Between earth and table: the markets of Barcelona

When immersed in the bustle of city life, it’s easy to lose sight of the constant evolution of the urban environment. A city is continuously shaped by its inhabitants and by the influence and interactions between its geography, history, policy and planning, innovation, economics and architecture. Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia (in the northeastern corner of Spain) is a city in which past and present coincide. Even the most cursory glance reveals a city of many styles: from medieval churches, Antoni Gaudí’s extravagant modernisme to the contemporary blue concrete of Herzog and de Meuron and Jean Nouvel’s colourful ‘penis’. While grounded in tradition, Barcelona keeps its finger on the pulse of modern trends. There is nothing coy about this confident city.

Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar, aka “the penis” in Barcelona. Photo courtesy Pau Garcia Solbes (CC license) via Flickr.

Barcelona has had a turbulent history, since its foundation as Barcino by the Romans. Stretching over 2000 years, it has suffered invaders, brutal battles, defeats, interminable wars, bloody uprisings, civil unrest, merciless suppression, bombardment from air and sea, and over three decades of oppression by a hostile dictatorship. In the face of adversity, its inhabitants have cultivated an identity as resilient, fiercely independent people, deeply connected to a romantic Arcadian past and endowed with nationalistic fervor and pride in their Catalan language. Barcelona has spawned revolutionary anarchists, socialists and communists, but also wealthy industrialists, world class architects, writers and musicians, possibly Christopher Columbus, Narcis Montoriol (the inventor of the submarine), the double agent “Garbo”, Barça Football Club and Ferran Adrià, the molecular gastronomist.

The Barcelonese identity is encapsulated in the city’s 39 thriving produce markets – the hub of each city district. The original markets can be traced back to at least the tenth century, when they were informal, outdoor collectives of farmers selling their produce directly to the public. As in many other prosperous European cities during the boom years of the Industrial Revolution and into the beginning of the twentieth century, money was poured into grandiose civic projects. Barcelona’s modernista architects, exemplified by Antoni Gaudí, transformed the city. Patronised by prosperous industrialists, they not only designed lavish private dwellings and public buildings, they revolutionised the building of factories and bodegas (wineries). As part of this boom, the expanding, sprawling, insanitary street markets were organised into extravagant, purpose-built glass and iron halls. Simultaneously, agriculture was changing as small producers were squeezed out by larger enterprises and the distribution of produce was commercialised with the emergence of wholesalers and retailers. Produce markets were at the forefront of these changes, while initially still accommodating small-scale direct sales. Architecture and skilled craftsmanship resulted in handsome buildings. This “tidying up” of the city also conferred a new status on vendor, customer, food production and distribution.

Entrance to “La Boqueria” on La Rambla, Barcelona’s main market. Photo courtesy Klearchos Kapoutsis (CC license) via Flickr.

In post-war Europe, retail indoor markets declined dramatically as supermarkets increasingly lured customers away with florescent lighting, colourful packaging and convenience. Municipal authorities responded by selling the market sites (often valuable real estate) to private property developers. However, in Spanish cities stagnating under the dictatorship of General Franco, burgeoning supermarkets did not make significant in-roads, and in Barcelona between 1957 and 1977, 18 new produce markets were constructed. These austere, concrete structures were a far cry from the flamboyant designs of the previous century. Nonetheless, the tenacity of city elders in identifying the value in bringing fresh produce to the inner city, while at the same time recognising the centrality of the market place to the social life of residents, was visionary.

By the beginning of the 1990s many of the modernista market buildings had fallen into serious disrepair, presenting an opportunity to dispense with this mode of produce distribution. However, the Barcelona municipal government responded by creating the IMMB (Institut Municipal de Mercats de Barcelona – the Municipal Institute of Barcelona Markets). This powerful, autonomous governmental body was responsible for re-modeling and revitalising the dilapidated neighbourhood markets. Once again, renowned architects were employed, not to replicate but to innovate. The briefs were broad and inclusive, recognising markets as much more than physical space for the sale of produce but also as vital, integrated, social hubs in the local communities of dense housing. Issues relating to access, open space and social housing in the immediate vicinity were addressed as part of the city’s cohesive, participatory urban design brief, which sought to promote cultural identity and civic pride.

The undulating rooftop of Santa Caterina market by EMBT (Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue) architects in Barcelona. Photo courtesy the 8 bit banana (CC license) via Flickr.

The Santa Catalina market is a high profile example of these ambitious market projects. Undaunted by its proximity to a 14th century cathedral, the controversial architect Enric Miralles, (who tragically died at the age of 45, before the completion of his vision) and his partner Benedetta Tagliabue (both of EMBT), created an iconic, exuberant building that incorporated the original 19th century structure. Its striking, colourful and undulating roof is a mosaic of 325,000 hexagonal ceramic tiles, representing the market produce, and homage to Barcelona’s modernista past. The juxtaposition of innovation with preservation is core to the project, which sits in the heart of the gothic district of La Ribera, with its maze of ancient, narrow streets. The architects (who crucially, were local residents) declared: “the first mistake is to talk about old and new. Whatever has managed to survive into the present is current, useful, and contemporary. And it permits us to move back in time in order to continue forward.” Their approach was modernisation with minimal demolition. They paid particular attention to the market in its broader context. The floor of the rejuvenated market was laid with the same granite pavers as the neighbourhood streets to emphasise the market as a public space. The messy loading and storage areas along with customer car parking were placed underground, reducing noise and congestion in the surrounding streets. Pivotal to the success of the project was the opening up of access – outdoor cafes and pedestrian streets became the main focus of the district. Also, in an attempt to balance the accompanying gentrification of housing near the market, two low-rental blocks of apartments, designed specifically for the displaced elderly residents, were constructed. This was an acknowledgement of the importance and desirability of social diversity and that the local neighborhood remain home to an existing community of elderly residents.

”Qui és l’últim?”. Customers choose their market produce. Photo courtesy Arsheffield (CC license) via Flickr.

Customers are a key factor in the collective success of the markets, which are able to capitalise on traditional attitudes (typical of Italy, the rest of Spain and France), where a relatively high proportion of the family income is spent on produce. Discerning customers, even on a limited budget, seek good quality and are not necessarily drawn to inferior, cheaper products. Customer loyalty is another vital component. A typical Barcelonese customer does not scour the market for the cheapest prices, but heads to the vendors that they unfailingly patronise (often those that their mothers even grandmothers bought from). This means that despite the open, accessible layout of the market, customers have their “own” butcher, fishmonger, green grocer etc. The vendors do not tout for customers or shout their wares; they simply await their regulars. Customer loyalty and trust is rewarded with advice on good buys, (“I have some excellent hake today”), recipes, especially reserved items and discounts. This is slow shopping at its best. Although a busy market stall is surrounded by a mass of people they are in fact a queue. Etiquette dictates that on joining the group you ask, ”Qui és l’últim?” (Who is the last?). Jumping the “queue” is met with outrage. Luckily, waiting can be pleasurable, watching the fishmonger meticulously de-scale or the butcher deftly carve up a chicken for a soup. Customers fastidiously detail the exact thickness required for slices of ham, salamis and bacon.

Jamon, jamon. Many meats – photo courtesy gnackgnackgnack (CC license) via Flickr.

Intense marketing promotes the markets as synonymous with professional personal attention, better quality fresh produce and stall holders as intermediaries “entre la terra i taula” (between the earth and the table); thus perpetuating an image of the markets as facilitating a wholesome quality of life. Collectively, through the IMMB, the markets have specifically defined themselves as the main source for the popular and distinctive cuina Catalana (Catalan cuisine), the Mediterranean diet (designated an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2010) and the promotion of healthy eating. Under the slogan cap al mercat a fer salut, (to the market for good health) some markets have forged strategic alliances with local health care centres. Doctors and market vendors have formed partnerships jointly promoting the eating of fresh produce as a vital proponent of healthy living.

On receipt of a substantial European grant, the IMMB decided not to follow other countries in spending it on gourmet tourism. Instead, they initiated hands-on educational programmes to bring school children into the markets to learn about food production and distribution, not only linking into the healthy eating initiatives but also attempting to secure the loyalty of future informed shoppers. The survival of the markets has depended on the ability to adapt to modern eating and shopping habits. Opening hours have changed and extended, many markets have ample underground car parks, the range of prepared and pre-cooked foods has increased. Markets now have informative websites with details about the stalls and produce, history, events and recipes. Many provide online shopping and delivery services. Effort and planning have gone into maintaining social ambience and balance.  Restaurants and cafes have long been an integral component of the market experience. McDonalds and Starbucks have assiduously been avoided in favour of family-owned businesses, in a conscious attempt to preserve an authentic atmosphere.

What will the future hold for Barcelona’s markets? Photo courtesy AMaleki (CC license) via Flickr.

Barcelona’s markets have survived economic booms and busts, and now face increasingly difficult times as Spain experiences an economic crisis of truly daunting proportions. Supermarkets offering cheap products are making significant inroads into the markets’ customer base as families’ expendable incomes plummet. Like Catalonia itself, the markets are again fighting for their survival. Yet, they won’t go down without a fight – Barcelona’s produce markets stand as monuments to the city’s boldness, flair, ingenuity, adaptability and pragmatism, which has ebbed and flowed with the tide of history.


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