On a drive from Nice to San Sebastian this summer, we took a lunch break in Narbonne, where we visited the wonderful 104-year-old central market. The market is a quintessential Beaux-Arts French market hall from the nineteenth century, featuring stone exterior walls with a steel interior structure and roof. Markets like this were conceived both as civic monuments and as practical places of commerce – and are in many respects quite conservative.
Victor Baltard had already designed Les Halles, his radical central market in Paris, which eschewed a stone exterior for steel with brick infill. Sadly, Les Halles was demolished in 1971 and replaced by a shopping mall, Forum des Halles, on top of a major subway station. Baltard’s original building is echoed in Renzo Piano and Richard Rodger’s Centre Pompidou, opened in January 1977.
The failed Forum des Halles is currently being reworked to the designs of SEURA Architects with Philippe Raguin Landscape, as well as Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti Architects. The central feature of the design is a vast new park. The market halls at Les Halles welcomed the produce of the countryside to Paris on a daily basis – now on its footprint there will be a park that brings the countryside into Paris – through a design that celebrates ‘naturalness.’ One can only hope that this park will provide a source of urban energy that the institution of the markets did.
This energy was evident on our visit in Narbonne. Even though the market was in the process of closing up – stalls being washed down, tarp that wrapped the stalls being drawn – one could feel the energy of this dynamic place. The market cafes were in full swing, with merchants visiting each other.
The market has a spacious organization, with stalls generally open on three sides in the interior run. This results in a plan where only two stalls are backed up to each other and there is a significant amount of cross circulation. As a result, each stall has a significant presence in the market.
San Sebastian is renowned for its food culture. It has more Michelin Stars per capita than almost any other city in the world, so it was a shock to come across the old central market hall and see a McDonalds inserted in its base. Like the market hall in Narbonne, it is a stone-clad civic monument from the nineteenth century. But here, it has been renovated into a shopping mall with the remnants of the market pushed into new quarters below ground.
The stall owners are a proud group – it seems that many are family businesses and many are in direct competition with each other and must survive because they have loyal clienteles. It was disturbing to see a significant amount of stalls for sale and one wonders of the impact of years of economic hardship even in this relatively prosperous corner of Spain.
The great star of the market is the seafood hall, which represents over one third of the market size. The market preserves a special auction “clock” which was used when the seafood market in this port city on the Bay of Biscay held a daily seafood auction. One hears the refrain of dwindling catches and the decline of a once proud industry and can only hope that the unique culture of this hall, with its competitive vendors trying to outshine their neighbors, will survive. It is sad that a real estate play pushed all of this below ground. What has replaced it does not seem successful.