A custard-coloured flop: the €1bn revamp of Les Halles in Paris

A custard-coloured flop: the €1bn revamp of les halles in paris
© Frederic Stevens/Getty Images

Once ‘the hole of Les Halles’, the Parisian shopping mall has been waiting for a facelift for decades but Patrick Berger’s 7,000 tonne umbrella of steel and glass feels insipid, institutional and overwrought

Vast umbrellas and nothing more,” was what the Emperor Napoleon III demanded for his new market building in the centre of Paris in the 1850s, made of “iron, iron, nothing but iron!”

The resulting wrought-iron and glass pavilions of Les Halles, designed by the city architect Victor Baltard, were tragically bulldozed in the 1970s and replaced with a grim underground shopping centre topped with mirror-glassed lumps, in one of the worst acts of urban vandalism of the century. Nicknamed “the hole of Les Halles”, with a park that became a magnet for drug dealing, the place has been a national embarrassment ever since.

But that hated complex has now been consigned to the wrecking ball, supplanted with a new steel and glass canopy that aims to recall some of the spirit of Baltard’s original market – in the form of one of the biggest umbrellas of all time.

Unveiled this week, the €1bn redevelopment is the largest infrastructure project that Paris has undertaken in decades, aiming to fix the messy tangle where Europe’s biggest underground station disgorges 750,000 passengers a day into a labyrinthine warren of shops. The redevelopment does a good deal to improve access in and out of the subterranean mall, but the centrepiece above ground is a gargantuan new roof known simply as “the Canopy”, stretching across 2.5 hectares in an undulating framework of custard-coloured steel ribs.

This 7,000 tonne umbrella, which supports heaving ranks of 18,000 glass shingles, covers a new shopping concourse, where a Lego flagship store shouts across the gaping plaza at a Sephora beauty emporium and a series of sunken terraces step down to meet the existing mall below. It is a bold and brassy arrival to the 1st arrondissement, flopping about like a big straw hat as its brim ripples around the perimeter of the site, rising and falling in an amorphous bulge. […]