A combination of an underground mall and a huge subway station, the Forum des Halles sits on land that for centuries was home to the main marketplace of Paris.
The Market Halls
Historically, the area known as Les Halles has been a central gathering place for all Parisians since the 12th century, when it became the main marketplace of Paris. The area was named after the “Halles de Paris”, large market halls that were built here in the 18th to 19th century. Author Émile Zola once called it “the underbelly of Paris”.
As Paris grew and became more and more crowded, the market halls became too small and hundreds of stalls were set up in nearby streets. The marketplace became a logistical problem, causing both pedestrian and auto traffic jams. In the late 1960s, the city decided to move the market to a suburban area known as Rungis, near Orly Airport.
Once the area was vacated, the congestion was relieved, but the site had become a construction project for a new subway station and underground shopping mall. This project dragged on and Parisians were appalled at what was now a big, empty, unsightly hole in the ground. During this time, the area gained the nickname “le trou des Halles” – literally, the hole of the Halles.
The shopping mall finally opened in 1979. Its controversial futuristic design with curved glass facades facing an open square several floors below ground level, was created by the French architects Claude Vasconi – who designed the underground section – and Jean Willerval, who was responsible for the ground level design. The underground shopping mall became known as the “Forum des Halles”.
After several decades, though, the area started to gradually decline; at night the area could feel unsafe and when stores started to leave the mall, the city of Paris decided to take action. In 2004 it organized a competition to renovate the area. Three years later, a design by French architects Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti was chosen as a model for a complete overhaul of the forum.
The project, known as La Canopée (the canopy) consisted of the creation of a huge translucent awning covering the underground entrances. The 14-meter-high awning was officially opened to the public on April 5, 2016.
Today the shopping mall is officially known as the Westfield Forum des Halles, and is essentially a large shopping mall filled with stores, restaurants, discotheques, movie theaters, a cultural center, and even a 50-meter swimming pool. Below that sits Châtelet-Les Halles, the world’s largest underground subway station.
Jardin Nelson Mandela
Right next to the Forum is a modern park that used to be known as the Jardin Les Halles. It was renamed in honor of the former president of South Africa in December 2013, less than two weeks after Mandela’s death.
Just like the forum, the park sits on land that used to be home to the market halls that were demolished in 1973. The park was created in 1986-1988 by the French architect Louis Arretche. It was built over the underground part of the forum, so there is a lot of concrete, and it integrates a lot of air vents, skylights, and structures giving access to the parking underground. But despite the challenging environment, the park still features over five hundred trees, multiple pergolas, a playground, arcades, and several fountains.