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Typology: Market hall

The market hall shelters a cornucopia of delights, but the traffic and mess it generates presents a challenge to planners

The pleasures of the market are kaleidoscopic: fresh veg glowing under strip lights, barbarically scrawled signs, Essex-accented yells, and smells – even charmingly offensive smells, like the richness of raw poultry trimmings turning in hot bins, or the swampiness of sluiced fishmongers’ slabs. Such aromas moved Zola to compose his famous ‘cheese symphony’, a five-page paean to a fromagerie in Les Halles: ‘a slight whiff, a flute-like note, came from the parmesan’. 

All of these are signs advertising abundance, promises of future satiety (always better than satiety itself). The architecture of the market is merely the stage for this enthralling drama. In some cases, however, the backdrop upstages the star. 

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Les Halles

Source: Robert Doisneau / Gamma-Rapho / Getty images

Pissoirs among the cabbage leaves in Les Halles, the great central Parisian market, photographed by Robert Doisneau in 1953

The impulse to concentrate commercial activity is an old one. It allows for a more controlled urban environment and the easier extraction of rates. The Romans tried it – the market of Trajan survives, its brick structure and concrete vaults forming a curved shopping arcade. And so at the outset we encounter a taxonomic difficulty: where does a market hall – a static carapace for pulsating innards – become an arcade or mall, a place with permanent shops? It seems with Trajan’s mall we may already have passed this point, and in some other cases, to this day, there is a degree of crossover (for instance, the old central Stratford shopping centre in east London, which has a market at its heart). This undermines the assumption that there was a simple historical evolution from one to the other. 

A similar ambiguity surrounds certain grand shopping structures of the late Middle Ages, such as the Palazze della Ragione of Italian cities like Padua and Bergamo. These have vaulted undercrofts populated by shops in the former case and occasional stalls in the latter, and both overlook squares with regular markets. These buildings, the name of which means ‘palace of reason’, were multi-purpose affairs, with council chambers and law courts occupying the upper storeys. As such they are a kind of built metaphor for the argument that modern rationality sprouts from commercial foundations.

1280px l'île rousse marché couvert

L’Île Rousse

Source: Pierre Bona / Wikimedia

The timber temple of L’Île Rousse market

Fotografi från padua, sala della ragione   hallwylska museet   102990.tif

Market, Padua

The Palazzo della Ragione in Padua rises above an 800-year-old market

More provincial market halls of the late medieval period, of which a few survive, as at Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne in Ain, are purer examples of the type, mere roofs supported on spindly legs. Indeed, the ideal market hall is all roof, and as such it is a Modernist antecedent in the sense that it floats almost on pilotis, allowing light and fresh air to penetrate the space below, and the floor to be rinsed clean when the stalls are cleared away. 

Splendid though these complex timber constructions are, they can’t hold a candle to the great souks of the early modern Islamic world, among them Al-Madina in Aleppo, Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. The last of these was begun in 1455, and, with its more than 4,000 shops, is perhaps the largest covered market in the world. The enclosure of the market with masonry vaults was, besides preventing fires, also a means of securing the goods that were left behind while the complex was closed at night. In plan, the Grand Bazaar resembles a city district, with 61 covered streets and a number of squares of varying sizes. The effect of the irregular layout is quite disorienting to the uninitiated, but there is a stringent zoning logic at work: as well as collecting retail in one place, the vendors were grouped according to their merchandise, with streets devoted to leather, jewellery, textiles, and so on. 


Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, constructed between 1455 and 1600

This rationalisation was taken further in later centuries. In Versailles, a covered market of four cranked ranges forms the perimeter of an open-air market square. As a piece of urban planning, it evinces an impressively logical design concept thoroughly executed, something that could best be achieved under the absolute rule of its patron, Louis XIII. In the 19th century, the new materials of the Industrial Revolution, together with changing understandings of public health and changing expectations of urban cleanliness, created great new central markets, of which Les Halles in Paris was the undisputed king. In these marvellously vast and lightweight structures, trades could be gathered and hermetically sealed that would otherwise pollute the city with noise, smells and filth. There was also a class element to this strategy, which concealed unsightly proletarian activity behind overblown masonry facades (the Nagyvásárcsarnok in Budapest and Stockholm’s Östermalms Saluhall are especially grandiose).

The two giants of 19th-century market design were Victor Baltard in Paris and Horace Jones in London. Baltard, city architect from 1849, was author of Les Halles, the 12 elegant pavilions of which were linked by covered walkways to form an iron metropolis of food – or, as Hugo put it, the belly of Paris. Baltard had previously worked on the Abattoirs de la Villette with Jules de Mérindol (the impressively spare Halle aux Boeufs has since been refunctioned as an events venue within Parc de la Villette), Marché Secrétan (now a supermarket) and the Marché de La Chappelle, the only one that still functions as intended. Les Halles is of course long gone, swept away by Pompidou in 1971 and replaced by an unpleasant subterranean mall, itself since removed.

Halles de paris, 1863

Les Halles

Victor Baltard’s plan for Les Halles comprised 12 iron and glass pavilions

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Les Halles

19th-century engraving showing the interior of Les Halles

Horace Jones, working a little later in London, produced Leadenhall Market, old Billingsgate, and Smithfield. In contrast to the spare neoclassicism of Baltard, we are now in the florid heyday of Victorian historicism – Jones’s final, posthumously completed work was Tower Bridge – and the ironwork structure of his buildings is flamboyantly decorated. Beyond the capital, great iron-roofed markets were built all over Britain, including Leeds in 1857 and Stockport in 1860 – again, two polar examples of encrustation and restraint, partly motivated in this instance by differing municipal budgets.

Perhaps the most enjoyable markets in the world are to be found in Spain, among them numerous exemplary iron-framed buildings. Mercado Colon and Mercado Central in Valencia are extraordinary cathedrals dedicated to epicurean pleasure; Lonja del Barranco in Seville is smaller but exquisitely detailed; likewise the famous San Miguel market in Madrid. These, and the British and French examples mentioned above, exemplify a gamut of approaches to planning, from the covered streets of Leadenhall, via the ecclesiastical nave and aisles of Mercado Colon, to the modular agglomeration of shed-like units in Stockport. The versatility of the new material was evidently manifold, and yet an even newer addition to the technical repertoire would permit even wider spans and more fantastic spatial effects.

Eva 9332

Mercado Central

Source: Eva Máñez

Mercado Central, Valencia, built 1914-28 by Enrique Viedma Vidal

The pioneers of concrete took a variety of approaches to their new material. A very early example (1909) is to be found in Wroclaw, a centre of architectural innovation at the turn of the century when the city was called Breslau. Hidden behind a historicist facade of uncertain derivation, the parabolic arches of the market form a soaring concrete nave. There were to be some further historicist excursions before the golden age of concrete arrived – among them the attractive concrete Romanesque of Stuttgart, and the bizarre Neoclassical battleship of Ribera market in Bilbao. Then, beginning in the late 1920s, there was an explosion of new forms: les Halles du Boulingrin in Reims by Émile Maigrot and engineer Eugène Freyssinet has a fantastic parabolic vault only 70mm thick, while in Bologna, the old Mercato Ortofrutticolo hasa typically virtuosic roof by Pier Luigi Nervi. 

These innovations soon spread, depositing offspring in Trieste’s big shed of a market with its quasi-Constructivist spiral corner, Smithfield’s stunning saucer-domed poultry market, and the pendulously bulging roof of Zhitny market, Kiev. Most striking of all is the covered market in Royan, completed in 1955 to the designs of Louis Simon, André Morisseau, and engineer René Sarger. It marks the culmination of a ceremonial route stretching down to the beach, a clam shell-shaped temple to food. 

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Mercato Ortofrutticolo

Old Mercato Ortofrutticolo in Bologna by Pier Luigi Nervi

Marche de royan

Marché de Royan by Simon, Morisseau and Sarger, 1955

While material innovations were transforming the type, the onslaught of the automobile – and the desire of municipal councils to free up valuable inner-city land – led to the exile of the great central wholesale markets. Les Halles was demolished in 1971 and the market relocated to the suburb of Rungis, Covent Garden was sent to south-west London in 1974, Billingsgate to Docklands in 1982, and Spitalfields to east London in 1991. The huge Abasto Market in Buenos Aires was relocated to a hangar near the airport in 1984, but happily the exuberant Art Deco structure remains, now occupied by a mall, and, in its vaulted upper storey, a somewhat surreal funfair. These translations all coincided with the rise of the post-Fordist city, dedicated to non-productive industry and its white-collar workers. None of the replacement markets are in any way remarkable.

In line with the ongoing gentrification of Western cities, some of the surviving central markets have since been revived, with varying results. Old Covent Garden market was saved after a vigorous campaign, but is now a mime-oozing pustule of such hideousness that the proposed ring road would have been preferable. Old Billingsgate is a venue for corporate events, and Spitalfields a sad truncated corpse. Borough Market is in some respects the greatest success in London, but as a ‘foodie destination’ overrun by tourists, it is best avoided by those not irredeemably insensate. Elsewhere, some markets still survive gloriously yet perilously perched on the brink of gentrification: a personal favourite is Mercado de la Cebada in Madrid, its rainbow saucer domes hovering serenely above a riotous mêlée of bars, snack restaurants and old-fashioned stalls. It is hard to imagine having more fun in a market, but for how much longer, one wonders. 


Santa Catarina market

Miralles and Tagliabue’s game-changing redevelopment of Santa Catarina Market in Barcelona, completed in 2005

Finally, there have been some notable recent additions to the canon, among them MVRDV’s lumpen tunnel of love in Rotterdam, Marie-José Van Hee and Robbrecht and Daem’s pinnacled wooden structure in Ghent, and David Adjaye’s attractive lightweight roof in Wakefield. At the time of going to press it appears that much of the latter building is doomed to demolition, only 10 years after its completion and despite the council having failed to secure a purchaser for the site. In the case of the market hall as elsewhere, the British approach to municipal amenities stands in stark contrast to that of our neighbours, and not to our credit – somewhat ironic for a nation of shopkeepers.

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Rotterdam market

Source: Paul Apps / Flickr

The vault of MVRDV’s market hall in Rotterdam is perversely and repellently lumpen

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Wakefield market hall

Source: Lyndon Douglas

Adjaye’s 2008 market hall in Wakefield, which is now set to be demolished

Baltic Station Market, in Talinn, Estonia, by KOKO Architects

The Modernist motif of the floating roof, whether cantilevered or supported on impossibly spindly legs, found its ideal functions in the factory and the market. Historiographic prejudice has tended to favour the architecture of production, but the heroic pioneers of iron and concrete also crowned vendors of fruit and veg with stunning spans. When Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue won the competition to redevelop Santa Caterina Market in Barcelona in 1997, this tradition was given a Postmodern flavour: their rainbow-tiled roof rests gently on the extant historic fabric rather than sweeping it away in favour of structural clarity. This idea is returned to by KOKO Architects in their recent redevelopment of a market in Talinn. Established after the break-up of the USSR, when the black market came out of the shadows all over the former bloc, the old warehouse buildings have now been given a new zigzag timber roof resting on iron trees. This structure is drawn out into the square to shelter temporary stalls.


Source: Tonu tunnel


Source: Tonu tunnel


Source: Tonu tunnel

Koko drawings

Koko drawings

Click to download

Foodmet Abattoir, in Brussels, Belgium, by ORG Architecture

Visitors to the 2016 Venice Biennale will recall a pavilion of precast-concrete panels slotted together ingeniously on the Arsenale quayside. These members were examples of a structural system developed by ORG Architecture to create a multifunctional market building in the Anderlecht district of Brussels, historically the centre of Belgium’s meat industry. The new market hall joins an imposing 19th-century hall in iron and glass – in use as an abattoir until the 1990s – and a large open-air market, both of which are centres of Belgium’s immigrant communities. The new addition provides extra room for stalls in its arcaded hall, and on its roof a large commercial farm. There are also small-scale meat processing facilities and restaurants.  

Org a soma brussels foodmet 05 photo filip dujardin

Source: Filip Dujardin

Org a soma brussels foodmet 01 photo filip dujardin

Source: Filip Dujardin

Org a soma brussels foodmet 08 photo filip dujardin

Source: Filip Dujardin

Org drawings

Org drawings

Click to download

Municipal Market, in Abrantes, Portugal, by ARX Portugal

Most markets are all roof, but not this one. Its staggered cubic volumes in white-painted concrete link two streets that are separated by a steep incline. In order to negotiate this level change, a floating shuttered concrete stair is draped through the building’s five storeys, unravelling like a bleached intestine. (A less convoluted route between the two streets is provided by another staircase to the side of the structure.) A strip of windows on the north face of the upper floor admits gentle natural illumination. This is dispersed through the building via a void, onto which each of the four levels of stalls looks from unevenly undulating balconies.


Source: FG + SG


Source: FG + SG

Arx drawings

Arx drawings

Click to download

Market in Niigata, Japan, by Takuya Hosokai

This woodland pavilion in blackened timber provides a collection of amenities for the local community and its visitors, bundled together in three distinct but linked volumes. One space hosts a market specialising in local produce, another a restaurant which prepares food using the same, and the third, a space for events and exhibitions. Although the low, glazed building has a somewhat Miesian appearance, its structural principles are based on the local vernacular feature gangi-zukuri: wooden-pilastered arcades which jut modestly from the front of houses and shops to shelter pedestrians from the heavy snows of the region. Here, this modular framework extends beyond the three main volumes to link them with trellised walkways, which could in principle be covered later or augmented to expand the buildings. This architectural vernacularity reflects the animating principle of the building’s function, inspired by the chisan-chisho local food movement. This was initiated in the 1990s in response to concerns about globalisation and the decline of local agriculture, much like the Italian Slow Food Movement. In the last few decades, markets have often been boosted by critics of the industrial production and selling of food, as evidenced by the proliferation of farmers’ markets in the UK and USA.  

Plate 07

Source: Naomichi Sode

Plate 09

Source: Naomichi Sode

Th drawings

Th drawings

Click to download

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Food – click here to purchase your copy today

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