Les Halles Centrales de Paris—the Central Market of Paris—is in 1967 enjoying only an apparent reprieve. In decreeing its removal, the public powers have long since signed its death sentence. But this eight-hundred year old mastodon, despite its advanced age, retains a strange vitality, and does not seem so easy to move around. Its transfer to Rungis, originally anticipated for 1966, has raised many and difficult problems, not all of which have been solved. So it is still with us, at the heart of Parisian life.
Some of these problems and the motivation behind them are not, in essence, absolutely new. The lack of balance created by a central market constantly forced to expand to meet the needs of an urban population has always been one of the preoccupations of Parisian officials and of the government. Legend has it that one day in the summer of 1810 Napoleon I pensively contemplated the spectacle of the reconstruction of the Halle au Ble, destroyed by fire several years before. At his feet lay “a confusion of hybrid structures, crowded together every which way, shapeless masses of straggling houses, pillared galleries, and ill-planned shelters, separated by narrow lanes, squares, and dead ends on which the produce was displayed wherever it happened to be—in shops, in the open air, or even on the pavement of the streets.” This swarming hive, this maze, this chaos was Les Halles de Paris as they had been abandoned by the Old Regime, which had installed them in that same spot in the remote days of the Capetian kings Louis VI (The Fat) and Philippe Augusta between 1135 and 1180. This spectacle did not find favor with the Emperor. He decided to raze everything and to give the capital of his Empire the kind of market it deserved. The decree which he signed on February 24, 1811 provided for the clearing and preparation of a vast parallelogram covering all the space between rue Saint Denis and the Halle au Ble. The estimates and plans were to be submitted to him by June 1 of the same year, and the work was to be completed by 1814.
But the god of war decided otherwise, and did not grant the leisure to carry out the imperial plan. Paris was to wait almost another half century before it saw arise in the shadow of the Eglise Saint-Eustache the double rectilinear row of ten pavilions of metal and glass conceived and executed by the architect Victor Baltard, winner of the Grand Prix de Rome, boarder at the Villa Medicis under Monsieur Ingres (who “drew” his portrait), and creator of the Eglise Saint-Augustin and the grand staircase of the Hotel de Ville in Paris.
The appearance of this unusual structure, whose cornerstone was laid September 15, 1851, and which was dedicated in 1857 by Emperor Napoleon III. did not fail to provoke diverse and contradictory reactions: dissatisfaction and disapproval from some; admiration and somewhat hysterical enthusiasm from others. “On this site a veritable palace of iron and crystal is rising,” announced the introductory prospectus to the monograph devoted to Les Halles by their builders. Part of the public echoed this note and even improved on it; Zola writes in Le Ventre de Paris, “...There were sudden vistas, unexpected architectural forms, the same horizon continually being presented from different points of view... an illusion of shapes of houses and palaces superimposed on each other, a metallic Babylon of Hindu weightlessness, covered with hanging terraces, aerial passageways suspended over space...”
No doubt it is difficult today for us to share the lyrical ecstasies of one of our most naturalistic novelists. The sight of the hundred-year-old Halles, when we approach them during the hours of their dominical silence and solitude, does not seem particularly stirring. But now that total destruction threatens Les Halles, although no specific or final decision has been made about the aftermath of the transfer or the utilization of the urban space thus cleared, it should be remembered that the achievement of Baltard and his collaborators is one of the first and few remaining examples—not just in France, but in Europe—of the beginning of metal architecture. On this ground alone it is entitled to the preservation demanded for it by its infrequent defenders.
—translated from the French by Helen Weaver