Once described by novelist Emile Zola as the “ventre de Paris” (belly of Paris), Les Halles, situated in a square northeast of the Louvre, was the popular and vibrant market quarter. It was alive during the day with merchants and shoppers and at night with vehicles bringing produce from the French provinces and other Mediterranean countries, night butchers preparing meat for the next day’s business, and inquisitive patrons from nearby restaurants and bars. Originally the market comprised open-air stalls, but between 1853 and 1866 a series of pavilions was built to create a covered market of grand scale. Known as the Halles Centrales and designed by architect Victor Baltard (1805–1874) with Felix-Emmanuel Callet (1791–1854), the project was commissioned by Emperor Napoléon III as part of the mid-nineteenth-century remodeling of Paris planned by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann.
Influenced by his experience of “modern” life in London, Napoléon III was intent upon establishing Paris as an imperial city capable of exploiting new developments in industry, trade, and transport. He aimed to improve housing conditions, remove slums (home to many of the insurgents of the French Revolution of 1789 and nineteenth-century uprisings), establish public parks, and construct grand streets, public buildings, and monuments. The gigantic Halles Centrales was an iron-framed complex that became the prototype for covered market buildings in France and elsewhere, just one of many new structures that emerged during the “Haussmannization” of Paris.
Baltard’s first design was for a classical building with masonry walls. However, the emperor requested that he use iron instead, as a demonstration of France’s industrial prowess. Pressure from a public wanting a spacious, well-lit, and well-ventilated structure forced the architect to adopt a design not unlike the railroad sheds of the 1830s and 1840s. He planned a series of rectangular pavilions laid out in a grid pattern and connected by broad streets, all but one of which was covered. Initially there were six pavilions, but the number was soon extended to ten; a further two were added in 1936. Based on a
19-foot (6-meter) module, they measured either 137 by 197 feet or 197 by 197 feet (42 by 54 meters or 54 by 54 meters). At one end of the long axis there was a rotunda, near to which were the administration and public services. A vast basement housed food stores and such facilities as a butter-mixing room and poultry abattoir, Externally the building frame comprised hollow cast-iron columns, which acted as downpipes for rainwater; they were connected by arched girders. The interior columns, also of iron, supported clerestory walls that rose above the eaves of the pavilions. All was covered with a glazed roof. The infill walls were usually single-skin brick, with stone dressings at the top and bottom; above them were horizontal bands of timber-framed opening windows and fixed louvers.
Between 1962 and 1969, the food markets were moved to Rungis, south of Paris. The Halles Centrales site was earmarked for renewal, and while debate raged over how it would be utilized, its former pavilions were home to exhibitions and other cultural events. In the early 1970s ten of the graceful buildings were demolished; two others were dismantled and reassembled, one in Nogent-sur-Marne, France, and the other in Yokohama, Japan. Les Halles was replaced by the Forum des Halles, an underground métro station with a regional railroad link (1977) and a multistory shopping center (1979). Popular opposition to the demolition of the Halles Centrales led to a wider movement for the conservation of France’s nineteenth-century industrial heritage.