Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city is erecting a grandiose glass canopy over one of its most contested sites as part of a new culture and shopping complex.
Paris’s greatest new monument is a roof. Not just any old roof mind you—this spectacular new structure will undulate across 2.5 acres of the city, with 16,000 scale-like glass panels suspended from 15 steel ribs that Paris City Hall itself describes as “giant Meccano”. Already referred to simply as “the Canopy,” the roof is currently being bolted together on site in the Les Halles neighborhood. Due for public opening next year as part of a new cultural and shopping complex, the Canopy will do more than give shoppers something new to gawk at and shelter under. It could help correct what some see as the worst planning decision Paris ever made.
That’s because the Canopy, designed by architects Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti, stands on some of the most contested ground in the city.* Until the 1960s, the site was home to a huge Victorian wholesale market. Although the market was much loved initially, it eventually came to be seen as a traffic and rubbish menace that was too close to the city’s heart. When the market was shipped out to the suburbs, Paris faced a dilemma: Should it remodel the site for a new purpose or demolish it entirely and start afresh? The city went with the latter option.
To be clear, some important projects did arise from this decision. The city excavated a huge hole on the market site and built the world’s largest underground transit hub, Châtelet–Les Halles station, a sort of rail Spaghetti Junction that tangled together metro lines with commuter routes to the far suburbs. Paris also constructed road tunnels that allowed the area to be pedestrianized and built the nearby Pompidou Center art museum and library.
Demolishing the beautiful steel and glass pavilions of the old market was still a huge loss. In its place, Paris built the Forum Des Halles, a partially subterranean modern mall that had a striking look—it resembled a cascade of glass houses—but never quite gained the public’s affection. In rainy weather, its sunken courtyard could look so forlorn you want to give it a hug.
Beyond the aesthetics of the place, the new transit hub made the area a primary inner city arrival point for suburbanites and, consequently, the mall developed a reputation among some Parisians as an outpost for the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. There’s an ugly snobbery at work here, of course, but it is hard to defend a shopping complex that ended up so shabby, banal, and unloved. When compared to the huge success that London achieved in renovating rather than replacing its old central market at Covent Garden, Paris’s choice looks like a major blunder.
The new revamp could (literally) put a lid on this mistake, and hopefully restore the area’s prestige among inner Parisians. While the old mall’s subterranean units will remain, the courtyard and surface buildings will be replaced and covered with the Canopy. Rather than forming a rigid barrier, the roof’s ribs will have small spaces between each other through which sunlight can penetrate diagonally.
To give the area a high cultural gloss, the new complex will have a library, a music and dance conservatory, and a center for amateur arts practitioners, as well as 2,800 square feet of stores. Pedestrians will get improved access to the transit hub, while a small park, the Jardin Nelson Mandela, has already been revamped next to the complex (and looks rather lovely).
To Paris’s credit, they’re not trying to rid the area of the young crowd that have long hung out around the mall. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the revamp is a 4,600 square foot “hip hop cultural center,” the first of its kind in the world. Tapping into France’s vibrant hip hop scene (bigger than any other in Europe), the open access center will feature a performance space, a dance floor, recording and practice facilities, street art studios, and a bar. City Hall’s mission statement for the place might sound a little stiff—it’s partly designed “to allow the spontaneous and simultaneous practice of dance and music on the model of block party”—but the spirit of inclusion is heartening. While so many urban renewal plans seem to be about using the monied to push the less wealthy and the young away, the Les Halles revamp seems to be at least trying to weave them together. Let’s hope it works.
*This post has been updated to add more information about the design of the Canopy.