Despite its gutsiness, MVRDV’s new market hall is emblematic of Rotterdam’s inability to conceive and sustain a sense of urban life
‘You can’t use the word provocative after 9/11’, reckons Winy Maas. It could suggest architecture as incitement to violence or discord. But in a ‘positive sense’, he accepts that MVRDV’s covered market for Rotterdam is exactly that: a provocation about scale, about contextuality, about food culture and how we live.
It is also about bringing vitality back to central Rotterdam − a painfully slow process that must address the blitz of May 1940 that saw only 12 city-centre buildings survive the subsequent firestorm, clearances and the zoning of the post-war rebuilding that helped depopulate the inner city.
Visit today and Rotterdam, a municipality with a population of 618,000 is still curiously quiet, especially after dark. Lamps glow in apartment windows and some restaurants are busy but the streets are empty. Life has been dispersed and what remains is in what Maas calls a ‘city of spots’; areas such as the pre-war survivors Witte de Withstraat and Delfshaven where something of the city’s earlier vigour survives − if muted. Some locals put it down to Rotterdam’s working-class, nose-to-the-grindstone culture (Rotterdammers, it is said, buy their shirts with the sleeves already rolled up).
MVRDV has just created a new ‘spot’ with its €175 million Markthal. It faces an open space the size of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square between Blaak and Binnenrotte that is occupied only twice a week by a large outdoor market of about 450 stalls. Stallholders are usually itinerant, travelling from town to town for market days. The rest of the week it lies empty, a great north-south gash in the city like a landing strip separating the pound-shop infested dog-end of the shopping district from the finer streets around Pannekoekstraat. The latter was rebuilt shortly after the war in a humane brick Modernism along the pre-war street pattern − another successful patch of city life, if under-scaled, and a testament to what might have been but for a change of tack and the tabula rasa planning that followed.
Once the heart of the historic city, the Rotte river ran here, culverted in the 19th century and later filled by a north-south railway viaduct, but the line too has since been buried and the viaduct demolished in the name of urban design. The post-war buildings that previously backed onto the line then backed onto the open space and were later demolished. The late medieval Laurenskerk, a rare blitz survivor just to the north, however, presents its apse for inspection. To the south is the now subterranean Blaak station and the quarters around Oude Haven (the old harbour) and neighbouring Wijnhaven that after the decline of port-related industry on this stretch of the waterfront sat mostly idle for many decades.
The Markthal is one of many projects that have from the mid-’80s onwards attempted to fill this yawning urban gap. In the first month since it opened in October, it had attracted a million curious visitors − an astonishing number in a country of 16 million − all eager to see a 40m-high vault entirely lined with a vegetal mural and set within a thickly layered crust of 228 apartments clad externally in Chinese granite. Some 12,000 people an hour can pass through at weekends.
The project, for Dutch developer Provast, sprang out of the rumour that EU regulations were about to ban outdoor markets from selling hygiene-sensitive foods. This never happened but the impetus to build survived the severe post-2008 downturn in the Dutch economy and after 10 years (five under construction) it has arrived, a stonking instant ‘icon’ whose original purpose had evaporated. Part of its attraction to visitors lies in the obstreperous design, part in the fact that the covered market was never a Dutch building type − Maas doesn’t know why.
He bridles a little at the description of the building as a triumphal arch. The form was arrived at after a study of mainland Europe’s covered food markets − especially those of Spain and France, as well aspects of the more ‘lifestyle’ orientated markets of Copenhagen and Stockholm. EMBT’s rightly celebrated Santa Caterina market of 2005 in Barcelona (AR November 2005) with its brilliantly coloured waveform roof was a direct inspiration. Maas doodles sketches showing the evolution of his response to a brief that demanded a market hall and two residential blocks. Initially it was conceived of as a pitched-roof market form flanked by two parallel slabs of apartments. Market use and residential then fused into one structure. It morphed into an inhabited square arch then a portal frame then a flattened curved arch (which could be constructed in cheaper in-situ concrete rather than steel) whose ‘feet’ were flared out to accommodate the developer’s desire for additional floorspace in the parallel rows of restaurants and shops that flank the market hall proper. The digital supergraphics of giant fruit and vegetables have been likened to poppy Sistine Chapel-style frescoes but Maas prefers to namecheck Brunelleschi’s San Lorenzo for the arch of his vault whose glazed ends are an elegantly executed cable-net that can flex up to 700mm to accommodate wind loads.
The Markthal apartments are basically single aspect but each has internal windows that peer down onto the shoppers below. These inclined windows decrease in angle until they appear as one metre square glazed panels set in the floors − small light-wells for the penthouse apartments. Beneath street level is a supermarket anchor store, cool storage facilities for the stands in the Markthal and three layers of parking − the largest facility in the city.
Maas makes free with his green pen again, sketching another line of shapes − this time the architectural menagerie that Rotterdam has assembled in recent decades in its bid to create a densified somewhere out of a blitzed nowhere: OMA’s De Rotterdam on the south side of the river, the inverted Y of the Van Berkel & Bos Erasmus Bridge, the Markthal arch and what appears to be the sawtooth roofline of Piet Blom’s 1984 Cube Houses across the square from the Markthal where the apartments cubes are balanced on their corners.
Can such a series of discrete objects make a city? ‘I still believe that is possible if they are close together. It is a very strange city and wouldn’t work everywhere but yes. It is contextual in another way. In Rotterdam you can only connect through diversity.’ The neighbouring buildings of the Laurenskwartier are equally doing their own crazy thing − from Piet Blom’s cubes and witch’s hat apartment tower to Group A’s fractured facade office block at Blaak 8 and Hans Kollhoff’s pedimented Statendam apartments. Immediately to the south of the Markthal is Kees Christiaanse’s Jenga office stack (Blaak 31), an HQ for law firm Loyens & Loeff. Another wayward pile is planned for the market’s northern flank. It’s a pig’s ear of planning as novelty form making.
Maas defends the monumentality of the Markthal’s ‘pumped up’ architecture as ‘an intriguing contradiction’. He argues that massing the components of the brief in a large-scale building has had a multiplier effect, with the plaza in front having a ‘nicer atmosphere’, and more shoppers now in the outdoor market, as well as in the covered hall. That’s an optimistic perspective but certainly the additional big buildings and the landscaping and tree-planting planned for the Binnenrotte frontage this March can only help begin − if not entirely successfully − to contain its brutal enormity.
For Maas, his building does exactly what it says on the tin − communicating its functions directly to a viewer who doesn’t need to be a sophisticate to understand it. It is unashamedly populist and aims to improve Rotterdam’s cheap food culture without becoming decadent or elitist. A minority of the stallholders have come inside where the rents are similar to those for the pitches outdoors, but the stallholder must be open seven days a week. Clubbing outlets together in this way, suggests Maas, will help small businesses survive in the face of the retail giants.
There’s an expectation here that a city with great market halls will have a great food culture and it seems to apply whether looking at Madrid, Melbourne or Montreal. The reality can be entirely otherwise though; Newcastle’s handsome Grainger Market or the Kirkgate covered market in Leeds (Europe’s largest), do not seem to be noticeably improving their host communities’ cuisine, for all their authenticity.
The Markthal doesn’t, however, even feel like a market despite Maas’s claim that some 20 per cent of stallholders are collectives or family businesses. It is essentially a food court. A great many of the stalls are places to eat − sushi, waffles, tapas, fresh juices − while the majority of others sell luxury goods such as chocolates, nuts and European charcuterie. Only one greengrocer was spotted on my visit and that the type where the fruit looks hand polished. A few chain stores have crept in which Maas accepts as the price for reducing the developer’s risk in this untested (in a Dutch context) concept.
Admittedly, this trend is also true of established markets such as Barcelona’s tourist-infested La Boqueria and the just refurbished central market of Florence − each of which, like the Markthal, has a cooking school. And, increasingly London’s Borough market is similarly more about destination shopping and dining. But it is still hard to see how the Markthal significantly adds to Rotterdam’s food culture beyond a very visible statement of investment in the idea of it. ‘Maybe’, says Maas, ‘the dramatic space gives attention to people’s role [in changing this culture]. Its intelligence is not always clear.’ The below-ground servicing and sterility of the market itself means though that there is none of that characteristic market buzz and messiness. For one thing that would be inimical to the residents looking down from above.
For all these drawbacks, the numbers suggest that the Markthal is a commercial success. As have been the apartments above; half were built for sale and almost all (in marked contrast to OMA’s half-deserted De Rotterdam) have found buyers including most of the 24 penthouses. This despite each unit having an exceptionally deep plan and their market hall ends being undeniably gloomy with their reliance on borrowed light from the hall’s glazed ends. The wilful shape of the building also makes for some memorably awkward internal spaces. One duplex penthouse visited has a large windowless room with a raked floor on its lower level and two bedrooms of its three looking into its small light-well. The suggestion that the lightless space could be used as a home cinema becomes less far-fetched when you hear that one buyer is combining two penthouses and talking of building a swimming pool.
There is curiosity value then in MVRDV’s immovable feast with its seemingly calculated jolie laide proportions and it has brought vigour to a corner of the city demanding it. But for all its noodle-headed re-shaping and architectural gymnastics, Rotterdam has failed repeatedly in its mission to get urbanistically fit. Replacing the starvation of post-war zoning with a stodgy diet of instant icons − all those big-budget cantilevers and weirdly wobbly facades − has hindered as much as helped.
Is the Markthal’s alternative, say a pair of well-considered blocks and a market hall similar to that built in Ghent by Robbrecht & Daem and Marie-José Van Hee (AR February 2013). really such plain fare by comparison? Rotterdam’s grand gestures are leading to a danger of recreating la Grande Bouffe.