Mixed reviews for Paris' Canopee

New structure where Les Halles once stood looks like a giant curving umbrella

PARIS • Paris has never quite gotten over the destruction of Les Halles.

In a morbid spasm of 1970s urban renewal, the soaring 19th-century, Liberty-style, glass-and-steel food market - once the pulsating heart of the city - gave way to a claustrophobic underground mall and flimsy street-level pavilions.

The city's planners were never forgiven for a mistake that almost instantly took its place in the pantheon of the great architectural blunders, smack alongside the destruction of New York's old Penn Station.

Since then, Paris' every attempt to heal the undisguisable wound seemed only to call further attention to the original sin.

Now comes the latest salve - what is called La Canopee - a gigantic curving metallic umbrella rising 22m over what was once the essence of not only Paris' heart, but also its soul and belly. It, too, has already provoked laments over what is no longer there.

But maybe - just maybe, after more than four decades of trying and failing dismally - La Canopee can provide something else at central Paris' most-abused site.

Weeks after the anxious official unveiling - "we had to fix this broken place," Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris said - and five years after construction began, the appraisal of sceptical Parisians, it seems, is like the face the city presents to the world: reserved and critical, but not unwelcoming.

"Hmm, not bad," mused Mr Francois Jouslin de Noray, who was strolling with his wife, a retired couple enjoying a recent sunny, if damp, afternoon. "I don't like the colour. What's interesting is that it is partly open. Not totally, though. Yet, the colour...

"But the form, I like it," he concluded.

As much as anything, the gazers seemed stunned by the structure's grandiose scale at a time of diminishing public budgets - 6,350 tonnes of steel and 18,000 sheets of glass, at €238 million (S$364 million) for the structure and US$450,000 (S$605,000) a year for maintenance.

At 75,000 sq ft, it is the size of the historic Place des Vosges in the nearby Marais.

Yet that ambition was a measure of "all the massacres" that have taken place at the site, as ex-mayor Bertrand Delanoe, under whom the project was conceived, put it.

The first was in August 1971, when former French president Georges Pompidou took advantage of Parisians' summer break to begin demolishing the halls by famed architect Victor Baltard on the site of what had been the city's storied market for eight centuries.

"It is impossible to console oneself over the stupid death of this site," wrote the historian Eric Hazan in his book, The Invention Of Paris. Relief that nothing worse had now been inflicted predominated on a recent afternoon.

"It doesn't displease me. More interesting than what was there before," said Mr Serge Aubignat, a retired banker, peering at La Canopee from an observation deck. "In any case, we are going to make do with it."

Thousands already were. An immense rainbow-hued crowd, the tributary of multiple suburban train lines converging in the underground transit centre-cum-mall beneath La Canopee, poured under it on a recent afternoon.

The multi-ethnic crowd appeared unoppressed by a structure already panned in the European and French press, suspicious of any venture with commercial overtones.

Indeed, the glass-fronted facing wings of La Canopee house a number of new high-end restaurants - chef Alain Ducasse has been mentioned - and the stores Nike, Lego and Sephora.

The municipality is throwing in a music conservatory, a hip-hop centre, a library, rehearsal spaces and other public facilities to mitigate doubts about La Canopee's commercial vocation.

Yet in a city where architectural beauty and uniformity have rendered a catalogue of doubtful or disgraceful modern additions - the intrusive Tour Montparnasse skyscraper, the formless Bastille opera house or the frigid La Defense business district - the gently swerving La Canopee appeared at least to be finding muted favour.

Even if there were snickers for the official description - "like an immense leaf undulating at the level of the tree tops, a fluid, light and translucid envelope" - approval outweighed disapproval, at least among its inexpert visitors.

"It isn't ugly," said Mr Alain Urbain, who was there to have a look with his wife, Caroline. "The curves are agreeable. And it isn't too aggressive."

Sunlight sets off the mysterious off-yellow colour to the best advantage. But when the clouds hide the sun, the structure looks touched by Paris pollution. The colour, not the form, is the most contentious aspect.

"It's not frank, this colour," said one visitor, Mrs Andree Gasco. "Pi**-like," said her husband, Bernard, a retired lawyer.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 01, 2016, with the headline 'Mixed reviews for Paris' Canopee'. Print Edition | Subscribe