Part 2 of Procrastination in the City: Les Halles
The Quartier des Halles, an area near the Louvre, is being completely torn down and rebuilt for the second time in 30 years. For many centuries it housed merchant markets but in the modern era visitors were only attracted by the nearby great museums of the city. Les Halles itself was not very useful or inspiring.
But Paris knew that Les Halles needed not only an “upgrade” but a complete reenvisioning. But it didn’t start off so well, the first plan, completed in 1979 would make most architects cringe. The buildings closed themselves off from the street and existing urban fabric of the neighborhood and the construction was terrible. The buildings quickly fell into disrepair and tourism in that area certainly didn’t blossom.
Now, in 2012, it looks like Paris is getting it right. The gaudy, prototypical 1970s architecture is being replaced by vast gardens, an enormous yellow canopy. And yes, Paris is hedging (pun intended) its bets by trying to reproduce the popularity of Les Jardin de Luxembourg. But good architecture is also about knowing what works and what doesn’t. And even when calling on existing spaces as inspiration, it takes a mayor who is a risk taker. It takes a mayor after my own heart-who believes change and the power of architecture to tear down and start over a project that is not more than 30 years old. I am sure a part Delanoë’s enthusiasm comes from wanting to leave his mark on the city but if a little narcissism can bring some good – I support it.
And we need that narcissism, that fearlessness in San Francisco. We lack the power to evaluate, consider, reconsider, and implement. Sometimes, this can mean starting over (which can be very controversial, especially in an opinionated town like San Francisco).
The French get a bad rap and sometimes, understandably so. We can be prideful, impatient and stubborn. But we also know how to stretch a euro and maintain aesthetics. The Millau Bridge was built for 1/13th of the price of the Bay Bridge renovation. My brief time in Paris reaffirmed my support of two controversial projects in my town.
The first is Park Merced. It was a 1950s urban site that never utilized its space properly (it didn’t help that its architecture was uninspiring, at best). A brief history of Park Merced can be found here. Park Merced Vision wanted to increase density by redesigning buildings, setting up new public transportation and improving energy features. The project ended up being an enormous struggle. Opposition groups tried claiming it was a historical site and I promise you all that Park Merced is not the best work the 1950s produced.
The French support digging up the courtyards that have been used for almost a thousand years if it’s to improve their city. But San Franciscans can’t let go of a poorly conceived and maintained project barely 60 years old. What has happened to vision here?
The second project is the 8 Washington. The waterfront project provided an elegant, green solution for complex urban and architectural problems and it still took six years to be approved by the planning department.
The Halles, conversely, approved and will be built in less time than 8 Washington took to just be entitled. In the end, it boils down to the fact that the French never sacrifice efficacy for sentimentality.