This continues our "Modern Architecture We Like" entry of a few days ago. I noticed in today's New York Times that a final design has been chosen for the Les Halles project. The final design is, like anything picked by a committee, truly horrid, but one of the four finalists was very interesting. But first, some history of Les Halle and then the interesting modern architecture design.
In 1135. King Louis VI, also known as "Louis the Fat" (who knew they had made guys back then?) moved the markets of Paris on the Place de Greve, near city hall, to Les Halles. The area was known as the "belly of Paris" because it sold foodstuffs — meat and vegetables, both wholesale and retail — and also had numerous restaurants serving the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. But it also had a variety of non-food merchants, including those selling textiles and shoes. In the 1850s huge iron halls were constructed, and Les Halles became famous for these.
The markets remained in the same location for over eight hundred and fifty years until 1969, when the French government decided it was time for some urban renewal, and just up and razed most of it. (Some Parisians regard this as a sacrilege as being as bad as the destruction of Penn Station. Uh, yeah, sure.) The markets were relocated to Rungis, in the outskirts south of Paris, to eliminate complaints about traffic in the city proper caused by delivery trucks.
The goal of the then mayor of Paris, one Jacque Chirac (yes, that Chirac) was to create Europe's largest shopping mall and an underground rail hub. He envisioned a bustling tourist attraction as his legacy, but it didn't work out as planned. Not even close. His new approach created an above-ground area for the shopping mall and a below-ground area for the bazaars of old. Today, the underground area is overrun with vagrants, drug dealers, muggers, and violent criminals. (Let's just say that most Parisians aren't thrilled about it.) Even the above-ground portion is not a place Parisians happily venture after dark. Most of the 800,000 commuters who pass through the rail hub don't linger.
The famed Centre Pompidou was built on part of the land, and finished in 1978. It has been described as an "oil refinery" since it is in inverted building; the insides, including support girders, are all on the outside and are color coded: electricity conduits are yellow, water pipes are green, air-conditioning ducts are blue, escalators are red, ventilation shafts are white. See for yourself, in the original French or in badly translated English. (Four years of studying French and I've forgotten so much that I need to use the translation to jog my memory of the idioms. And to think that I once could read Le Monde and technical documents en Francais. Sigh.)
Now the French government wants to revitalize the area — leaving 17 acres of prime real estate fallow is a waste of taxable land — by building a new Les Halles And so, in the grand tradition, they solicited designs likely knowing full well whom would win.
One of four finalist designers was Rem Koolhaas, who created, among other projects, a very interesting store for Prada in Manhattan and an attractive, but utterly nonfunctional, library for Portland. (When I was doing system architecture in another life, I always told people that the architect's job was to find the most harmonious mean between the materials available and the required functions to be performed such that the solution had as much elegance, beauty, and quality as possible. Too bad more architects don't put the client before showboating or winning awards for "innovation"; if they did, we'd have more usable, attractive buildings.)
Anyway, Koolhaas envisoned a totally new look based on brightly colored glass towers 120 feet high, bringing light into a new, underground mall. Supporters call the towers "perfume bottles"; detractors deride them as "popsicles". Personally, I like them, and find the design airy, inviting, interesting, innovative, and attractive. Needless to say, the French didn't ask me, and Koolhaas didn't win. Some awful design did. I don't like this design. At all. More modern architecture crap. Bleh.
The problem is that Koolhaas's Website at Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) uses Flash so it is impossible to link into. (And impossible to use effectively, but that's a topic for a rant on why I hate Flash.) If you want to hunt for images and a description there, feel free.