A Personal but Comprehensive Review of the Markthal, Possibly Interrupted

In 2014, Dutch architecture firm MVRDV made headlines upon completion of their Markthal,a series of 228 residences engraved within an overhanging arch, encasing both a market place and an underground parking spot in the heart of RotterdamUpon personal discussions and observations, I have noticed that the project, led by Winy Maas has been praised for its iconic look, but gets the stamp of glorified gentrification of a traditional marketplace. Interested in this clash, I was wondering what this space feels like. If it was a success, not only economically, but also architecturally. If it was worthy of the media attention it has. So, I decided to pay it a visit and experience the Markthal.

Arriving from the North, down Binnenrotte, I am making my way to the horseshoe mass which already emerged at the horizon. The wide street, which also leads to the Cube Houses, had become a busy open-air market, in front of the Markthal – as it usually does every Saturday. Like a gateway, an extra arm, it was slowly but surely teasing me for the building I was approaching. Stalls were settled on multiple rows through the 500 metres leading to the Markthal. 

“Een euro dos mangos!” shouts a stallholder, before clients flock around him in hopes of getting the best deals. 

The items sold on the street varied widely: Phone cases, vintage clothes, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, antiques, and intriguingly, a lot of bedding. With each step, one was hit by a whiff of rich spices, and with another, the sweet scent of freshly plucked fruit – a disparate series of contrasting scents, working in tandem, under the same grey sky. It would, fortunately, provide me with a more ordinary market to compare the Markthal to. Its shape was starting to appear, its distinguished artwork growing more detailed until it stood towering over me. My attention logically shifted from one market to the next.

Finally arriving close to the building, I found it striking how well its unusual shape sits within its context. From the side, the irregularities of the residences’ balconies complexify what could have been a simple series of horizontal slabs, tearing into the larger mass attractively. You read where the duplexes are, where the restaurants end and where the residences start. The light grey stone cladding soothes what otherwise would have been a ragged facade. Its curvy walls, which from outside are leaning in, away from you, reassure the visitors of its vertical proportionality. I sit outside in an adjacent green space to watch the MVRDV icon and its users. Contrasting the contemporary extravaganza that is the Markthal, this narrow park adorned with nothing but coloured pipes arranged in silhouettes of the Port’s industrial features (cranes or stacks of containers) gains from the business brought by the market, an energy quite refreshing for a city so calm as Rotterdam. Above, the Residents watch from their balconies, leisurely observing the spectacle of children playing and running around. Bikes litter the streets (a Dutch tradition), giving real energy to the surroundings. Friends huddle in groups, parents chat while training their eyes on their children as they conspired to conquer the plethora of multi-coloured structures. I stand up and make my way to the front of a building which I already know but am eager to study in more detail. At this stage in the story, an introduction of its makers may be appreciated. 

 MVRDV was created in 1993 by Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries, and is deeply rooted in Rotterdam’s DNA. The studio is based there and the previously cited creators worked either at OMA or Mecanoo before starting their firm – two firms also based in the second biggest Dutch city. Now notorious and working around the world, they first gained media attention thanks to their earlier works (the television centre Villa VPRO, the housing estate for elderly WoZoCo and the impressive multi-layered folie which is the Dutch Pavilion built for the 2000 Hannover EXPO). Their buildings are expressive in their massing and try to create innovative and social spaces (the OMA influence), while also being ‘quirky’ and surprising. As they state on their website, MVDRV tends to create “Happy and adventurous places”. They are fun, they are big on social media’s, they are trendy, but they only came 4th in the latest Archicup (an annual football competition between the Rotterdam architecture offices), losing an intense game against their rivals OMA. To be honest, their kits’ design was my favourite. Back to the Market.

The main entrance is generous, even extravagant; One of the largest glazed elevations I have ever personally stood in front of. It allows the Blaaktoren, the Cube Houses and the rest of the Rotterdam skyline to reflect on it superbly. I make my way to one of the three entrances, and music permeates the air, drawing me in. The first thing anyone who has ever been to the Markthal can agree on: there is an undeniable ‘wow-factor’; that feeling of surprise from seeing something so genuinely impressive you cannot say anything else than that. It’s a feeling that MVRDV often tends to create, and here it is no exception, thanks to that sensation of being small underneath the massive arched ceiling; and even if the Dutch have a reputation for being tall, even they must feel tiny. Its iconic ceiling, with its gigantic screen of fruits, vegetables and other foods, can make you feel like you could be crushed at any moment by a 5m long shrimp, but square windows intelligently break the pattern of this modern version of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Above me, some act as skylights allowing you to read the sky outside and I notice that it is sunnier outside. Surprisingly, the ceiling blends well with the stalls, and the children seem to gawk and stare at the clash of colours, taking pride in displaying their intellect by naming the familiar items adorned above. The space between the top of the stalls and the ceiling is subjectively disproportionate, perhaps that provides sound reasoning for the distinct air of discomfort swirling amongst the rambunctious crowd. , and one can regret an arrangement which could have offered a bit more vertical play or embrace a bit more of the shape of the shoe-horsed building. 

Under the arch, the layout is simple. A clear grid divides the space, and the stalls are all similar sizes, either full or divided in 2, sometimes 4 shops. When the stall contains a restaurant, food is cooked and collected downstairs and eaten on its roofs. The stalls here are the luxury of market stalls, nothing like the outside ones I was walking by a few minutes ago. They are practical, clean and they showcase their products very well. The employees move without constraints and tower above their customers, allowing them more visibility. Finer items and brands are also available: Leonidas chocolates, Infinitea, Cheese&more, Ibericus dry meat, Salad Boxes… While the traditional stroopwafels, the herrings and Gouda cheese are present, one can also enjoy a kebab, shiitake mushrooms, pastéis de Nata or even turn to find a Chinese supermarket. For a moment, one could imagine not being in Rotterdam, but in an international Bazaar, where tourists and locals collide in the 2-meter-wide corridors squeezed between opposing stalls. One can find a whole shop dedicated to nuts. And one to olives. And one to Dragon Breath; a weird ball of sugar which makes smoke when you bit into it. While the signs are written in Dutch, the menus can be easily understood thanks to a plastic replica of the served items present on their counter – a quite disgraceful but easy solution. I roam and freely pick samples from the generous shops which offers some. It is not warm inside, but an old man is eating ice cream from De Ijssalon, alone on his wheelchair, observing the multi-cultured flow of people doing back and forth in front of him. And I observe him.

 It is only after crossing the middle of the market that one is truly struck by the sheer scale of the building. A vertical rectangular extrusion cuts the floor to reveal what’s hidden underneath the surface. The pit disturbs the very flat arrangement of the stall and the unidirectional flow of people but is necessary for assuring direct link to the 4 underground levels. The first one consists of additional shops (an Albert Heijn supermarket and an unlucky floral shop) and the busy and only restrooms of the whole market. Lines of tourists gather, annoyed by the gate which prevents them from using them for free. One would think that in 2019 you wouldn’t have to pay to use restrooms. The 3 levels underneath are all dedicated to a massive parking lot. I finish a free sample of Energy Coke with my exploration of the Markthal. The other side of the building, while still a busy entrance, unfortunately, faces directly on to another building. On that side rests a giant chessboard, where a pair of siblings are currently using the knight as weapons in a captivating physical fight. I get myself a fruit salad and turn to take in the impressionable building for the last time of the day.

Now, numbers:

“150,000 people visit the building each week (eight million per year). Half of them are from Rotterdam and its metro area, the rest are from the Netherlands and abroad. An average visit to Markthal takes 45 minutes or more. Markthal attracts visitors from a wide range of economic groups (56% of visitors earn an above-average income, whilst 33% of visitors earn in the low-income range). 37% of visitors come to visit the market stalls; 10% come for the stalls and the gastronomy; 9% come exclusively for the shops; 11% come solely for the supermarket at the lower level. The average visitor spends 17 Euro each visit. The average weekly turnover of Market Hall is 1,3 million Euro. The annual turnover is approximately 63 million Euro. 29% of this turnover is reached at the stores, 18% at the restaurants, and 53% at market stalls.

Do those statistics solidify the Markthal’s position as a successful contemporary marketplace? From the look of it, it is an economic, social and cultural success. Architecturally speaking, the building manages to blend in residences, offices, and public space in one envelope, while being a new icon of Rotterdam to shine globally, confirming its position as one of the most interesting European cities in terms of contemporary architecture. It brings in real energy to a city which sleeps early and struggles to create places for people to gather, even if it is unfortunately not used in the evenings. Compared to other contemporary markets or food halls I have personally visited (Santa Caterina in Barcelona or Tivoli Food Hall in Copenhagen), the Markthal appears to be more generous and playful, yet maintains the hustle and bustle of a traditional market thanks in part to its narrow corridors. However, its disproportionate scale has a really disturbing feeling to it, and the arrangement of the stalls might feel a bit generic and boring. Nevertheless, the said stalls feel practical and convenient, with their divisions allowing them to grow or shrink with time, and adapt to the years, a goal most markets should aim at (even if in that case, they cannot grow outside of the Markthal). While it may feel unwelcoming to the commonality in its extravagance, most foods sold there is reasonably accessible. Even if one regrets that Winy Maas did not embrace more the chaotic aspect of the ordinary market which, even though it is less economically successful, a lot of people enjoy, the Markthal works well as a redefinition of the traditional market. I think that detractors of the Markthal do not see it as what it is not. It is not your traditional market. It is not a place where only the local everyday folk get their fruits and vegetables. What it is is an attraction, which is not per se a bad word. I think that once you read the building more like a food hall (while still keeping in mind that it has 200 flats in its walls) the building shines and offers a unique experience. It doesn’t erase the traditional market (still present outside its walls on Saturdays), it just expands it and adapts it to the requirements of this century. The Markthal is also an energy-efficient building, awarded a Very Good BREEAM rating. MVRDV, in their ‘happy’ approach to architecture, created a new icon which design intentions and apparent simplicity ultimately made it an instant icon.