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Places of exchange: the market and the city

Great places of exchange invigorate the city as they become fully incorporated into its fabric, its patterns of use and its identity

Originally published in AR November 2005, this piece was republished online in May 2018

Places of exchange: commodities, ideas and service

Everyone loves a bargain. One imagines places of exchange, predominantly commercial spaces, as inherently people focused, filled with action – trading, conversing, noise, activity, and dealing. Increasingly they are not. Using eBay and Limewire is a silent, lonely activity. A completely democratic process maybe, but the actual moment of ‘the exchange’ occurs in a virtual location, described only by a site map. Nevertheless as anonymous users we’re hooked, utterly consumed because it is market shopping. From casually exploring the ‘aisles’ right through to the virtual ‘nod and the wink’ at the end when contact details are swapped and the delivery of the goods is arranged.

Why does the humble market, as a place of exchange, continue to be compelling and rewarding? Why is it that three for the price of two is not so appealing, but ‘£1 a scoop’ cannot be ignored? How can we make buildings for the exchange of services, goods and ideas that have the energy, elasticity, excitement and lightness of the market? Is it possible in an era of increased security to produce buildings that are frameworks or networks, that do not have ends or ‘edges’ thereby enabling infinite possibilities, choices, spontaneity and meaningful accessibility?

‘At the market, complex and often hidden systems of organisation contradict the perceived air of informality’

In the supermarket, three for two is offered where it is convenient and protected, but impersonal, monotonous, repetitive, corporate and bland. Often a generic space conceived and designed around customer demographics and supermarket operational requirements rather than specific customers and their personalities and desires. ‘Down the market’ you get personal service, direct eye contact and a gesture as the deal is done in front of a colourful assortment of goods. These may be locally produced or much more exotic; lovingly and exquisitely hand-made or just ‘downright cheap’. Invariably this cacophony of sights, sounds and smells, mixed with the sheer volume of the crowd adds to the excitement. At the market, complex and often hidden systems of organisation contradict the perceived air of informality. The goods on display are ‘naked’. There is little mediation between you and the product. There is a sense of familiarity, you impulsively know how to act, and the possibility of exploring, finding new bargains is insatiable.

The allure of the street market is certainly well documented, every city/ country is justifiably proud of its street markets and their heritage. A short time spent on Google reveals this. Originally, markets (or souks) allowed different tribes/diverse people from immigrant origins to meet on neutral ground. For the contemporary visitor, markets are still the place to go to dive into local culture and to see what life there is really all about. We can monitor the heart rate of the contemporary city through the spontaneous activity of its markets. Fundamentally concerned with the micro spaces and events of the street, enquiry into the history of many markets also reveals their resistance to being formalised or shoe-horned into secure covered enclaves.

Kumasimarket ghana tomcoward aoc architecture

Kumasimarket ghana tomcoward aoc architecture

Kumasi Market on main Kumasi to Takoradi trainline, Ghana. Photograph by Tom Coward

Places of exchange: frameworks within the city

Let’s take the street market/souk as a precedent, an exemplary place of exchange that does not force associations or delineate boundaries. It may be highly serviced but is equipped with a modest framework or skeleton that allows activity to permeate and flow through and back into the urban fabric surrounding it. Consider Gaetano Pesce’s Favela Tower in Sao Paolo, Archigram’s Instant Cities, or Cedric Price’s Fun Palace. Instantaneous (or near instantaneous) change and evolution is possible, informed by the inhabitants and users rather than purely architects. Rei Kawakubo’s Dover Street Market, London, opened in 2005, it was formerly an office building with a Georgian facade filled with market stalls constructed by a diverse range of designers, artists, producers and their wares. There ‘are no rules’ except that the original fabric of the building remains unaltered. The continual evolution of the stalls ensures that each time the ‘market’ is visited, the experience is different. 

People feel comfortable in places that have a sense of evolution and ‘specificity’. Places that have been sensitively adapted, bringing not only new life to the city, but also a reinvigorated sense of identity and place for the users. In central Barcelona, a local food market has been revived by EMBT under a spectacular ambitious and eye-catching roof that swoops down, eventually hovering just above the front part of the original facade of the market. It simultaneously provides both generous and uninterrupted shelter as well as an extraordinary colourful sense of identity that could only have been built in a city which became the home of Gaudi. Inside, attempts have been made to supplement the traditional CataIonian market experience. One third of the 100 stall holders take orders by email from customers and deliver goods to them if they cannot make it in person.

‘The street market/souk may be highly serviced but is equipped with a modest framework or skeleton that allows activity to permeate and flow through and back into the urban fabric surrounding it’

Places of exchange should have nooks and crannies, playful and surprising with human-scale places to explore and hide in. Spaces from where you can surreptitiously view the action. Changes in scale appropriate to the content and media on display. Intersection points for casual as well as arranged meetings, much like John Soane’s 1792 -1824 reconfiguration of three houses in Lincoln’s Inn Fields where he layered museum and gallery on top of domestic life. Imagine this transferred into an urban context.

In contemporary architecture, shattered geometrics produce nooks and crannies and intersections too, but sometimes overwhelm the content and the user. The architectural spectacle takes prominence, not the content, or the more human-scale exchange that was intended within it.

Schiphols oma 1999 1

Schiphols oma 1999 1

The Netherlands is considering the relocation of its main airport on an island in the North Sea. This will create a unique opportunity to redefine the planning and development of the country as a whole

Schiphols oma 1999 2

Schiphols oma 1999 2

Schiphols by OMA, 1999. This study explores the new sense of clarity and possibilities that the relocation of the airport produces. Through the conceptual explicitness of the logo a new guidance/direction for future planning is suggested

Places of exchange: layers of activity

Places of exchange should be complex places where many layers of activity and space coincide, ensuring varied and lively transformations at different times of hour, day or week. Kumasi market in Ghana is so huge, it even encroaches on the main Kumasi to Takoradi train line which pedestrians use to guide their way through the masses. In the Netherlands, ‘Schiphols’, a project by OMA in 1999, explores the relocation of the Netherland’s main airport to an island in the North Sea. The removal from its densely populated inland context not only identifies a unique opportunity to redefine the planning and development of a central region of the Netherlands as a whole, but also proposes ideas about the future possibilities of the airport island itself as a place of exchange.

‘Through the conceptual explicitness of the logo’, directions for future planning are suggested. The airport island as complex place of exchange for people, goods and ideas illustrates a continually evolving 24-hour piece of city. Places of entertainment and rest (Formula One track, beaches, Hollywood and Las Vegas), food (market gardening and malls), information exchange (Silicon Valley and Euroholland), all next to business, pleasure, recreation (churches, mosques, the red-light district) and the runway.

‘Places of exchange should be complex places where many layers of activity and space coincide, ensuring varied and lively transformations at different times of hour, day or week’

Even in a future where the idea of feeling secure is increasingly important for individuals, one imagines this airport as a fully integrated part of the city and how its inhabitants move fluidly between the range of activities, flying being only one. In this example, the island airport is a microcosm of the city and is accessed by one long bridge from the mainland.

Great places of exchange invigorate the city because they become fully incorporated into its fabric, its patterns of use and its identity. They are seamlessly connected to all the networks of information that have become essential to our daily routines. Designed for specific human-scale activities, they are generous not exploitative, open to reinvention and new uses. They are not just buildings but pieces of the city.