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Attempt at a Psychogeographical Description of Les Halles

Abdelhafid Khatib

Internationale Situationniste #2 (December 1958)

Translated by Paul Hammond
In actual fact, to achieve the simplest of improvements in social relations requires the mobilization of such extraordinary collective energy that if the real importance of this disproportion were to appear to public consciousness in its true light, it would act as a discouraging factor . . . This frightful disproportion has to be considerably attenuated for consciousness through an artificial and substantial mythological amplification of the anticipated results, taken to lengths more in keeping with the aim of exerted effort and whose importance it is already impossible to hide, since it is directly experienced. These deformations which, seen from the outside, have a fantastic aspect, are precisely the work of ideologies which, for that reason, constitute the indispensable condition of social progress.
— Leszek Kolakowski, Responsabilité et Histoire

THE WORLD WE LIVE IN, and beginning with its material décor, is discovered to be narrower by the day. It stifles us. We yield profoundly to its influence; we react to it according to our instincts instead of according to our aspirations. In a word, this world governs our way of being, and it grinds us down. It is only from its rearrangement, or more precisely its sundering, that any possibility of organizing a superior way of life will emerge.

The Situationists believe themselves capable, due to their current methods and to the foreseeable development of these methods, not only of rearranging the urban environment, but of changing it almost at will. Up till now the dearth of backing and the lack of help accorded us by people who largely claim to be interested in all that relates to urbanism, to culture and to their reaction to life, has, by default, only permitted us to undertake a minimum of experimentation, remaining almost at the level of personal play. But what we seek is nothing less than direct, effective intervention, taking us from those preliminary studies that suggest themselves — and here psychogeography will be of great import — to the instituting of new Situationist ambiances, whose essential traits are of short duration and permanent change.

Psychogeography, the study of the laws and precise effects of a consciously or unconsciously elaborated geographical environment acting directly on affective behavior, subsumes itself, according to Asger Jorn's definition, as the science fiction of urbanism.

The means specific to psychogeography are many and varied. The first, and most solid, is the experimental dérive. The dérive is a form of experimental behavior in an urban society. At the same time as being a from of action, it is a means of knowledge, particular to the notions of psychogeography and the theory of unitary urbanism. Other means, such as the reading of aerial views and plans, the study of statistics, graphs or the results of sociological investigations, are theoretical and do not possess the active and direct side which belongs to the experimental dérive. Nevertheless, thanks to them we can arrive at a first representation of the environment under study. In return, the results of our study will permit imbuing these cartographic and intellectual representations with greater complexity and richness.


We have chosen as the subject of a psychogeographical study the Les Halles quarter which, unlike other areas which have been the object of certain psychogeographical descriptions till now (Continent Contrescarpe, the Missions Étrangères area), is extremely animated and well known, both to the Parisian population and to those foreigners who have spent some time in France.

To begin with, we will define the limits of the quarter as we conceive of it; the characteristic divisions from the viewpoint of its ambiances; the directions one is led to take inside and outside this terrain; then we will make some constructive suggestions.

In terms of its administrative definition, the Les Halles quarter is the second quarter of the first arrondissement. Placed at the center of Paris, it is in contact with areas which are wholly different from one another. Considered from the viewpoint of the unity of ambiance, the quarter differs only slightly from its official limits, and principally from an extremely large encroachment on the second arrondissement to the north. We observe the following boundaries: the Rue Saint-Denis to the east; the Rues Saint-Sauveur and Bellan to the north; the Rues Hérold and d'Argout to the north-west; the Rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs to the west; and finally to the south the Rue de Rivoli, which must be extended, beginning with the Rue de l'Arbre-Sec, to include the Rue Sainte-Honoré.

The architecture of the streets, and the changing décor which enriches them every night, can give the impression that Les Halles is a quarter that is difficult to penetrate. It is true that during the period of nocturnal activity the logjam of lorries, the barricades of panniers, the movement of workers with their mechanical or hand barrows, prevents access to cars and almost constantly obliges the pedestrian to alter his route (thus enormously favoring the circular anti-dérive). But despite appearances the quarter of Les Halles is one of the easiest to cross, via the access routes which border or cross it in every direction.

Four great thoroughfares cross Les Halles from end to end and thus help to break them down into areas of different, but absolutely interconnected, ambiance: the most important of these thoroughfares, running east-west, is formed by the Rue Rambuteau, whose various extensions finish up in the Banque de France area; the Rue du Louvre, running north-south; the Rue des Halles, running south-east to north-west. There are numerous secondary entry routes, for example the continuation of the Rues du Pont-Neuf-Baltard, in contact with the Left Bank via the Pont-Neuf and various sectors to the north via the Rues Montmatre, de Montorgueil and, to a lesser extent, de Turbigo. This route must nevertheless be considered as secondary due to the two relative breaks made by the crossing of the Rue de Rivoli and the large buildings of the Halles Centrales.

The essential feature of the urbanism of Les Halles is the mobile aspect of pattern of lines of communication, having to do with the different barriers and the temporary constructions which intervene by the hour on the public thoroughfare. The separated zones of ambiances, which remain strongly connected, converge in the one place: the Place des Deux-Ecus and the Bourse du Commerce (Rue de Viarme) complex.

To the east the first area is enclosed by Rues Saint-Denis, de Turbigo, Pierre-Lescot and the Place Sainte-Opportune. This is the prostitution area, with its multitude of small cafés. At the weekend a masculine and miserable horde from other quarters seeks amusement there. A population of down-and-outs holds sway around the Square des Innocents. The whole area is depressing. [...]

The Rue Saint-Denis marks a very sudden break between this area and the Saint-Merri and Saint-Avoye quarters towards the east, but this break still plays its part in the ambiance of Les Halles. The break being immediately aggravated by the Boulevard de Sévastapol, the area known as the Place Saint-Merri finds itself under the diminished influence of Les Halles, while its participation in the quarter's economic activity (the parking of lorries) would, rather, tend to integrate it there.

To the south, the second area extends between the Rues de Rivoli, Arbre-Sec, Saint-Honoré and the Rue Berger. In contact, by day, with the feverish commercialism of the Rue de Rivoli and the flower-market occupying the Halles Centrales, this area is, by night, hard-working and lively. It is here that there are the greatest number of restaurants and cafés frequented by the workers of Les Halles. [...]

The third area, which is in the west (between the Rue du Louvre and the Rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs), is calm by day and by night. An extreme order reigns there, and the activity, together with the ambiance, of Les Halles goes on diminishing from east to west, before petering out in front of the Banque de France and the Place de Valois. This bordering territory already announces the rich quarters which are to be found nearby (Palais-Royal, l'Opera). Almost everything encourages the idea that one is in some residential quarter rather than in a part of Les Halles. However, passages like the Galerie Véro-Dodat or the Cour des Fermes reveal this mobile ambiance, and confer a bizarre and nebulous character to the area. [...]

The Rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs forms a line tangential to the unity of ambiance of Les Halles. Its interest resides in the possibilities of contact that it furthers, above all when it passes alongside the turntable of the Place-Deux-Écus and the Rue de Viarme. As for the Place des Victoires, onto which it gives in the north, this is a frontier foreign to Les Halles and manages not to accede to them. The Place des Victoires is a bastion defending the bourgeois quarters (the class struggle freighted in town planning also informs, it must be said, the overbearing Palais de Justice in Brussels, right on the edge of the poorest quarters).

With the fourth area, which constitutes the northern flank of Les Halles, we arrive at the most extensive, and above all most-celebrated, part of this vast urban complex. Let us trace its limits. To begin with, the Rue Rambuteau, prolonged west of the Église Saint-Eustache by the Rue Coquillère, constitutes in principle frontage (the opposite side of this thoroughfare being none other than the alignment of pavilions of the Halles Centrales). The eastern frontier follows the Rue Pierre-Lescot then slides up the Rue Turbigo to reach the Rue Saint-Denis. To the west the area comes to a halt in the Rues Hérold and d'Argout. In the northern part, beyond the Rue Étienne Marcel, one discovers a territorial border where the influence of Les Halles, which gets progressively weaker the further one progresses towards the north, is exerted along various secondary routes, generally oriented south-west to north-east, such as the Rues Rousseau and Tiquetonne, the Rue du Jour continued in the passage de la Reine de Hongrie, the Rues Mauconseil and Française. The area includes both a particularly miserable residential part and those renowned restaurants which form the pole of attraction for the rich tourism of Les Halles; an intense activity in food retailing and an important administrative center (Hôtel des Postes, the Centre de l'E.D.F., on the Rue Mauconeil, many schools). These elements entail a considerable difference between the diurnal and nocturnal ambiance. At night it is in this area that almost all the different entertainments of Les Halles are concentrated, in the traditional, bourgeois sense of this term. [...]


The zone of central interference, the turntable of the different ambient directions of Les Halles is, as we have pointed out, the Bourse du Commerce-Place des Deux-Écus complex. This area is found at the western extremity of the block constituted by the juxtaposition of the large pavilions of the Halles Centrales. But since these edifices do not act as a link, but on the contrary as a break, the Rue Carême which traverses them longitudinally does not participate in this relation.

The different directions which intersect at this turntable strongly affect the path any individual or group will, with apparent spontaneity, follow inside as well as outside Les Halles.

According to the theory of concentric urban zones, Les Halles belongs to the transitional zone of Paris (social deterioration, acculturation and the intermixing of population making the environment propitious to cultural exchanges). One knows that in the case of Paris this concentric division is complicated by an east-west opposition between the predominantly popular and bourgeois quarters, business or residential. South of the Seine the line of rupture is formed by the Boulevard Saint-Michel. North of the Seine it deviates slightly towards the west and then passes along the Rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs, the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoires and their prolongations. It is at the western limit of Les Halles that the Ministère des Finances, the Bourse and the Bourse du Commerce form the three points of a triangle whose center is occupied by the Banque de France. The institutions concentrated in this restricted space turn it, practically and symbolically, into the defensive perimeter of capitalism's smartest neighborhoods. The projected displacement of Les Halles to the outskirts of the city will entail a new blow to popular Paris, which has for a century now been constantly exiled, as we know, to the suburbs.

As opposed to this, any solution aimed at creating a new society requires that this space at the center of Paris be preserved for the manifestations of a liberated collective life. One must profit from the blow to practical-alimentary activity and must encourage large-scale development of those tendencies towards constructional play and mobile urbanism which have emerged 'in the icy water of egotistical calculation.' The first step, architecturally, would obviously be to replace the current pavilions with an autonomous series of small Situationist architectural complexes. Among these new architectures and on their peripheries, corresponding to the four zones we have envisaged here, ought to be built perpetually changing labyrinths, and this with the aid of more adequate objects than the fruit and vegetable panniers which make up the sole barricades of tod.

Given the brutalizing effect maintained by today's radio, television, cinema and the rest, the extension of leisure under another regime will call for a much doughtier response. Should the Paris Halles have survived until such time as these problems will be posed by everyone, it would be fitting to try to turn them into a theme park for the ludic education of workers.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This study is incomplete on several fundamental points, principally those concerning the ambiant characteristics of certain barely defined zones. This is because our collaborator was subject to police harrassment in light of the fact that since September, North Africans have been banned from the streets after half past nine in the evening. And of course, the bulk of Abdelhafid Khatib's work concerned the Halles at night. After being arrested twice and spending two nights in a holding cell, he relinquished his efforts. Therefore the present the political future, no less may be abstracted due to considerations carried out on psychogeography itself.