Few architecture firms active in the last few decades have pushed the envelope as far and as often as the Dutch firm MVRDV. In their early work, they did so literally, cantilevering special need apartments out of the WoZoCo social housing block in 1996, creating vertical landscapes for the Dutch Pavilion at the 1999 Hanover Expo, or sliding spaces together in the continuous spiral of the VPRO Villa of 1997. Recently, they have become interested in pursuing a rigorous and reductive logic in construction paired with a use of imagery that threatens to destabilize our experience of buildings as static and solid objects. A few weeks ago, I toured some of their recent buildings, and found two of them, the Markthal and Book Mountain, especially notable (actually a few more of them, but I will leave that to a longer monographic essay I am writing).
The first of these, the Markthal in Rotterdam, is not quite finished, though it has been in the works longer [Discussion of Book Mountain can be found here]. Its genesis is a fifteen-year-old change in EU regulations by which those stalls in public markets that sell meat, fish, dairy, and other fresh foods have to be in a roofed environment. The adoption of this law a decade ago already has led to a renaissance in existing market halls in places such as Spain and France, and it necessitated that the Rotterdam City government, where there was no traditional hall to renovate, build a new one adjacent to the large market space on the Blaak square–famous to some architecture aficionados for the “ Cube Houses” Piet Blom designed in 1984 along its southeastern edge. MVRDV’s suggestion, back in 2006, was to pay for the new structure by combining it with housing. Building on earlier proposals they had made for stacking shipping containers into arches sheltering event spaces, they suggested apartments that would arch over the market hall. They proposed covering the resulting vaulted interior with projections celebrating the fresh food on sale below and offering opportunities for advertising.
What is now almost finished, after a recession-caused delay, is a toned-down, but still dramatic version of this vision. The apartments rise up twelve stories above the stalls, with the concrete “tubes—or pre-fabricated concrete sections—that form them cantilevering ever closer together until they support themselves at the top. MVRDV shaped the arch into a tall bow, bringing its bottom chords back in to distinguish it from the traditional form that often marks an entry or passage. This is a container for public space, not just a passageway from the market square to the streets to the east.
Instead of projections, digital prints devised by the artist Arno Coenen cover the arch’s inside surface. They depict the kind of fruit, vegetables, meats, and fish that will be sold in the space at a giant scale and in vivid colors that dissolve the space into a cornucopia. Instead of emphasizing structure or space, MVRDV makes us float in an organic, yet completely and consciously artificial world.
The apartments themselves look either into this world or out to the surroundings and, in some cases, at both: The penthouses have windows in the floor that let you look straight down at the activity below, while giving the public a glimpse of the privileged dwellers up there. As an object, the Markthal is difficult to classify. Its form looks unfinished, and it neither sits comfortably on the ground, nor does it soar. If it resembles any structure, it would be the sort of giant hangars that store dirigibles. That might give the structure a certain drama, but it does not mean the building looks alien. The housing units are a deformation of the various apartment blocks around it, while the inside is a public realm where you focus on what you are buying, but also on the public nature of that activity. It establishes itself as an inhabited urban monument.
The Markthal combines public and private space, and does so with a verve that I have rarely seen. Everybody and everything is part of the singular gesture of covering the market area, and that form is fully inhabited and filled with imagery. Moving from financial and regulatory logics to their extrapolation into form, MVRDV have created a fragment of the kind of hyper-functional, but also joyous urban landscapes they and visionaries such as Constant and Cedric Price dreamed of decades ago. The Markthal gives us public imagery we can inhabit and enjoy.
Next up: a PhotoShop shopping building in a small village.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.
View more projects by MVRDV in ARCHITECT's Project Gallery.