The new MVRDV’s Markthal in Rotterdam counted its millionth visitor after just three months had passed from its opening.
Joining together the function of living and shopping in the hearth of Rotterdam, it seems like a huge success. But is that entirely true? Considering the informal, vivid atmosphere of market halls a rare value, I wonder.
“Throughout history, markets have been neutral ground, encouraging people to gather,make connections, discover their similarities, and appreciate their differences. […]In a society so often marked by divisions rather than commonalities, an incredible thing happens at markets: people talk to one another. Perhaps it’s the informal environment, the shared interest in uncommon and beautiful varieties of fruits and vegetables, or the joyful mood created in bustling markets”
(Spitzer et al., 1995)
“So what is it that makes the market hall and its architecture so special? The market hall affects all our senses, accomplishing something that commercial architecture nowadays rarely does.”
It is, indeed, very hard to find a space with an atmosphere as lively and vibrant as the one in market halls. There is no other place where people enjoy being part of such a hustle, surrounded by endless amounts of colours, shapes, smells and noises, with other people excitedly shouting and talking to each other, and strangers getting into a discussion while waiting in a line. Since the vivid ambiance of such a place with rather insubstantial qualities is very fragile, the architecture has to be smart enough not to ruin it. Being a sensitive support to cater for the intangible essence of a market place is extremely difficult and the balance is surprisingly loose.
Many market halls, built in the past, have proven to possess qualities needed to keep that essence throughout times; therefore they offer a great possibility to learn from. Decades later, the new MVRDV’s Markthal in Rotterdam counted its millionth visitor after just three months had passed from its opening. The on-going agitation around the building invites us to believe it is a phenomenal achievement. However, it also provides a great chance to step back a little to be critical and think about the role that architecture plays in the case of markets and their specific atmosphere.
When picturing a good market hall, most of us would probably come up with an image of a historical, sometimes industrial building resembling places such as the well-known Central Market Hall in Budapest or the famous Mercat de la Boqueria in Barcelona. When entering such a market, all our senses immediately start to recognize the lively chatter and vivid ambiance inside. While listening to the surrounding swarm, we start seeing many different things, and with yet with another blink of the eye, we find ourselves in a fantastic, vibrant, and colourful space. Thee sound of a non-stop gabble is carried through the whole place with frequent sale announcements breaking through. It is full, it is crowded, it is alive. The inviting atmosphere leads us into the very world of a market place and allows us to get lost, which is an experience nowadays hard to find.
A well-designed market is an infinite source of unintentional meetings and social interactions. Because the distance between the vendor and his customers is so small, the interaction is natural. In the overall buzz, everyone feels comfortable talking to strangers when they meet at the same stand, and because there is no private space to hide, everyone is expected to behave the best.
Conscious architecture, which is aware of all that is happening, creates opportunities for these situations. It creates routes wide enough to allow people to stop and talk without blocking the flow of others. At the same time, it creates routes not too wide to feel worried to start talking. It creates the closeness, the crowdedness of the place where people are forced to bump into each other. In this sense, the importance of architecture is immense, although not obvious and straightforward at the first glance. Architecture creates background for the vibrant market life to live and grow.
The two earlier mentioned market halls, both with a long and successful tradition, can demonstrate that as well. Their decent architecture provides a safe and solid environment which very modestly and neatly shelters the buzz of people inside and all their activities. It guards the fragile lively atmosphere and complements it at the same time by standing still, allowing the exciting noises, mixed together into an enjoyable jabber, hover in the space. It forms a decent, yet a very important support for the diverse environment of a market place.
This is, in my eyes, where the new Markthal in Rotterdam stumbles. Because of its dual function of living and shopping, the building itself becomes a very accentuated and expressive object, and literally swallows the frail ambiance of the market. Big gestures of the building, in terms of its scale, its form as well as its flamboyant decorations, overpower the gentle informality of the market environment. All of a sudden, the market becomes a thing to watch from an apartment rather than a safe, neutral ground for meetings and shopping. Being watched and not being able to see questions the easiness of the atmosphere in a blink. There are no vendors shouting and although the whole place is very diverse, it is hard to get lost in. Here, with just one lean, the architecture no longer is the market’s backdrop but rather stars the main role, and just like that, the balance is gone.