Le Mall - this is Paris Life?

In the Pit of Le Forum des Halles

Paris:- Tuesday, 28. May 1996:- The Forum des Halles is only a few blocks from the rue Montorgueil, measured in metres, but it is centuries away in time. But today I have this beautiful sunshine, and I am here expressly to make a comparison.

I recently read that only the corporate city of Paris has the clout to put a large project like this together, and the finance necessary to carry it out. I have been in a city planning department and I know this statement is true, but I also know that despite the city's power and finance, a thing like the Forum project is a committee job and we all know that committees have lots of time.

When I arrived in 1976, Les Halles as Paris' central food marché with its Baltard pavilions was just a memory; leaving a hole in the ground measuring 35 hectares and that is the way it stayed for years and years. At the time I had other things to do and I did not pay any particular attention to what was intended for this location - I remember the newspaper The Paris Metro having articles about it from time to time - what to do with the 'hole?' - it was a bit like having had one of your front uppers pulled and then having the dental technicians away on holiday in the Canaries for a couple of years.

Sometime in the '80s, Les Halles was finished and opened with much fanfare. All of Paris flocked to see it. What they saw was - lots of open sky. You can see this along the Seine and in the Tuleries, between the Louvre and Concorde. Open sky on the right bank is rare but no novelty.

forumglass.jpg (17k) The 'hole,' as it had come to be known, was not filled with a cellar with something on top. No, the cellar was it. The hole was - I should say, is - filled with glass and metal, sort of tumbled, three-story cascade, down to a concrete square. Les Halles, once a vibrant food marché, once at ground level, located in elegant iron pavilions, has been replaced by a 'forum' which is a pit in the ground. This is obviously the work of a committee originally selected to do the parking lot job at the airport at Roissy - which is above ground, above the terminal itself - and this committee must have been so disoriented by the switch in projects, that they got Les Halles wrong.
I will admit right now that, while I admire many of Paris' 'passages' - the forerunners of malls - I dislike malls in general, and Le Forum des Halles is the worst one I have ever been in or seen. Today's is my third visit since it opened, and the first one I've made on purpose.
forumhalles.jpg (19k) Okay, I may as well admit that it is not as bad as I remember it, but I'm pretty sure the amount of sunlight getting dumped into the pit today is contributing something to it. From somewhere like the third level down, at the floor of the open square, you can either look at four walls of glass and metal or look at the sky. Today it is blue, but not always. I think the long white staircase going up from the square, is an addition; put in afterwards, to let people have the feeling they can actually walk out of the glass-sided hole they're in - because if it wasn't there the only way back to real life is into the - usually - dim mall and a long boring ride up a lot of escalators in semi-darkness.
At any rate, if you reverse the process, you come in this way - down the escalators, and the reward at the bottom is the sunlit square - if the sun is shining. If not, well... you are simply in a pit - and I have heard, even miners don't care for them.

Behind the glass and a bit of decorative jungle, there are shops. These are, I imagine - because I have no inclination to actually do an inside tour - the usual boutiques of the usual chains that one finds in malls from Halifax to Durban. I really doubt if there are any odd-ball artisans, or anything really, like what might be found in one of the passages - or - to put it in another way, when you've been in one mall you've been in them all; and I don't expect a flood of readers to write to tell me there is something really worth looking at that I've missed - ignored - here.

Nevertheless, I could be wrong. It seems less gloomy than on other visits and I understand the rents are very high - but this could possibly be due to being on the crossroads of major métro lines, the east-west north south RER lines, and at one end of the Halles-Beaubourg complex.

Above ground, the city has cultural attractions - the Pavilion des Arts - and the western end of the original hole is now a small park with benches for sitting and trees for shade. I think there is a large swimming pool under this park someplace.

The whole effect on the surface is like being in a sort of urban canyon. Buildings of the usual size surround the whole Forum des Halles area, with, on the west, the most unique being the Bourse de Commerce and the gothic St. Eustache church, supposedly one of Paris' most beautiful.

Typical though gaudy Halles-type restaurants are also on the north-west and south sides, on the rue Coquilère and the rue Berger, but just a few steps south towards rue Rivoli brings you to Paris again; real streets with real bars, cafés and restaurants, and even real shops.

The eastern side - with the rues Léscot, Berger, St. Denis and Rambuteau - is a largely pedestrian-only area and draws huge crowds to a wide variety of bars, restaurants, cafés, take-away joints and shops for all tastes including the tasteless. It is an area that vaguely reminds me of downtown Torremolinos. The few places here that haven't changed much, that remain un-tacky, are probably a bit nervous about their neighbors and the general cliental they draw. Personally, if I want gaudy, I prefer the Left Bank, which is closer to here than the Marais. But this has nothing to do with malls; this is a 'free' paragraph from another feature, yet to be written.

I guess the best thing I have to say about the Forum des Halles is that it is fairly easy to miss - and if you do so, I do not think you will regret it for the rest of your life.


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