing.
But one has to go inside to appreciate fully the wonder that surrounds this spectacular museum. Enormous exhibition spaces on the fourth and fifth floors are devoted to modern art, including works by members of the Surrealist and Cubist movements. A wide range of contemporary artworks by French and foreign artists are also on display here. From time to time, Centre Pompidou also houses temporary exhibitions in two large open spaces on the sixth floor. In addition to this, musical performances and drama are put on stage on a regular basis in the centre’s theatre while films of calibre are shown a few times daily in the adjoining cinema. Also forming part of the complex is the Bibliotheque Publique d’Information, a huge library and information centre that occupies the second and third floors of the complex.
Even if modern art is not your preferred realm of the artistic world, make sure to visit this stunning place at least once. There is here much more than bright colours, intersecting planes, brush strokes and still lifes.