Barcelonaʼs popular historic flea market has been rehoused in a glittering new armature that catalyses a lively sense of commercial and social interaction
The new home of Els Encants, Barcelona’s centuries-old flea market, with its spectacular golden canopy gleaming 25 metres over the stalls, is an important element in one of Barcelona’s last unresolved urban design problems. Since 1928, the market had ‘provisionally’ occupied an empty lot adjoining the nearby Plaça de les Glòries Catalanas, the confluence of three major boulevards located north-east of the old city core. In his 1860 plan, Ildefons Cerdà envisioned Glòries as the future city centre, but in the intervening years it has remained a peripheral zone, a crossroads for heavy vehicular traffic and rail lines out of the city. With new development fast approaching −Jean Nouvel’s Agbar Tower stands beside it − the city approved a masterplan for the plaza in 2007, now under way, which will bury a traffic artery through the site and convert it into a park. The plan included relocating the flea market to a new permanent home on a triangular-shaped block south of Glòries. Local architect Fermín Vázquez won a competition for the project in 2008, and the market opened early last year, at a cost of 50 million euros, a budget proportionate to that spent by the city on other market rehabilitations, according to Vázquez.
The old flea market was a marginal use for a marginalised urban area, though ironically, it was and remains the city’s most lucrative public market. Vázquez’s design goal was to bring a measure of dignity to Els Encants while maintaining its character. He consulted merchants to reproduce the functional idiosyncrasies of the old venue, adding basic services such as administrative offices, truck docks and parking. ‘We wanted to dignify an activity that was seen as somewhat low class and informal’, he explains. ‘But it was also important to maintain its spirit as an outdoor market, in the street. The city has always maintained a certain ambivalence about it. People love the place, but it was shoved aside to a provisional site for almost a century, with no investment. The city’s attitude was actually rather shameful.’
To fit the market onto a site half its previous area, Vázquez built a gently sloping ramp that loops over itself on two sides, taking advantage of a drop in the terrain at the back of the site. Over 230 metal kiosks for shops and stalls line the ramps, together with a restaurant on the lower level, two bars, and kiosks selling ‘street food’ on the uppermost deck. A central open area on the main level is dedicated to early-morning auctions.
‘The old flea market was a marginal use for a marginalised urban area, though ironically, it was and remains the city’s most lucrative public market’
Vázquez’s concept for the ramps was to organise visits as a ‘paseo’ or stroll, like Barcelona’s Ramblas. He met the merchants’ objections to the ramps with a study showing that many well-known flea markets and shopping streets are set on slopes, notably the second-hand market in Madrid known as the Rastro. He found that slopes actually improve business, although he isn’t sure why. ‘Some have told me that one moves more slowly, and so the commercial impact is greater,’ he suggests. Rising and falling planes also offer an overview of goods on display in perspectival depth. In any case, Vázquez designed the ramps to seem virtually imperceptible to visitors.
In addition to offering protection from sun and rain, the golden roof gives the market a volumetric, urban identity, defining its edges to the street. Its faceted, reflective underside ‘helps reduce the weight of the canopy’, Vázquez says, and reflects indirect light from the ground plane to combat the potential for gloom and glare. Its stainless-steel surface, with a polished mirror finish, scatters fragmented but perfect reflections of the market below, creating a kaleidoscopic projection of its activity. It functions as both an iconic urban attractor and, with its golden hue, a tongue-in-cheek visual comment on the market’s apparent riches. Vázquez himself justifies the colouring as a way of making the reflections ‘less literal, filtered, as if from another era’.
The canopy’s rising and falling surface is highly irregular, breaking open like a sheet of paper creased and torn along its folds. The breaks occur both at its edges and in the centre, where a series of larger central glazed clerestory openings admit light to the deepest sections of the floor plate. The canopy is supported by slender columns over an irregular, triangular grid that is devised, in part, to span a major underground sewer line through the site. The columns intersect the waving canopy at its crests and valleys, which often coincide on opposite sides of a clerestory crease.
The canopy joins an interesting lineage of such solutions in Spain. Its most direct antecedent is the lipstick-red wing span that Jean Nouvel floated over his addition to the Reina Sofía Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid (AR February 2006), a project in which Vázquez was a collaborator (he also worked with Nouvel on the Agbar Tower, and with David Chipperfield and Toyo Ito on various Spanish projects). While that canopy also played with reflections and openings, the result was far more lugubrious, and its regular surface managed to draw the noise of heavy street traffic into the museum courtyard, lessons Vázquez has taken into account on this project.
Vázquez’s solution also has much in common with other roof structures in Spain that draw on the form of the multi-columned mosque, creating a non-hierarchical spatial grid. Architects of the postwar Organic movement first used this form in buildings, notably José Antonio Corrales and Ramón Vázquez Molezún for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1958 Universal Exhibition in Brussels, with a honeycomb plan and a clever umbrella-like structural system. Rafael Moneo applied a similar strategy to the open-air roof over the platforms of Madrid’s Atocha Train Station (1992), again with its columns centred under corten-steel pads, not unlike Wright’s Johnson Wax Building. The undulating roof of Richard Rogers and Estudio Lamela’s Terminal 4 at Madrid’s Barajas Airport of 2006 brings the type back more directly to the model of the Mosque at Córdoba.
The main difference between Els Encants and these projects is that Vázquez blurs the marriage of structural and spatial module, columns and vault. The cellular nature of the roof remains intuitively visible in its creases, crests and column layout, but there is no real relation between this structure and the layout of the ramps below it. This lack of structural clarity, as if the leaves of the canopy were caught in movement, together with the high-resolution images bouncing off the mirror finish, are symptomatic of the contemporary obsession with digital screens and their impact on visual perception, in which static spatial framing is rejected in favour of continuous visual flow.
While Els Encants is a fascinating individual piece of architecture, at this point it is not clear how much it can contribute to building a cohesive urban fabric for Glòries. Uncharacteristically for Barcelona, world-famous in urban design, the city’s actions over the past three decades around the former plaza and future park have muddled its possible consolidation. The flea market joins an accumulation of major public buildings here. Following the Meridiana Avenue past the market, the next two blocks are occupied respectively by Ricardo Bofill’s National Theatre of Catalonia of 1996, a bloated Greek temple of precast concrete and glass, and Rafael Moneo’s Concert Hall of 1999, one of his more forgettable projects, where he extends a Kahnian exposed concrete structure with infill panels over a shapeless mass. The three buildings stand, each on its respective city block, oblivious to one another and their still-undefined surroundings.
But more contextual design is no guarantee of success at Glòries, as seen in the fate of the just-opened Design Museum, aka the Disseny Hub Barcelona, a late and not very fetching work (2001-14) by the venerable firm Martorell Bohigas Mackay. The building’s main feature is a projecting snout that cantilevered over a raised highway ring built around Glòries in 1992, in an attempt to resolve the plaza. But, alas, the ring road has been demolished under the new plan − no High Line here − and the snout, with a smaller cantilever on the building’s rear end, now looms towards the future park like a lost puppy.
There may still be hope for Glòries, with the promise of a new design, by the French firm Agence Ter and local landscape architect Ana Coello de Llobet, now under construction, which will unite the Diagonal Avenue through the park as a pedestrian and bike path, and set aside areas to promote biodiversity. Local critic Llàtzer Moix declares that the plan marks the end of the era of ‘hard plazas’ promoted in the 1980s under the leadership of Oriol Bohigas. In their place, the city’s current chief architect, Vicente Guallart, of the centre right nationalist CiU Party, has proposed the model of an energy-efficient green city.
Though located tangentially to Glòries, Vázquez’s Els Encants market and its canopy offer the kind of solid definition this new green space needs. As the city fills in a host of other public facilities around the space, perhaps succeeding architects will see the logic of this strategy. The stakes may be high, as a rumour circulating a couple of years ago suggested that the CiU, in its ambitious dreams of Catalan independence, envisions Glòries as the site for its new parliament building. What greater measure of dignity could this neglected corner of the city aspire to?