Stocking the City

The Architecture and Infrastructure of Public Food Markets

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    9: Interview with Miguel Usandizaga, Sant Cugat

    Chris DeHenzel
    Jul 18, '12 7:43 AM EST

    One of the few publications I've seen about the contemporary design of markets was published in 2011 by Miguel Usandizaga, Professor of Architecture at ETSAV-UPC, with Jose Maria Garcia Fuentes, titled Architectural Design of Markets, 2005-2010.  The research and design proposals presented in this publication have contributed to the “Barcelona model for Market Renovation”, which was developed through consultation between ETSAV and IMMB, Barcelona’s Institute of Municipal Markets.  In the preface of the book, Usandizaga makes a convincing case for why markets should receive more architectural attention.  He inquires,

    “If markets are so important to cities, then why have their architecture and urban influence scarcely been studied?  There is most certainly a kind of taboo about markets.  A city’s places of worship may be its heart, and its libraries its brain – indeed, we treat these buildings as such, but a city’s markets are its belly.” (p.10)

    Les Halles la nuit, by Robert Doisneau

    The ‘market as belly’ metaphor, a reference to Emile Zola’s classic novel, The Belly of Paris, (which has been a wonderful travel companion this past week!) may not carry the same cognitive/symbolic meaning in Barcelona today as it did in Paris during the 1870s, but in many cities markets remain ‘outside’ the scope of contemporary architectural design (if we think about them as a relevant typology at all).  Why?

    According to Usandizaga,  “… markets are ‘a functioning anachronism’.  Despite the fact that market spaces and buildings are the most public and open spaces of our cities, their architecture and their role in urban development have remained widely unknown, especially in terms of their historic changes and local character.” (p.12)

    The market buildings that we now consider ‘historic’ in Europe, the United States, and some parts of South America, were constructed in the mid-19th century to 20th century, and employed the most innovative building technology (cast iron, steel and plate glass) made possible by industrial processes.  These markets share a conceptual lineage with shed-roof train stations of the era and canonical projects such as Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. 

    Gare de Lyon, Paris by flickr user Damien []


    The Crystal Palace, by Antje Majewski

    Obviously, everything has changed since then, and will continue at a more and more rapid pace – including but not limited to social, economic and technological conditions.  How can contemporary architectural and urban planning practice respond to these demands, and generate new opportunities for relationships between food, culture and the city.

    2011 Graduation pavilion at SCI-ARC, by Oyler Wu Collaborative - I just love it...

    This process of adaptation is something the Barcelona system is zeroed in on.  Usandizaga explains a couple of these shifting demands:

    “Firstly, when these markets were built, they did not include refrigerators, nor did shoppers have refrigerators at home.  This meant that people had to shop every day for the food that they would eat on that day.  It also implied that they markets stalls had to be set up and taken down relatively quickly, meaning that extensive loading and unloading spaces were required.

    Secondly, at the time these markets were built, daily shopping was done by housewives, in the morning, after the markets were set up at dawn, but before the afternoon heat could affect the food. 

    Society has since changed radically, creating a demand for sensible, utile and productive market designs that make ideal training projects for architecture students.” (p.14)


    I had the opportunity to meet recently with Miguel Usandizaga, at ETSAV-UPC in Sant Cugat, near Barcelona.  


    CdH: Thanks for meeting with me, Professor.  My interests span from the urban system, how markets function to support local agriculture and economies - to architectural design.  I am particularly interested in the contemporary idea of how a market functions and how the design of a market can be innovative architecturally, because in the United States the few markets that we do have that have been renovated are ‘historic’.  Indoor markets are not seen as a current part of the food system, they’re seen more as a history museum or a recreational space.  My project is intended to be in some way to be a provocation to that sensibility.  American farmers markets are becoming more successful in connecting rural and urban economies, but they often operate on a boutique scale, and exclusive to a limited public.  European markets tend to be the most progressive in terms of how they think about the architecture supporting urban and economic systems.  Can you explain a bit about your work with markets that has culminated in this book? 

    MU: Initially, we developed three different workshops in 3 different European countries.,,  Now we are producing a new one.  The name is very funny. SMANFUL (for Suburban Mobility and New Forms of Urban Life). We made three workshops, the first in Sant Cugat, the second in Istanbul, and the third was in Lisbon.  Our partners were coming from these places.  These were projects developed by international teams of students in 15 days of work.  In Istanbul we planned an intervention in real parts of the Grand Bazaar.  You have to go there.  


    Student work from the ASICUP workshop, 2009


    CdH: I definitely will.  So, did the workshops include analysis of how the markets function currently and then proposals for how they can be improved?

    MU: No, normally we propose very definite tasks for the students.  For instance, in Sant Cugat, we have an old market built at the beginning of the 20th century.  The intervention to be planned for marketplaces is quite clear, as to what they need.  Also in Istanbul, it was an intervention at a particular place at the border of the Grand Bazaar.  And in Lisbon, it was an old and not very good working market place, and the question was to revitalize the whole area. 

    Normally we don’t analyze in geographical terms or in broader urban terms, rather we stay very close to the architectural scale.  We are more interested in the education of our students at this size than in the whole system of markets.

    After these international workshops, we organized two different studio design projects in ETSAV lasting 4 months, and you can see the development from the more general approaches in the workshops to the more developed studio projects.  And finally, we have had an important amount of diploma thesis projects using the question of the market as a theme for the projects.

    CdH: Are you involved in any way with the Institute of Markets in Barcelona?


    MU: Yes, of course.  This map comes from the Markets Institute, and it’s a very interesting map of the city because you can see the place of the different markets working in the area, and the area you can cover within 5 or 10 minutes walking.  And as you can see here, the newer areas of Barcelona, the developments of working class neighborhoods built in the 60s and 70s, they also have their own markets, acting as a kind of center of activity, especially the commercial activity but also the social activity of the places.  I suppose you have to realize, that if you are studying markets and you are in Barcelona, you are in the best place in the world. 

    CdH: Haha, well that’s why I’m here.

    MU: Is it just a coincidence, or did you know this before coming here?

    CdH: No, I was aware.  There seem to be more resources here for understanding the way markets work than there are anywhere else.  Compared to anywhere else I’ve visited, there is much more active involvement in Barcelona government agencies and universities in the planning and architecture of markets, and keeping the markets an active part of the culture and food distribution system.  Have you been involved in the design of any of the markets?

    MU: Not directly.  We’ve contributed as consultants to the Barcelona market redevelopment model, and the focus of our research and many diploma thesis projects has been about the renovation of markets, even those like Bon Pastor, which are in more recently developed areas of the city.

    CdH: I've been to visit the temporary market at Sant Antoni several times.  The way that the market has been displaced into the street (due to the renovation of the market hall) has had an interesting impact on the life of that neighborhood.  In a way, the few temporary structures (which I will be devoting more attention to in coming posts) seem to be more public in a sense, more connected to the street, than the permanent indoor markets.  What is the significance of the temporary markets to the functioning of the system?

    The old market being renovated (left) and the temporary market at Sant Antoni.  Photo by author

    Aerial view of Sant Antoni temporary market location, by Ravetllat-Ribas Arquitectura

    MU: A market is a very living place, and if you leave it empty for two or three years for remodeling it, all the commercial activity around the market decreases very fast.  The reason for building temporary markets around the market buildings that are being renovated is that if you do not do so, which has happened in Sabadell, for instance.  They have an old market that was renovated in the early 2000s (and didn’t build a temporary market), and there was loss of activity in the commercial area around the market, which has been very difficult to recuperate.  Another problem is that people who are working in the markets are not the owners of the building, the building belongs to the municipality, and the vendors pay rent to the municipality.  Very often the stalls are rented by older people, and they don’t want to modify anything.

    There is a constant fight between the municipality and the owners of the stalls about opening hours.  The municipality wants to keep the markets open longer to make it more convenient for consumers, but many of the shopkeepers insist on keeping it the traditional way (often closed in the afternoon from approx. 2-5), which was normal when nobody had refrigerators at home.  I remember when I was a child and my mother would shop for food every day, for the food that we were going to eat that day.  She enjoyed going to the market, which was also a very important social space. 

    CdH: In those days there was also more of a gender divide, as you have noted, a place for women to shop while men were at work. 

    MU: Absolutely.  Yes, social roles have changed significantly since markets were initially designed. Because many women are working out of the house, and the relationship between men and women is not as it once was.  Markets worked very intensively during the mornings in that time, when they were built, with a lot of small stores selling various things, and nowadays the stalls have become bigger because they have accumulated several stalls in one shop, with people working for them.  It is not the family activity that it once was, and we don’t go every morning to the market, it’s impossible.  What would you do with your food in your office?  So, yes, many things have changed.  Nowadays it is also possible to load and unload the markets from the basement, with trucks and lorries.  

    CdH: Is that how markets are typically structured in Barcelona, with the loading docks below ground?

    MU: Nowadays yes.  This is making appear quite an amount of space for public uses around the markets.  When markets were built for deliveries by horse carriages, there was no refrigeration, and it wasn’t possible to load and unload in the basement.  Everybody came with his carriage in the morning, unloaded, went out, and it required quite a huge surface for this activity in the street. 

    La Concepcio, for instance, was the first market renovated after 2000, and has become the model for other renovations.  It opens the main floor for selling food, and you have other peripheral uses.  There is a supermarket.  The combination of a supermarket and a market, which was regarded with some suspicion in the planning process, has proven to work very well.  You know what you need at the supermarket compared to the market…

    Mercat La Concepcio, by author.  Supermarket in a market. 

    CdH: It doesn’t seem so common for the market to expand into the streets in Barcelona.  In Mexico, for example, the market may expand out of its permanent structure onto the street, once or twice a week to become a sort of fair, maybe even connecting separate market structures. 

    MU: No, I think that the organization of markets is quite rigid in Spain, which doesn’t allow for so much informal activity.  It is happening, but in the outer parts of the cities, and hidden somehow, but not in the center of cities.  There are very strict rules for health and sanitation.  We have had serious cholera epidemics in the 19th century, and so these laws are quite clear. 

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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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