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A New Future for Old City Markets

As shopping moves indoors and online, one architect wants to revitalize the traditional market

Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, architect Anne Holtrop thinks about how to save changing urban markets.

There may be no urban space more alive than the market, no single site that offers a more compact window into a culture. Markets are ground zero for the logistics of daily life: eating, clothing oneself and one’s family, keeping a home clean, purchasing the items one needs for a trade. Move to or visit a new city and it’s the first destination inquired after, the nexus around which much of the rest of the urban action revolves.

There’s a good reason why tourists head straight to markets—from zipping carts at Tsukiji fish market to sprawling Mexican warehouses to India’s teeming open-air markets, regional shopping customs reflect reality and aspiration. Markets are equally universal and regional, the site of logistical wrangling and human theater alike, efficient and frenetic. They’re also vulnerable as shopping around the world increasingly moves indoors, into air-conditioned malls and global stores, or online.

Six years ago, the main market in Muharraq, Bahrain’s second-largest city, was slated for demolition, to be replaced with a shopping mall. Two hundred years after the first vendors set up shops, the older buildings of Suq al-Qaisariya—most of which were constructed in the market’s heyday at the start of the 20th century—were deteriorating. Over the years, the market’s role had morphed, waxing and waning in its importance to the city around it. What began in the 19th century as a city marketplace had become a thrumming portside hub of boat building and pearl trading, the area’s primary industry. When Japanese cultured pearls superseded gulf pearls in the 1930s, the market faltered. Over the next eighty years, informal constructions of cement and plaster were built to meet urban needs: a clothing shop here, tools over there, purveyors of varying goods sprouting up as needed, while the historic inner market declined.

Following its proposed razing and listing as an endangered site by the World Monuments Fund in 2010, the local Ministry of Culture restored a half-dozen traditional buildings in the Suq and set up a program to conserve 50 to 60 more in the coming years. As for the two dozen less historic but more frequented shops, Dutch architect Anne Holtrop, who opened an office in Bahrain last year after moving from Amsterdam, proposed an elegant solution.

Tasked with making an outdoor, utilized market relevant in the present day, Holtrop says, "You need to make the new very specific, in order to bring the old and new into balance again, to re-examine the old, or else the old becomes a dead monument. History is always a continuation."

His project for the Suq al-Quaysaria began with one concept. In the old quarter of the market, buildings are made of gray coral stone from the gulf, joined by lime plaster with traditional mangrove wood beams and bamboo mat roofs from India, a symbolic and practical reminder of the port’s internationalism. Holtrop’s proposal is inherently international; he wanted to use regional materials, gulf stone quarries and aluminum smelters, in order to, as he puts it, "make a certain beauty that could only exist here." He aimed not to make an ersatz, Disneyfied souk, aping the structure and form of the old, but rather to create enough conceptual unity to easily fold the new in. He built his proposal around one object: a three-and-a-half-meter, seven- to nine-ton piece of curved gray limestone, a material that would echo and emphasize the existing coral walls of the restored old quarter.

"That was basically the engine behind it. All the other things become consequences of deciding, limiting myself and deciding around that," he explains.

For the new section of the market, Holtrop proposes stacking these giant stone roofs atop thick walls of the same stone, large enough to render unnecessary any connective material. Placing the thickest point of the curve sturdily on the structural wall, he links the thin ends in the middle to make a tent-like interior. Outside the shops, the cantilevered stone roofs offer shade while allowing ventilation.

Each 10-by-30-foot space is independent but united by pattern and material. The open structure of the shops themselves, closed only by aluminum grates, allow airflow and maintain the porous atmosphere of the existing marketplace. The sand-casted aluminum grates mimic the tented shape of the structure as a whole, allowing not only security but also visual continuity.

What at first glance appears relentlessly modern and simple is in fact of a piece with the rest of the market. Removing closed garage doors and cantilevering the roof slabs opens the warren of existing shops up into an atmosphere more reminiscent of the souk of centuries ago, a 21st century iteration of the market of old.

Which is exactly as it should be, says Holtrop: "It’s a reinterpretation of the same shop. Large openings, making it in stone—all the elements are there, it’s just not a look-alike."