Paris has at last its "big hole." The hole -- "le trou des Halles" -- had been there ever since the wreckers tore down the last of the iron pavilions that once housed the city's famous food and vegetable market. To ease traffic congestion in the heart of Paris the market was transferred a decade ago to Rungis, on the city's outskirts.
A firece debate swirled over what to do with the vacant site. Plans were drawn up, rejected, and redrafted.
In the end the hole was filled in a matter of months, and Parisians suddenly became aware that something new and exciting had arrived in their midst.
Architects Claude Vasconi and Georges Pencreac'h didn't fill in the hole and build up. Instead they built down, putting an inverted pyramid inside the crater and making it into a futuristic shopping and cultural center. The pyramid consists of four floors below ground surrounding a sunken central square , with a fifth floor at street level.
The glass-and-concrete center was opened with a flourish in September by Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac and formally named LE Forum des Halles. So the old name lives on
Walkways on the upper levels of the inverted pyramid are covered by vaulted glass enclosures, held up by arched metal buttresses coated with white enamel. At the two lowest levels the walkways are underground. But the central square, le Place Basse, at the last level but one, is open to the daylight.
The forum has 200 shops and boutiques, amnu of them with famous names, 15 restaurants ranging from the popular bistro and brasserie to gourmet eateries, and also cinemas, discotheques, and a theater.
At the lowest level it is linked directly to the new express Metro (subway). Regular Metro and bus lines are close at hand, and there will be parking space for 1,650 cars.
Putting up an ultramodern building in a historic city like Paris inevitably involves the risk of an architectural shock. But at the forum only the elegant glass enclosures appear above ground, and these are designed not to block the view of the handsome 17th-century church of St. Eustache, which, now the pavilions of Les halles have gone, holds the dominating position in the quarter.
By building below ground the architects have escaped the kind of controversy that greeted the nearby Pompidou Center of Art and Culture when it burst upon the scene three years ago, with its functional pipes and tubes on the outside of the building for all the world to see. The Pompidou Center, which is the new home of the Museum of Modern Art, among other things, is still disdainfully referred to as "the oil refinery" by critics of its architecture. But despite its starling appearance it has been successful beyond all expectations. Now the forum adds a new, lively focus of attraction to the area.
Considerable work remains to be done on renovating the site of Les Halles as a whole. The $150 million project will include a park running from the forum to the existing Bourse de Commerce, whose rotunda lies at the western end of the site.
A plan to construct an international trade center adjacent to the forum was vetoed by President Giscard d'Estaing shortly after he came to office in 1974. He opted instead for green space between the forum and the Bourse de Commerce.
To the east a pedestrian zone will link the forum with the Pompidou Center, across Boulevard Sebastopol. Already several narrow streets have been closed to cars.
The kind of discovery you make as you stroll through this quarter is the beauty of the 16th- century Fountain of the Innocents, of nymphs of the Seine, decorated in part by the sculptor Jean Goujon and recently restored.
Some of the old buildings in the streets around the forum are badly in need of a face lift, and it is to be hoped they will get one as the renovation project goes forward.
Beyond the Beaubourg sector, where the Pompidou Center lies, is the ancient quarter of Le Marais, location of some elegant "hotels particuliers," once the private mansions of nobility.
One of these, the 17th-century Hotel Sale, is to be the permanent home of the collection of Picasso works that has become the property of the French government, under an agreement reached with the great artist's heirs. (A French law adopted in 1968 provides that inheritance taxes may be paid in works of art deemed to be of national importance.)
Picasso kept many of his works from the hands of the dealers, and of these the new museum will have nearly 400 paintings and sculptures and hundreds of drawings and ceramics.Part of the collection went on display at the Grand Palais in Paris this fall.
The changes taking place in the long-neglected area embracing Les Halles, Beaubourg, and Le Marais call for some vital updating of the guidebooks and tourist schedules.
First came the Pompidou Center. Now there is Le Forum des Halles. And in 1981, when the Hotel Sale is ready, there will be Picasso, too!