Stocking the City

The Architecture and Infrastructure of Public Food Markets

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    7: Planning/Ephemera ... and It's Discontents (Santiago)

    Chris DeHenzel
    Jun 4, '12 3:15 PM EST

    Santiago's Central Markets


    All photos and diagrams by author unless otherwise noted.


    Image credit:


    There is a striking contrast between the four main sites that comprise Santiago’s market district, an area that spans the Rio Mapocho near the city’s cultural and business center.  These differences highlight shifts in the cultural perception of markets in the planning of urban food systems since the mid 19th century.  Currently, development pressure and political ideologies have generated debates about the enduring value of markets in Santiago and elsewhere. 


    Markets in urban context


    Mercado Central 

    On the south side of the river, just a few blocks from the heavily trafficked Plaza de Armas, tourists crowd-out Santiago residents at the Mercado Central, a market that was once appropriately named.  The structure of the Mercado Central was completed in 1872, on a site near the river that had served as an outdoor informal market.  Despite my initial assumptions, proximity to the rail terminal informed the location of the central market rather than the adjacent river, which is not consistently navigable and therefore not used for freight distribution. 


    Mercado Central public plaza


    The (only) two fruit stands inside Mercado Central

    The fruit, vegetable and meat vendors that Mercado Central was initially built to house have been evicted, (with a token few exceptions) in favor of more lucrative tenants, mostly upscale restaurants. The structure was later expanded to accommodate a fish market, which remains operational today, mainly because it attracts tourists and deals with restaurant orders.  I spoke with a man named Elias, the owner of a restaurant in the building, who admitted that the market wouldn’t survive without the rent from the restaurants, which pay 2 million pesos a month in rent (about $4,000).  Santiago remains the hub of the massive seafood industry in Chile (even most seafood you’ll eat in Valparaiso, on the coast, is distributed through Santiago), although the Mercado Central is now just an old figurehead, kept alive as a symbol through the cultural and political process of nostalgia.


    Fish vendor in Mercado Central


    Mercado Tirsa de Molina

    Just across the river, the city boasts a brand (spanking) new project, the Mercado Tirsa de Molina, designed by Iglesis Prat Arquitectos to replace an old aggregation of market stalls.  Intended as a new face of the Vega market district, the building is impressively iconic on an apparent shoestring budget.  Inverted pyramidal forms made of perforated (CNC-milled) plywood create a diaphanous roof canopy, spanning between simple vertical columns, which march rhythmically through the open interior. 

    Mercado Tirsa de Molina interior, from second floor


    The market is remarkably porous (both in terms of circulation and light), well connected and accessible, although somehow … empty.  In an attempt to ‘organize’ what was considered to be an informal, disorderly collection of vendors, the rather unsurprising outcome is that the ‘life’ of an effervescent market was castrated. 

    Thankfully it lacks the polished finish of a mall, and the architects seem to have been thoughtful about the market as a social and cultural as well as commercial space, but despite it’s integration with the street, they have given an incredible amount of the plan over to nothing. 


    Mercado Tirsa de Molina Urban and ground floor plan by Iglesis Prat Arquitectos


    As one person commenting on a Plataforma Arquitecto blog post about the market noted:

    “Sin embargo , al visitarlo me di cuenta de que el 80% de los locales no estan en uso , y no se produce mucho la mistica y vivencia de estar en un mercado , sino mas bien da la sensación de estar en una estación de metro a media mañana…"


    This roughly translates to the following (my own attempt at a translation from Spanish):

    However, upon visiting I realized that 80% of the premises was not in use, and it didn’t create the atmosphere and experience of a market, but more like being in a metro station at mid-morning.


    Photo credit: Pedro Mutis


    As a visitor you are left to speculate why the market doesn’t fell like a market, as you might sense a difference in an old friend long before realizing that they got a hair cut, or lost 5 pounds.  And yet, the ephemeral qualities of a market, perhaps like everything that happens spontaneously, aren’t always (or ever) rational, don’t necessarily follow the rules, either of neo-liberal free markets, government regulations, or even your latest crowd-sourced algorithm.  Does that mean they are outside the bounds of architecture and planning?  In my opinion, no, but there must be methods of participating in the evolution of a market (or any organic system) without assuming total control. 


    In some way, this reminds me of Michael Pollan’s critique of modern soil science in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  There are bound to be unintended effects when something as complex as humus is understood in the abstract as a chemical compound, elements of which can be isolated, extracted, and synthetically produced.  In a similar manner, certain cultural spaces cannot be abstracted and reproduced with the expectation that they will behave in the same way as if they had evolved without planning.  Depending on how responsive architects and municipal planners are to the street life of neighborhoods, some cities have managed to adopt agile policies that respond to independent tactics.  But planning is a complex institution that won’t adjust itself overnight.  Architecture must find a way to create a range of possibilities, to accommodate the fluctuations of action without stifling it, but this range is often predetermined before the ‘designer’ ever puts pen to paper. 

    The paradox of the Mercado Tirsa de Molina is that most public markets are desperately underfunded and unmaintained, but the financial support of the government often comes with a heavy hand, and stipulations for control – using imported standards.  Food systems can function as public infrastructure, but they need to be considered as cultural and social systems before the economics, planning or architectural will fit the need. 


    La Vega 

    At least (some of) the vendors previously operating on the site of Mercado Tirsa de Molina got to stay put, even though the new building (which we can take as representative of municipal ideology) may leave something to be desired.  According to a 2004 article by Maria Elena Ducci, Professor of Urban Planning at Catolic University in Santiago:

    “The existence of Santiago’s La Vega, which is Chile’s major public market, is being threatened.  The interior of the Vega Central Market houses approximately 1,000 retail businesses, while nearly 500 wholesale or semi-wholesale businesses surround it. If the real estate business had its way, La Vega would be relocated, not only because it is dirty, stinking, unsafe, and creates traffic congestion, but most important, because the value of the land on which it sits, seven blocks from Santiago’s central Plaza de Armas, is too high to justify its present use.”


    Traffic between La Vega and La Vega Chica (in view)

    La Vega is more than your typical public retail market.  Built in 1912 to replace the Mercado de Abastos, which had succumbed to a fire in 1864, it continues to operate as a wholesale distribution center for restaurants, ferias (street markets), and small corner stores, while being accessible to an increasingly dense urban population and even a handful of adventurous tourists.  Much smaller and more central than most wholesale markets, La Vega’s weird hybrid scale makes it inefficient for large-scale wholesale, which has allowed supermarkets with private distribution hubs to poach from a somewhat apathetic consumer base. 


    Many Mexican and South American markets have long-span "saw-tooth"  steel truss roof structures, clad in corrugated metal and open to the sky.  I have yet to encounter one that wasn't oriented almost exactly due north, like the structure at La Vega, pictured here.  This reduces the need for electrical lighting, although not entirely (as you can see), but also works to ventilate and cool the space underneath.  Unfortunately, I didn't get to see how it performs in the rain...


    There is no doubt that the city, especially the surrounding district, known as La Chimba, depends on La Vega as an economic generator as much as a social space with embedded cultural identity.  Ducci noted that nearly 10,000 people living in Santiago depend either directly or indirectly on La Vega, which may be a conservative estimate, not counting many producers.  This hasn’t stopped other cities from abandoning their market buildings along with public programs that support local farmers.  But while some American and European cities have since recognized that something was missing without public systems of food distribution, Santiago has managed to hold on to La Vega, or to put it more accurately, the vendors who operate there have managed to hold off developers because they own the land in a cooperative trust. 

    The problems or annoyances associated with integrating a market into the contemporary city cannot be ignored, although Ducci argues, “they have been solved by cities that are committed to protecting and preserving their markets. By drawing upon current technology, all of these problems can be solved.”  Of course, ‘technologies’ (like refrigeration, fertilizer or credit-swap agreements) are the double-edged sword that got us into this energy, ecological and economic…shall we say, predicament, but without which, a discussion about food systems as public infrastructure would fall on far more deaf ears.

    Ultimately, La Vega is only one market, and whatever system may have existed in Santiago has since collapsed, but if there were ever a chance to rebuild such as system, a publicly accessible, central market would play a pivotal role.




    La Vega interior Storefronts (a photo mini-essay)









    Next up... Barcelona, where I just arrived!


    All of my photos (and more) can be seen at my flickr account, here

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About this Blog

I am a graduate M.Arch/MLA student at UC Berkeley, and grateful recipient of the 2011-2012 John K. Branner Fellowship, an annual traveling fellowship awarded by the UC Berkeley Department of Architecture. I will spend the 2012 calendar year visiting public food markets in major cities on 5 continents to research the relationship between markets and the infrastructure of food systems, focusing on the cultural and urban design implications of local economies. This blog will follow my journey...

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