World News

Rumbles from the Belly of Paris

Marci McDonald November 13 1978
World News

Rumbles from the Belly of Paris

Marci McDonald November 13 1978

Rumbles from the Belly of Paris

France

As the tour bus lumbered away from the gigantic jumble of pipes, girders and glass that has become Paris’ leading tourist attraction, the Pompidou Centre for the Arts, one shaken elderly visitor timorously inquired last week about a mammoth neighboring excavation. “That, madame,” replied the guide gravely, “is Le Trou.'" At the month’s end, as Paris’ mayor, Jacques Chirac, announced that he was cancelling yet another layout for the gaping, 13.5-acre site, it was clear that grandiose ideas for the replacement of Les Halles, the market which Emile Zola once called the Belly of Paris, were fast becoming a political pain in the neck.

The comedy of errors started in the days of De Gaulle when officialdom threatened to relocate the market which had played host for centuries to the capital’s cooks, grocers, prostitutes and pickpockets—even to that cinematic free spirit, Irma la Douce. The outcry was swift and furious and when the graceful parasol-shaped, wroughtiron pavilions were finally voted victims to progress in 1971, the riot police were called out as the bulldozers moved in. The plan was for a multimilliondollar complex of monoliths, including a trade centre, international convention centre, hotels, subway and underground shopping mall topped by a quarter-acre of parkland to set off the adjacent 16th-century church of St. Eus-

tache, scene of Molière’s baptism. But in the seven years since, dozens of architects have gone down to defeat in Le Trou, while the city’s restaurateurs have never been quite won over to making the long trek out to the new market near Orly airport and the ladies of the night have merely moved over a couple of blocks.

In 1974, shortly after his election, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing stepped in personally. Dreaming perhaps of his own monument a stone’s throw from his predecessor Pompidou’s, he commissioned Spanish architectural Wunderkind Ricardo Bofill to create a visionary mix around a vast garden. But the plan turned out to be less than popular and by last summer only the subway station and a concrete monstrosity housing an underground ventilation system, dubbed “the blockhouse,” had been built. Bofill’s vision had shrunk to a 200-unit public housing project. In August, Giscard surveyed the site and, perhaps concluding that it wasn’t quite the monument he’d had in mind, dumped the responsibility on his old political foe, Chirac.

Now, in cancelling Bofill’s building and putting off further plans until the year’s end, the mayor has ignited yet another round of architectural fireworks. Some critics, who estimate that the hole has already gobbled up $1 billion, have proposed that it simply be filled in. Bofill has hired a lawyer and is threatening to sue. Several years ago in his autobiography, the 39-year-old architect wrote that buildings reflect their period and Les Halles would show “a period of conflict, of confused ideas. A time when small interests take over larger visions.” It was a prophetic description. But the supreme irony is that its author, as he recalled recently, was one of the first to sign a petition saying that the original Les Halles should never be torn down. Marci McDonald

Marci McDonald