Cities

Paris hurt to the core

Marci McDonald November 19 1979
Cities

Paris hurt to the core

Marci McDonald November 19 1979

Paris hurt to the core

Cities

Marci McDonald

Beneath the voluminous canary-yellow big top where the semi-annual circus known as Paris ready-to-wear collections unfolded, the message was resoundingly brief. Amid the staccato glare of flashbulbs, the star of the 1980 summer fashion season was unveiled, only to reveal itself as that brand-new old favorite, the miniskirt. From Karl Lagerfeld’s thigh-dusting ruffles, which were so minimal they resembled ballet tutus, to Yves Saint Laurent’s micro hem lengths which bobbed coyly under chiffon overskirts, the designers were so intent on resurrecting the ample thigh that one commentator accused them all of being afflicted with a raging epidemic of déjà vu. “Once again the creators of tomorrow are falling back on yesterday,” she railed, kicking off a controversy that wasn’t itself novel.

But for those more interested in skylines than hemlines, the irony was contained in the backdrop against which the mini was revived. The three massive semi-permanent tents which hosted the

recent prèt-ù^porter shows are the latest accessories to Paris’ freshly opened Forum des Halles, a tri-level underground shopping complex that is the first phase in a multimillion-dollar development designed to fill in the 13.5acre gaping embarrassment of an excavation that has sat for eight years on the city’s prime real estate, sodden with

water and pumped full of political hot air. Like the season’s fashion hit, however, the forum is a mini-version of what was once foreseen as an architectural milestone—an abbreviated vision of what planners at one time hailed as

equal to Oscar Niemeyer’s concept for Brasilia. Like the mini too, it now turns out to resemble nothing so much as a gussied-up variation on another old chestnut of the ’60s—the suburban North American shopping centre.

The site has been cloaked in controversy ever since Charles de Gaulle’s government decided that Les Halles, the sprawling wholesale food and flower markets that Emile Zola once described as the “belly of Paris,” ought to be relocated at arm’s length from the core. In 1971, after a 10-hour debate which raged till 2 a.m., the city fathers assigned a bulldozer crew to raze the graceful cast-iron and glass parasols built by Victor Baltard in 1854, which had sheltered not only generations of fishmongers and mutton sellers, but pickpockets, prostitutes and bon vivants who mingled there amiably over lusty bowls of onion soup just before dawn.

Some citizens, already wary of the monstrous skyscrapers rising on the Paris horizon, never forgave the authorities for inflicting another scar on the city’s heart. They took their bitter satisfaction from the fact that, in the subsequent hiring and firing of hundreds of architects, the signing and cancelling of dozens of contracts and the laying of foundations that promptly had to be dug up, the only constant in the controversy was the unwieldy billion-dollar hole which attracted rats and, eventually, tourists who came to chuckle over it. Five years ago, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing personally stepped in to announce a monumental mix of international trade centres, hotels, low-cost housing and acres of manicured formal French gardens.

But the garden inspired unkind allusions to Louis XIV and a “mini-Versailles,” while his choice of Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill proved no less contentious. It wasn’t helped by Bofill himself, a 40-year-old enfant terrible from Barcelona, who took to telling interviewers that he was the world’s best architect, although he did admit to being “still less good than Michelangelo.” Last year, the president dumped responsibility for the hole in the lap of his political rival, the Paris mayor, Jacques Chirac, who promptly fired Bofill, threw out two-thirds of the project and—with a dig at the presidential gardening plans—extolled the virtues of a paved popular park which smelled not of blossoms but french-fries.

Now, in the two months since Chirac snipped the ribbon unwrapping the forum, he has been basking in the credit for its popularity, as 35,000 visitors a day turn it into Paris’ new No. 1 tourist attraction, outdrawing both the Eiffel Tower and the nearby Pompidou Centre for the Arts. In fact, the three-level

underground concourse is one of the few elements left of the original scheme. Noting that the shopping centre as such had never really caught on in France, architects Claude Vasconi and Georges Pencreac’h looked to developments such as Montreal’s Place Ville Marie—which they term “a city within a city”—to inspire their design for three descending square corridors of boutiques, lined with ribbed glass arches which let in daylight from a sunken open-air quadrangle, now dubbed “the crater.”

Sitting on a major subway and railway terminal, and studded with 10

movie theatres, a scattering of restaurants, a photo gallery, an auditorium and desultory attempts at installing artists’ showcases, the forum makes efforts to play the populist haven that planners once envisaged. But its critics dismiss it as nothing more than a claustrophobic consumer maze. Last month public health teams swarmed through the elegant glass corridors with highoctane insect spray to exterminate an invasion of mosquitoes from the adjacent stagnant construction hole.

The worst rebukes, in fact, are reserved for Chirac’s schemes to fill the

remaining site. His new Definitive Plan —the third design for Les Halles to be labelled final—so outraged France’s Syndicat des Architectes that they announced an international competition to redesign it, with a $13,000 prize to be awarded early next year.

“It’s a last chance for the centre of Paris,” says syndicate President Jean Nouvel, who terms Chirac’s concept “patchwork, absolutely without distinction, a mediocrity.” But the mayor calmly reports that they may dabble in whatever contests they please, he will go ahead with his plans, scheduled for completion in 1983—not uncoincidentally, the year of the next municipal elections. For the neighborhood citizens who once envisioned a grassy park on their doorstep, Chirac’s concrete junglescape, which will have to rise three storeys above street level in some places to accommodate the underlying mercantile warrens is “an obstacle course full of walls and holes,” as their association spokesman Daniel Barrère puts it. He points out that it is not insignificant that the French fashion industry has already installed itself on the site.

In the muddled race to replace Les Halles, commercial interests have clearly triumphed over the dream of creating an innovative space. The throbbing tapestry of the old low-income quarter is gradually being forced out by sleek broadloomed shops renting for $5,000 a square yard. And where once onion soup and fresh Brie were served, now it is the mass-produced chic of Pierre Cardin and Ted Lapidus. As one newspaper lamented, the belly of Paris has now become its small-change purse. &lt£?