A market like no other
Grazing through Rotterdam's new grocery wonderland
In Rotterdam, the Dutch seem to favour architecture that looks like something else. Building-sized bathtubs, pencils and a mirrored flowerpots dot the skyline. The newest addition is the Markthal, a huge horseshoe-shaped covered market that’s as elegant as it is arresting. The exterior of the 12-storey arch is graced with the glass balconies of 228 apartments and is sheathed with the same grey granite used throughout the city. In this case though, the architects saved the biggest surprises for inside.
Both ends of the building are walls of glass. Entering the enormous enclosed space feels as though you’ve stepped into a wonderland. More than a hundred flower, vegetable, fruit, cheese and fish stalls clamour for attention yet your eyes are drawn up, up, up to a ceiling covered with artwork the size of two soccer fields. Enormous strawberries, raspberries and cherries fashioned from 4000 panels float in the air; a caterpillar climbs the stem of a flower; in the centre, a pineapple, a blue butterfly and a fish gleam in the rays of the sun. Dutch artist Arno Coenen created the work he calls “The Horn of Plenty” inspired by cornucopias overflowing with produce and flowers and by the popular kids movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs in which food falls from the sky like rain.
“We asked them to create a sky for this covered urban space,” says Anton Wubben of the Rotterdam architectural firm MVRDV, who has seen construction of the project through the five years it took to complete.
The city-initiated project intended to revitalize the area, cost $250-million. “We needed to create a symbiosis between shopkeepers, apartment dwellers and those who live and work in the city surrounding the market,” explains Wubben. The commercial space has the feel of a gigantic farmer’s market but it also includes Albert Heijn, the largest supermarket chain in Holland. “You still need a place to buy diapers,” says Wubben pointing out that it strengthens the retail mix.
Living at the raspberry
The Markthal opened October 1. In the first three weeks more than a million people visited. They came to ogle the latest architectural star in this modern, cultured port city and many also took the chance to sample a slice of what’s reputedly the country’s best apple cake.
Looking up I can see workmen through windows that are designed to look like grains of wheat and floating cherries. Wubben offers a tour of the unique living quarters. On the way he says one of the penthouse owners tells people “I live at the raspberry!” Wubben smiles. “I find that such a beautiful way of explaining where you live.”
Living at the cherry, pea or pumpkin is an enchanting prospect but I’m hungry and anxious to explore so I return to the hive of activity below. The stalls are a mix of fruit, veggie and cheese shops, bakeries, butchers, florists and a host of take-out counters. There are towers of meticulously stacked apples; cheese wheels stored in neat shelves like art books; a row of stools at a tapas bar. Another stall sells Markthal shopping bags and a host of other products emblazoned with Horn of Plenty designs on everything from men’s shoes to beanbag chairs. In a novel use of space, throughout the mall short staircases lead to “green” dining areas. In October there was even a field of tomatoes.
The smell of fresh baking leads me to the electric-lit sign of Churros & Sweets where I order the poffertjes, a mini-pancake drenched in butter and icing sugar and the classic treat arrives warm, fluffy and decadent.
Munching as I go, I notice shoppers pausing at a stall named Buutegeweun, whose products echo the produce floating high above. Squash and apples share space with traditional cookies and around the corner there’s goat cheese and hanging cured sausage. Cod, sole and brill glisten on beds of ice. Everything here comes from a cooperative from the island of Goeree-Overflakkee, south of Rotterdam.
I get in line behind two older women who purchase purple-fleshed potatoes and wait while the clerk obligingly takes the money from the customers purse. I’ve finally settled on an apple tart mix that I can take home and bake in my kitchen in Ottawa.
“It’s a classic recipe, everyone’s grandmother makes it,” she explains, “and everyone says their grandmother’s tart is the best,” she adds with a twinkle.
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