Le Mall as Marché

Handily Wins 'Do the Right Thing' Prize

marcheview.jpg (15k)
A view from the Marché St Germain
Paris:- Thursday, 30. May 1996:- I am still in short sleeves and it is almost as sunny as it was Tuesday, when I did the 'sweet and sour' comparison between a 'live' Paris street and a major ill-conceived central Paris space, now a mall. A low-key plan was in the hopper for today, and the following is in addition to it - and adds an unexpected continuation to Tuesday's features about the rue Montorgueil and Le Forum des Halles.

The reason for being, for Paris, has always been its location, with its islands in the Seine that permitted a fairly easy crossing, and later, the building of bridges. With the bridges, Paris became a focal point for north-south traffic - and was reason enough for the Romans to control it for a time.

Despite what you may have heard about the Middle Ages being 'dark,' there was a significant amount of travelling: the crusaders going back and forth, people moving around to take part in various wars and the movement of traders, which never ceased. Trade fairs are not some phenomena of the 20th century - vast ones took place at Lyons and traders travelled from all parts of Europe to do business at them.

The Saint-Germain Fair, on Paris' Left Bank, north of the St. Suplice church, dates to the 12th century. Ten years before Columbus set sail for the Americas, Louis XI accorded the rights to the fair to the St. Germain religious community. By 1511 a permanent fair had been constructed, housing more than 400 merchants. It burnt down in 1762 and was revived in 1811 by Napoléon and rebuilt in an Italian renaissance style, with roofed double-columns built around an open square. Under Napoléon III a part of the square was roofed to shield merchants and merchandise from foul weather, as the annual period of the fair was February and March. Over the years this marché and fair was divided, renovated, pieces of it were moved, amputated - until finally the possibility arrived in the 1960's to totally reconstruct it somewhat according to the plan of the original architect, Jean-Baptiste Blondel.

The Marché St. Germain is a local affair. As such it has to correspond to the needs of Paris' sixth arrondissement and therefore houses, besides the marché itself with space for 20 merchants; municipal services: a public swimming pool and a gymnasium, a music and dance school, a small 355-seat theatre, a creche, a day-care centre, 12 studios for handicapped persons, 411 public parking spaces, and under the same and unique roof, 25 boutiques, one of which is an Irish pub.

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The arches let in moveable light while providing shelter from rain; as you walk along past the columns they provide snapshot images of changing angles of the shop and restaurant fronts opposite - it is simple and effective and it is an old idea that works today.
columns.jpg (9k) Inside, the curving corridors of the boutique section are wide and uncluttered; the boutiques themselves have windows facing the outside arches, so light penetrates into the interior.

No big hoopla announced the reopening of the St. Germain Marché in November of last year; the underground parking had been open and in use for years while the rest was still under construction. I had no idea it had been finished - it had been a construction site for longer than I can remember - and I have only arrived here today, in response to an announcement of a modest multimedia exposition - leading up the choices for the French selection of the best multimedia productions, to be awarded at the 5th annual International Prix Möbius - to take place from 24 to 26 September, in Paris.

The Left Bank, in Paris' 5th, 6th and 7th arrondissements, with the preponderance of schools and faculties and its large Luxembourg Gardens, is generally quieter and less rackety than the arrondissements with their grands boulevards and large train stations, on the north side of the Seine. Outside of the really monumental buildings and structures, there are few large buildings on either side of the Seine that have a uniform facade of the size of the new/old marché/fair. The longest sides are 92 metres long and the short, just over 70.

Not being in the category of official grand monument, it took 20 years of work to finish - and the surprising thing is, with all the interests that it serves, it looks like one building of a unified purpose. With the revenues from the boutiques and the public parking paying for the whole, there is no reason to suppose that this building should be knocked down anytime within several lifetimes to come.

If you are thinking of building a mall, I suggest you first pay a visit to the Marché St. Germain, in the Quartier Latin, in Paris. That is, if you intend to put your name on a building that will be around a long time after you've finished using yours.


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