Every now and then, a work of architecture comes along that makes jaws drop. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao was one. OMA’s CCTV Headquarters in Beijing was another. Almost always, these buildings are extravagant symbols of wealth, power, or cultural ambition. The newly opened Rotterdam MarketHall, over a million square feet of housing and food stands organized within or beneath a massive 12-story arch, is the kind of uncanny structure ones tweets without thinking. As surreal as it appears in photos, the building is actually designed for the most down-to-earth uses: daily life.
The Rotterdam MarketHall was built by a commercial developer–Provast, based in The Hague–and was designed by a Rotterdam firm called MVRDV, whose co-founder, Winy Maas, published FARMAX, an extra thick book that was an argument for density way back in the 1990s, before density was cool, before a parade of experts began promoting close-knit city living as the best way to reduce our carbon footprints and save the planet.
MVRDV is no stranger to architectural extravagance: recent projects include a traditional-looking farmhouse built entirely of glass, a shiny new museum building for Rotterdam that appears to be lovechild of Chicago’s Bean, and Albany’s Egg. But MVRDV’s bread and butter is its housing, apartment blocks that are the embodiment of Maas’s ideas about the value of urban density: Parkrand in Amsterdam, FroSilo (converted silos) in Copenhagen, or Mirador in Madrid.
The MarketHall weds MVRDV’s talent for spectacle and its passion for housing. What’s great here is not the architectural audacity itself, but the fact that the audacity is in the service of daily life. The arch covers a football field-sized food hall and, within its walls, are 228 apartments, most of which have kitchen and dining room windows that face inward, toward the market. The penthouse apartments atop the arch offer market views through windows in the floors.
Perhaps the most attention-grabbing aspect of this new Rotterdam landmark is a flamboyant mural, a paroxysm of giant fruits and vegetables printed on perforated aluminum screens that are assembled, like a mosaic, on the interior of the arch. In photos, the mural looks kaleidoscopic, like a Hollywood-style portal to another dimension. A Rotterdam-based graphic designer I know, however, is unimpressed and labels it an “ugly illustration fit for a cheap food magazine.” Maybe so, but I suspect the mural is a harbinger of things to come, that new printing techniques will usher in a revival of architectural ornament.
Rotterdam wanted a food hall in part because of new “hygienic constraints” in the Netherlands that require farmers markets to have a roof overhead in part because the project advances a longstanding scheme to redevelop the Laurenskwartier, a neglected section of Rotterdam just east of the city center. The apartments, for sale and for rent, range in size from 861 to 1,500 square feet. The units that are for sale–starting at about $300,000 dollars– may be somewhat pricey by local standards but they’re not intended for free-spending oligarchs (like, say, the Burj Kkalifa’s). So this florid, super-sized riff on the idea of a Roman arch, is in the service of normalcy.
As was explained to me about 10 minutes into my first visit to the Netherlands, the notion of “gezelligheid,” a hybrid of comfort and hominess, is central to Dutch culture. What makes the Dutch endlessly fascinating is their ability to translate this dull-sounding quality into startling art and design. See artist Johannes Vermeer or designer Hella Jongerius. The Dutch, after all, were the people whose best artists began painting scenes of everyday life while their contemporaries elsewhere in Europe were still stuck on the Annunciation and the Crucifixion. (Actually, Maas claims the big mural was inspired by the Sistine Chapel.) The Dutch excel at using extraordinary design in the service of the ordinary. The Rotterdam MarketHall is a spectacular object. It is, as architect Maas said in one recent interview “proud,” but its splendor is devoted to regular people picking up a loaf of bread, a wheel of Gouda and a nice bottle of red.
Part two: A conversation with Winy Maas