There is a general agreement that the modern idea of city has proved unsatisfactory in application because it has destroyed the elements of the city itself - street, block, discrete space and differentiated private place. But the mental process of modernism has still not been completely displaced in proposals for the city’s reconstruction. This mental process results in the architectural objectification of urbanism: the design of the city continues to be evaluated as a composition of discrete, rationalized elements. The slab for example, has been substituted for the block, without a critical reevaluation of the spatial framework that must accompany it. The full catalogue of urban elements must be reinstated.

However, modern architecture’s prejudice against the existing city is still retained. The ever-new modern city of distinct imagery is apparently still required to overcome the imagined wilderness of congestion, poverty, financial bankruptcy, and pollution. Although the traditional city is vaguely advocated, in some way it continues to be seen as the problem rather than the solution.

The design competition for Les Halles Quarter of Paris of 1979 is a confrontation of these fundamental dilemmas of methodology and value. What are the objectives of urban design and the criteria that may be used to evaluate it? What general ideas can govern the choice and configuration of urban form while also measuring and confirming the success of a solution?

To answer these questions one must first distinguish between architecture and urban design in order to illustrate the difficulty of extending architectural conventions to the urban scale. Architecture aims at a self-contained unity and comprehensibility of form, while urban design is inherently more diverse. As a matter of scale, a large section of a city should not be defined as a single formal thesis to be seen as a comprehensible entity. However, there is still a tendency to address the problems of large urban areas by conventional architectural means – to envision sites as single identifiable entities, to define clear and fixed programmatic uses, or to apply a specific stylistic convention or a series of unified compositional images throughout. Each choice merely limits the solution to being an autonomous “project” on an arbitrarily determined site.

Part of the problem with this process of architectural objectification is the implicit assignment of a singular use or meaning to a whole district. However, there seem to be no appropriate choices: there are no significant institutions that justify a grand Beaux -Arts program, no egalitarian palaces that manifest order as a single organism. Conversely, the unification of a whole district, as a kind of hierarchically differentiated campus imbedded in the city, either implies an authoritative central order or implicitly proscribes social enclaves. The modern alternative to this dilemma of content is the insistence on the autonomy of each building, ordered through regularity and repetition. This apparent neutrality attempts to avoid the implications of an arbitrary formalism, but in fact the uniformity of the resulting space merely diminishes its capacity to ascribe meanings to public place.

Even those analytical processes that are intended to rationally determine urban form are surprisingly anti-urban. City planning methods analytically separate activities and uses, to make each part more manageable and comprehensible: the result is to support discrete architectural components more than complex urban elements.

  1. 7)N/S cross section                       Residential square     Gate     Sunken “Forum” grotto and view of east gate            Rooftop - Museum of the City overlooking inner garden precinct

The functional program as a determinant is invariably too inflexible because it fixes identities and relationships in precise building form, thus limiting the interpretations of an urban design by restricting change, alternatives, and re-use. Both the program and technical analysis encourage the divisive extrapolation of those elements that once formed a cohesive, traditional urbanism.

The first step toward defining the objective of urbanism is to differentiate between the appropriate methods of architecture and those of urban design. It is necessary to recognize that the familiar frameworks that stress architectural unity, singular imagery and comprehensive identity are contrary to reconstructing the city fabric. Urbanism assumes architecture within it and attempts to transcend the problems of unified meaning and a singular methodology.

The second step is to accept the beneficial characteristics of the existing city. The objective of a continuing urbanism is simply to reconstruct the historical city, while extending and elaborating its configurations and density. But one must be aware that this is a city with implicit complexity and even unpredictability. Its design depends on the invention of context, the construction of an urban texture that establishes a variety of places in continuous proximity, providing simultaneously for both autonomous pieces and an aggregate pattern.

This city of a continuing urbanism can be designed on principles appropriate to group form; it involves both the idea of area and the techniques of field and mapping. This process cannot be completely rationalized or determined by analysis. Its intention is a synthetic construction that will always contain aspects of accident and disorder within its framework.  This city is valid as an objective precisely because it becomes a mosaic for problem solving.

It is not necessary to decide where to build a community center or how much commercial space to provide on a street. A compound urban fabric needs no program or functional analysis (“universal” diversity can be substituted for “universal” space). The complexity of a multi-use texture provides the capacity to satisfy itself in this respect. Alternative interpretations are sponsored by mere proximity of form and variety of place. Congestion is part of the solution, providing spontaneous multiple connections and real simultaneity through an aggregate possibility of mixed uses.

The interweaving of existing and new fields of urban texture requires deployment of conscious urban design tactics that are not strictly architectural. It depends fundamentally on self-conscious choices – the use of discontinuous figural space, not continuous voids; the design of dwellings as part of complex blocks, not as objectified housing; the consciousness of walls as thickness, not slabs as lines, or blocks as free standing objects; and the establishment of alternative design fields, deliberately smaller or larger than the available sites. This will produce a series of combined, overlapping solutions appropriate to themselves yet conscious of the continuities beyond. The density of texture will provide linkages and separations of space that are more flexible than the naked continuity of a single open area.

  1. 1)Peterson Littenberg competition plan



The essay, Aims and Means of Urban Design was first published in Architectural Design Magazine, issue #9/10, 1980, which was dedicated to the Les Halles Design Competition entries of 1979. This version of the original article was revised in 2017.

THE BACKGROUND - The Design Competition for the Les Halles Market Site, Paris, 1979

Victor Baltard’s Les Halles, Paris’ central market from 1867 to 1969, ordered by the decree of Napoleon III in 1861 to modernize the ancient medieval market structures existing at the site to better serve a rapidly urbanizing Paris, praised by Mies van der Rohe as the “symbol of the golden age of French building techniques”, called a masterpiece by Walter Gropius, and immortalized as the metaphorical protagonist of Emile Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris - The Belly of Paris (1873), was condemned in 1968 for demolition. The market was relocated from the city center to the suburb of Rungis.

Presented with a unique historic opportunity to repurpose a large area in the heart of Paris, the City proposed a major infrastructure project at the site: a highway underpass, a connecting hub for Metro and suburban transit lines (RER), and a retail development under a public park that incorporated a shopping/entertainment “forum” oriented more to the transit system rather than the Parisian street. It was rightly received with approbation when presented to the public as a fait accompli. Furthermore, it was deemed necessary to remove all twelve of Baltard’s beloved glass and iron pavilions to expedite construction.

  1. 2)COMPETITION SITE: Empty site in 1979 after destruction of “Les Halles” located between the Louvre to the left and the Centre Pompidou to the right.

  1. 3)AERIAL PHOTO: the site still empty and under reconstruction - looking for a solution in 2014 - 35 years later.

  1. 4)PETERSON/LITTENBERG PLAN - an urban reconstruction of multiple public spaces.

THE COMPETITION PROJECT - Peterson/Littenberg’s Competition Statement:

We should like the main space to be a quiet public place, belonging to the entire City of Paris, and representing the idea of city itself:

The space is walled like the ancient city, but with a reversed significance. Urban activity occurs outside the walled precinct rather than within it. The internal space serves both as a garden and a public courtyard, hidden within the city and accessed by its attached external squares. Its function is different from that of the typical activities of the boulevards and squares. There are no shops, no cars, and no private approaches to the surrounding houses. The proposed residential spaces have their own separate squares, rooted in the urban context. There are only four gateways into the new internal precinct and no direct access from the precinct to the underground Forum.

The actual sunken “forum” has been modified: one part has become a four square grotto, visible from above but inaccessible at street level. Another part is a sky-lit covered market.

The architecture of the plan is affected by the idea of a public wall, with private elements added to its exterior. The wall exists to define the volume of the precinct garden space. It is treated as an ordinary party wall, an “objet trouvé” and not as a facade. It is finished in simple stucco, with wells of light and separate niches which serve as benches sculpted into the base.

This city party wall is situated beyond a moat into which a spring of water flows down from the terraces that enclose the exhibition center. The exhibition space should be a museum dedicated to the City, so that the entire project represents the history of urbanism and the garden. The place should be unique and innovative: a metropolitan place. We have taken this as an opportunity to create something special out of the vast emptiness in the center of Paris, and to find a way to reconstruct the city around this new inner precinct of space (see plan figure 1, axonometric figure 6, and diagram  figure 5).

By 1978, anger at the official project had coalesced around a group of leading intellectuals, neighborhood associations, professional journals, and architects and planners, who initiated a competition - the Consultation Internationale Pour L’ Aménagement du Quartier des Halles - to counter the official government project with design proposals to remediate the results as constructed. The highly detailed “brief” issued as part of the competition incorporated affordable housing, retail, public open space, sports facilities, and theaters.

The significance of this “open” international competition to the architectural discourse is emblematic of the renewed interest in the design of the city taking place at that time. The project illustrated in the following article was authored by Steven Peterson and Barbara Littenberg, with David Cohn. It was one of three Projets Laureates awarded from among the 650 worldwide submissions to the competition. This project was the only Les Halles design to be selected for exhibition at the first Biennale de Paris held at the Centre Pompidou in 1980.

  1. 5)The Public walls form an armature of Space, a quiet “internal garden precinct”. The Museum of the City is to the lower left attached to a galleria.

  1. 6)Axonometric looking southwest; the quiet inner garden precinct with the variety of attached urban spaces, overlooked by the Museum of the City.