The Threat to the Halle Freyssinet More Pressing Than Ever

1. The Halle Freyssinet
View from the footbridge of the avenue de France
Photo : Didier Rykner

28/11/11 - Heritage - Paris, Halle Freyssinet - Paris City Hall is once again responsible for a major threat to Parisian heritage [1]. This only serves to confirm that Bertrand Delanoë’s mandate as mayor of Paris continues to spell disaster for the city’s cultural heritage.

We had not yet discussed the subject of the Halle Freyssinet affair (ill. 1 and 2) in The Art Tribune although it has been a source of concern for quite a while but this has now reached a point where time is running out.
Eugène Freyssinet, who was born in 1879 and died in 1962, was a renowned specialist for his work in concrete. Little known in his own country, he is however famous worldwide, notably for his masterpiece, the large "halle des messageries" or shipping offices today known as the "Halle Freyssinet", built alongside the tracks of the Austerlitz train station between 1927 and 1929. It represents a significant contribution to 20th century architecture much like Baltard’s "Halles" in central Paris did in the 19th. This famous structure is now facing the same threat as the latter, that is demolition, which even if only partial, would seriously damage its design.

2. The Halle Freyssinet
An Inside View
Photo : Didier Rykner

3. The halle Freyssinet
View of the part along the rue du Chevaleret
Photo : Didier Rykner

The SNCF (French national railroad company) has accepted to sell the Halle to the City of Paris, which has demanded that six of the thirty bays in the building (four on one side, two on the other) be destroyed. It is a little bit like amputating the length of a church, especially since the architectural design is not a succession of identical bays : one of the ends is slightly curved (ill. 3)... After years of delays, and pressure from various associations, a protection project was presented on 13 January 2011 to the Commission régionale du patrimoine et des sites. The representative of the City of Paris, Danielle Pourtaud, stated at the time that the city was in favor of protecting the site. But the prefect pointed out that this protection, by express request of the City of Paris, would concern only twenty-four of the thirty bays, then submitted the proposal to a vote. The members of the above CRPS, finding themselves before a fait accompli and the urgency of the delay, resigned themselves to this proposal of minimum protection, considering it to be better than nothing at all, and finally voted to approve it. At that point, Danielle Pourtaud asked what would happen to the other six bays. Leaping at this chance to reconsider the project, several members asked the prefect to submit the matter to another vote but this time on all thirty bays. This was quickly done and resulted in a request for protection of the whole building, approved by a large majority.

In order for the protection to be enacted, however, the prefect has to first validate it. The problem is that the political stakes here are high so the prefect has made the brave decision... not to decide anything. At the same time, a request for a demolition permit of the six bays was submitted by the SNCF in early June [2], but here again the prefect has still not made a decision. Therefore, the demolition permit may be approved in a few days (issued automatically if there is no reaction).
In short, the lack of decision making now means that part of the Halle Freyssinet may soon be demolished. To avoid it, the prefect would have to sign the protection vote, and refuse the demolition. We contacted the French Ministry of Culture which reassured us with the following statement [3] : "the Minister is aware of the importance of this site’s heritage and has in fact already discussed it with the Mayor of Paris ; he wishes to see a project for the site which will allow it to be used again while respecting its exceptional architecture. The Prefect has not yet expressed his position pending an agreement between the two parties involved, which would respect the heritage and landscape of the site. A project will not be validated by default, no matter how the current negotiations end."

We will continue to follow the matter carefully as we do not understand why it is taking so long to reach an agreement concerning such a simple point : the protection of the entire building, as requested by the CRPS, and the refusal of the demolition permit. Following the disappearance of the "bassin des carènes" for naval testing, designed by the Perret brothers (see article in French), due to the French government, we may soon witness the partial destruction of another important industrial building of the 30’s.

Version française

Didier Rykner, lundi 28 novembre 2011


[1] Due to publication delays, we were not able to contact Danielle Pourtaud at Paris City Hall, but also given the fact that she has never responded previously to our questions. If she wishes to react to our article, we will be happy to publish her statement.

[2] Paris City Hall has promised to purchase the property, owned by the SNCF, once the demolition in question has been carried out.

[3] We would like to also point out that the Ministry, represented by Jean-Marc Blanchecotte, director of the "Service départemental de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine de Paris" expressed its disapproval for the demolition permit. But this is not a binding opinion.

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