Stocking the City

The Architecture and Infrastructure of Public Food Markets

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    8: Barcelona - City of Public Systems

    Chris DeHenzel
    Jun 15, '12 7:58 AM EST

    In an effort to post to this blog more regularly, I will be writing shorter, more casual updates throughout the remaining 7 months of my trip, starting now… from a city called Barcelona.  


    Public Systems

    Last Monday, I attended the First Annual Symposium of Mediterranean Markets, which was attended by representatives from nearly every Mediterranean country in Europe.  The event was organized by an organization called the Institut Municipal de Mercats de Barcelona (IMMB), a government program that supports the city’s system of 43 markets through research, redevelopment, marketing and management. 

    All photos and diagrams by the author unless otherwise noted.


    The fact that such an organization exists at all may be hard to wrap your head around.  Not only is the city government saying, yeah, markets are cool, they are also funding significant renovation projects (19 in the past 20 years!) that are architecturally significant, relevant to contemporary consumer trends, efficient from an infrastructural and distribution perspective, and reflective of impressive amounts of public interest data. 


    Market opening hours per day.  (Full circle represents 24 hours)


    Unlike the market system in Mexico City, where the city dumped huge amounts of money into infrastructure that has since been left to rot (with the exception of the Central de Abastos), Barcelona’s markets have evolved with the city, and will continue to adapt to the fluctuations that produce changing demand.  The “Barcelona Market Redevelopment Model”, as they call it, reflects an ideology about public policy, where markets are part of the city’s municipal services (funded by taxes), like libraries or parks, and through their design, embedded in the social, spatial, and economic fabric of the city. 


    Marketing document by the City of Barcelona, Institute of Municipal Markets

    Despite the recognition that every city is a unique and constantly changing cultural concoction, Barcelona’s redevelopment “model” has received serious attention from other (especially Mediterranean) cities, and for better or worse, the Institute is now offering its consulting services to cities that wish to adopt/adapt the model to their specific conditions. 

    When I walked into the conference I was handed a bag full of information about Barcelona’s market system, including a substantial document titled “The Markets of the Mediterranean: Management Models and Good Practices”.  Despite the rather dry title, this little gem is packed full of compelling information about Barcelona’s markets, and serves as a comparative analysis of market systems in 11 other cities. 

    One of the exciting things for me to discover in this document (which I expected from other readings about Barcelona’s market system), is the significance of architecture and urban design as a component in how markets creatively adapt to changing consumer demands.  While this sometimes requires basic logistical modifications, such as incorporating underground parking below a 19th century structure, the concept of the urban strategy is theoretically comprehensive.  We can analyze the impact of markets on cities and food systems at many scales, but for our purposes, it is useful to look at three: territories, cities, and architecture.



    Pulling in references from A-list historians like Fernand Braudel and Henri Pirenne, the “Markets” authors argue, “Markets, in short, while facilitating the transportation and exchange of products, have contributed to shaping territories.”  Territory is a word you’ve heard before, perhaps in the writing of James Corner, William Cronon, or Antoine Picon.  Picon describes the construction of territories as opening up “the possibility to exploit, in a comprehensive way, mines and fields as well as people and their skills… coinciding with the emergence of the modern nation-state and the development of a unified market for goods and labour.” (1)  In this way, markets effect broad scales of infrastructure, and decisions on a municipal level can have impacts on external agricultural practices, or vice versa.


    Urban Design

    From the urban design perspective, markets are what Mercedes Vidal of BCN Ecologia, a local urban think-tank, describes as “magnets for complexity”.  Urban complexity, as she described during her lecture at the conference, refers to the mixture of programs or activities in an urban area.  According to the website, "Complexity refers to the relationship between the urban system and its environment, and is a measure of the levels of diversity and organization in an urban system."


    Complexity Map of Barcelona by BCN Ecologia


    The objective for generating complexity may be understood as the very opposite of modernist urban planning, in terms of principles of segregation of program.  Urban complexity is obviously not a new concept, but Vidal articulately illustrated how markets in Barcelona catalyze this type of complexity, attracting creative entrepreneurs to cater to the increased pedestrian activity around markets.  Depending on the architecture, indoor markets may not be the most public of food systems, compared to a shop that opens directly to the street, but they tend to stimulate systems that are smaller, more tactical, more public…

    According to the “Markets” document, “in some cases, a market has involved the development of a city around it, which has given it a specific layout and, on others, the urban concentration has involved the location of different markets as a fundamental supply service for numerous people… For this reason, urban markets can give way to a specific architecture and also to a determined urban layout.”  This “determined”, however, does not connote “pre-determined”.  If the markets of Barcelona are anything, they are diverse - built at different times, with different budgets and available construction technologies, in different neighborhoods, with different social and economic classes in mind, and for different consumer preferences. 



    If the recent renovations of Santa Caterina market and La Barceloneta market are any indicator, Barcelona isn’t shy about how contemporary architecture can participate in the evolution of the city and its food system.  These markets are no more “preserved” than the system itself, because the municipality recognizes innovation as being more than skin deep. 

    Mercat Santa Caterina


    Section perspective, Mercat Fort Pienc

    At the same time, many markets from the late 19th century have been (and continue to be) renovated in order to keep these fabulous structures intact, but these decisions seem to be made without the typical fetishized concept of “preservation” that we so typically see in the United States.  According to the BCN markets website, “Barcelona’s markets are looking towards the future with the introduction of new services to meet the commercial needs of the 21st century.  And they also have an eye on the past, as the buildings in which they are housed are a reflection of the history of the city and its people.”  Think about this relative to discussions about public markets in the US, and you’ll realize that it’s not just our architecture that is stale, but it’s the way we’ve conceived of the typology as being limited to what it once was.  


    Plan/Section/Elevation overlays.  Mercat de La Concepcio


    The recently remodeled Mercat La Concepcio, now including a mini-grocery store and underground parking, in the Eixample District


    Market Renaissance

    While the US is experiencing something of a "public markets renaissance", spawned perhaps in no small part by American tourists now visiting La Boqueria in Barcelona, as if it was the only one.  Find me one "new" public market in the US, however, that isn't designed to look 200 years old, or is jammed into a "historic" building?  Can the system be progressive, if our concept of its architectural and urban manifestation is so limited?


    La Boqueria, the famous covered market that has spawned shallow imitations


    Vendors in La Boqueria now sell pre-packaged juices intended exclusively for tourists. 


    Obviously the tradition and ideology of public services are different here in Barcelona than anywhere in the US, and the "Barcelona Model" is far from what we could expect to implement immediately as a system managed by any municipal agency.  I am fascinated however, in addition to the spatial and structural possibilities, in what the management opportunities might be for implementing a more robust (and potentially profitable) system of more or less permanent markets based on a public model.  Imagine if Oakland got a massive grant from Michelle Obama's public health initiative? (Thanks to my former principal, Todd Ray, at Studio27 for the link!)  Could such a system be transformative on a significant urban level, as well as for public health, agriculture and local economies?  


    (1) Picon, Antoine. “What has happened to territory?” Architectural Design. Territory: Architecture Beyond Environment. Wiley & Sons, 2010. P.95


    • Medit

      "Early California farmers and ranchers were the Spanish… the legacy that inspires the name Boqueria" says Boqueria California...

      well, BC, you got this wrong (as usual): Boqueria is a CATALAN name, not fu*king spanish!

      when are people gonna learn that Catalonia and Spain are two completely different beasts?

      Jun 15, 12 1:38 pm  · 

      who are you calling, "You people"?  

      Haha, thanks for pointing that out Medit.  You are absolutely right, that most Americans perceived Catalan to be a dialect of Spanish (apparently because that's often what they are told in high school Spanish class).  For clarification, the Catalan language did NOT evolve out of Spanish, as many people assume, but is a branch of Latin no more similar to "Castilian" Spanish than other Romance languages.  According to some linguistic classification systems, Catalan is considered Gallo-Romance, a broad language group including French, whereas Spanish is categorized as Ibero-Romance.  

      Obviously, differences in language are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to understanding variations in culture between Catalonia and other parts of Spain.  The spirit of autonomy is everywhere in Barcelona, from street art to official public documents.  According to a recent market publication from the Catalonia Investment Agency, "Catalonia is a very pleasant country to live in; Barcelona has consolidated its position as the leading European city in terms of quality of life."  

      The Madrid vs. Barcelona rivalry extends far beyond Real and. FC, into aspects of culture and identity that a visitor may never uncover.  Then again, the rest of Spain is complicated and multi-cultural as well, and not everyone west of Catalonia supported Franco's regime.  Cultural differences are revealed as much in food and architecture as they are in language, however...and parsing these differences is a a big part of my objective.  I appreciate all the comments that help to clarify all of this along the way.  

      Jun 18, 12 6:38 am  · 

      thanks for sharing, looking forward to more!

      Jun 20, 12 11:52 pm  · 

      Well, the name of "Boquería" according to the legend, comes from the open mouth of visitors that saw the trophys of the war against moorish troops in Almeria that were hanged at the door. At the time, catalan was not the only language spoken in Barcelona, it could perfectly come from another "fu*cking" language as well. 

      I have to say that I disagree with part of the analysis. There's been a lot of struggle to keep public markets working as they used to.And some have been turned into supermarkets or places for luxury shops. This is the reason for which some of them have attracted spectacular investments: Tourism is the main industry in Barcelona, wich gives, most of the time income, but not quality of life.  

      The real public markets can be appreciated in the outskirts or in new markets like the one in Arc del Triumf, which are part of mixed-use buildings or old ones that go on working. 

      The same struggle occurs in Madrid, where markets at the city center are being refurbished at the moment. Both cities are not as different as people tend to think. 

      Jun 21, 12 7:11 am  · 

      perhaps the most important part of the system that you've overlooked is where the food actually comes from.  That will help you connect at least some of the dots in terms of the state of these markets in the US.


      Haymarket in Boston is not a local farmer's market - Boston (or more specifically, Chelsea) is the last stop for wholesale produce heading up the east coast, so after the local grocery stores pick through what they want, the sellers need to get rid of produce at cut-rate prices otherwise they'll have to dump it out.  what you see at Haymarket is literally the end of that stage of the food network.  I believe this is what many of the public markets in the US used to be, the first stop for food once it reached the cities from somewhere else.

      Jun 21, 12 3:15 pm  · 

      Thanks again for the comments.  It's true that the markets here have received 'spectacular investments', but as I understand it, it's almost all, if not completely, public investment.  I don't mean to gloss over the complicated politics, logistics, and cultural aspects of this investment, on the contrary, it is the contested space of food distribution that is so interesting.  There was a gap (most of the late 70s and early 80s) where it seems like markets here were not a priority, but they are now a significant priority (I have yet to visit Madrid on this trip, but I'm getting there).  There are several markets currently under construction, and many built in newer districts.  I am going later today to visit the Bon Pastor market with Mercedes Vidal (from BCN Ecologia), which was built in 1960 and is currently being renovated.  It is also true that the reinvestment in the markets more or less coincided with the '92 Olympics, but it's not only the markets in the 'tourist areas' that have been renovated.  

      Ultimately, the system of markets here are a local system, and with a few exceptions, don't make much money from tourists.  Not many tourists shop for fresh food to cook at home, they're eating out.  

      The question about where food comes from is critical, and I'll talk about it more in later posts about Barcelona, as I have tried to do in previous posts about other cities.  Unlike farmers markets in the US, the vendors in Barcelona markets are not farmers themselves, and the question of 'food miles' does not seem to be a priority.  Food is distributed almost exclusively through a massive wholesale distribution center, called Mercabarna, on the outskirts of the metropolis.  I have not yet been out there, but it's on the list...

      I've made a few changes to my itinerary, and Barcelona will be my home base for the next 5 months (don't worry, there will still be a lot of traveling), but there will be much more to come about the Catalan capital...thanks for reading!

      Jun 25, 12 6:26 am  · 

      Unlike farmers markets in the US,


      did you read what I wrote?  I just said that Haymarket (in Boston, a US city) is literally the end of the road for wholesalers after all the local grocers have bought up the best stuff.  none of the vendors there are actual farmers.  also - I'm not sure if there's anywhere else in the US where you can actually haggle with people when you buy produce.

      Jun 26, 12 12:00 am  · 

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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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