The French Ministry of Culture Applies for Listing of the Halle in Fontainebleau

7/3/13 - Heritage - Fontainebleau, Halle - The covered market in Fontainebleau (ill. 1 and 2), built during WWII, falls slightly outside The Art Tribune’s chronological field, which is why we had not discussed it earlier. But this affair sets an example and is worth retelling, especially since the French Ministry of Culture has, for once, acted responsibly as it is supposed to, even if it was at the very last minute.

1. Nicolas Esquillan (1902-1989)
Halle, 1941
Photo : D. R.

2. Nicolas Esquillan (1902-1989)
Halle, 1941

The Fontainebleau Halle, designed by a major 20th century engineer/architect, Nicolas Esquillan, responsible notably for the CNIT in Paris, was supposed to be destroyed by Fontainebleau city hall which wishes to renovate the area. Initially, there were in fact two identical buildings, one of which was razed in 1969.
This decision was widely opposed but the Architecte des bâtiments de France having given his approval, the building was not protected and an appeal by local associations having been rejected by the courts, Fontainebleau city hall could thus proceed whenever it wanted to demolish it. Although it announced this would take place this summer, city officials decided to start immediately, taking everyone by surprise. The associations, spearheaded by the SPPEF, which seems to stand out for its energetic defense of heritage causes whenever needed, led the protest and several demonstrators even stood up against the bulldozers sent out to tear down the building.

Faced with this strong opposition, the Ministry of Culture finally reacted, by taking the most effective initiative possible, applying for a listing of the Halle. In a press release, city hall expressed that it was scandalized by the measure and admitted that "the decision to accelerate the schedule of the project had been made in order to put a stop to the procedural harassment of certain parties" reflecting an incredible level of cynicism and had the nerve to call the associations which oppose these damaging projects "a handful of activists" [1].
However, the battle is not quite over yet. An application only lasts one year during which time the monument is indeed protected, after which it can then disappear.

The only question worth asking here is the following : does the covered market in Fontainebleau present any historical or artistic interest justifying its preservation, the only criterion for indeed ensuring its protection. The answer is yes : built by a major architect, particularly elegant even if, as stated by the SPPEF, this structure is "not well loved [and] has never been looked at for its own qualities", it should therefore be registered, even listed. Twentieth century architecture has produced so many mediocre buildings that we should be all the more appreciative of saving those which have real artistic or historical value. Too many 19th century metallic "halles" have been destroyed (in fact this was the case for the one existing before the Halle Esquillan) and we must not commit the same errors by building more concrete markets. Just like the Halle Freyssinet, the one in Fontainebleau should be permanently protected by listing it as a historical monument.

Version française

Didier Rykner, lundi 11 mars 2013


[1] We would like to thank Jean-François Cabestan, who has been very active in following this affair, for forwarding the city’s press release to us.

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