Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 29, 1999
James Schmiechen and Kenneth Carls The British Market Hall: A Social and Architectural History Yale University Press, 1999. 352 pp.; 98 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (0300060645)

Britain’s grand age of market hall construction, 1830-90, saw the transformation of traditional open-air markets into mammoth multi-storied buildings with standardized stalls and shops arranged within variations of a parallelogram. Often wrapped in a Gothic, Italianate, or eclectic shop-front façade, the market hall provided the modern townscape with a new and distinctive addition to an expanding range of civic and commercial structures, such as the town hall, courthouse, railway station, department store, arcade, and hotel. Prototype for the modern shopping mall, the market hall was a classroom where urban dwellers first learned to be consumers in the modern sense—mastering the ritual of shopping as a respectable leisure activity. Likewise, the market hall, linked to a national network of railroads, facilitated new systems of food distribution, introduced the British to a new and varied diet, and served as catalyst for municipal street and sanitary improvements. Schmiechen and Carls’s book, The British Market Hall, finally gives due attention to this important and pervasive building type.

The book begins with an examination of the urban context in the eighteenth century, when British town planners looked for ways to deal with the social disorder and economic growth of a new industrialized world. Whereas most markets belonged to the local manorial family before 1800, Parliament began to shift control of markets directly to local governments, which assumed their new mandate with fervor. After experimenting unsuccessfully with the decentralization of traditional open-air markets, planners established a preference for unified food retailing in a single, centrally located structure. For example, St. John’s Market Hall, in Liverpool, designed by City Architect John Foster in 1822, featured an orderly grouping of 58 shops and 404 stalls arranged by food type along “avenues,” all within a brick basilica-like structure covered by a wooden roof and clerestory. Illuminated every night by 144 gaslights, St. John’s introduced the concept of a covered and environmentally controlled space for shopping.

The second part, “The Architecture and Design of the Public Market,” follows with an in-depth discussion of the social imperatives and architectural strategies for new market halls. Hundreds of towns, such as Ironbridge (1790), Lutterworth (1836), and Yeovil (1849), “reinvented” the traditional combined market/town hall between 1750 and 1850 as a means to resolve, in a single building, the need for administrative space and the desire to replace unsightly market shambles. Marketing was held on the ground floor, usually an open arcade, with additional floors for administrative purposes. This building type, however, proved too dark and limited in size for marketing, and by 1820 purpose-built markets, in the form of a circle, loggia, or arcade, became the norm. Charles Fowler’s influential designs for two London wholesale markets, Covent Garden (1830) and Hungerford (1835), did much to resurrect a variation of the ancient agora—a series of colonnades surrounding an open courtyard—such as Winchester’s Doric Temple Market (1857) and the Wolverhampton Market (1853).

British town planners, particularly in the industrial north and Midlands, viewed noble, imposing, and aesthetically appealing market halls as one of the few visual delights in a sea of otherwise cheap housing and smoky factories. Moreover, they believed that the well ordered regulated environment of new market halls could uplift the working classes and serve as an agent for class unity. Therefore, architects experimented with a variety of styles, plans, arrangement of interior space, lighting, and innovations in roof designs, in response to contemporary theories of aesthetics and the desire for social control.

In the next section, “The Market Hall and Socioeconomic Change,” the authors argue that local market reform and new buildings made a notable contribution to the urban diet and standard of living. Despite lack of data, Schmiechen and Carls make creative use of their “Gazetteer,” printed at the end of the book, which provides information for 626 known public retail markets constructed between 1750 and about 1945 in 392 cities and towns in England, Wales, and Scotland. By linking the timing of market construction with legislative reform and parliamentary acts, they draw several important conclusions, supported with maps and graphs. Particularly interesting is their identification of a “northwest-southeast divide,” which holds that new market construction was least active in the environs of London and the southeast, owing to the preference for outdoor marketing and the proliferation of private shops. On the other hand, the construction of large-scale market halls (on the average nearly double the floor space of new markets in the southwest and two-thirds larger than those in the Midlands) proliferated in the northwest, Britain’s most rapidly growing urban and industrial region. Municipal authorities learned that good market facilities, both wholesale and retail, would see regional foodstuffs come into their cities and thus provide “food for the millions.” The market hall made possible the sale of enormous quantities of meat, facilitated distribution of potatoes, encouraged greater consumption of fresh fish, and introduced the public to a healthful variety of fruits and vegetables.

The authors conclude with the “Decline and Recovery” of the market hall in the twentieth century. Although they acknowledge well-known forces that worked against the public market system, such as suburban sprawl, the automobile, the proliferation of cooperative and chain stores, and, ultimately, supermarkets, they doubt the general perception that public markets lost their viability. Instead, they argue for their resilience and adaptation in the face of intense social, economic, and political change. The market hall, by responding to a demand for cheap food and consumer goods, pioneered the concept of a “working-class department store” as early as the 1890s. Recognizing this fact, some cities remained committed to large-scale public market systems. Those that did were able to compete successfully against cooperative stores and also saw meat prices lower in their markets than in the shops (by as much as 60 percent lower). Nonetheless, dozens of Victorian market halls were demolished in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, as city officials argued that it would be too costly to refurbish and modernize them, and that the value of the land was too high to invest in a market. New markets were often incorporated into large-scale downtown redevelopment schemes, but they lacked character. Today, however, the market hall has come full circle in Britain, with the renovation of historic market halls, for example in Bolton, Darby, and Darlington, in an effort to revitalize city-center shopping as a leisure pedestrian activity.

Although the authors address the many factors that led to the rise, decline, and recovery of public markets, they fail to give readers a sense that this progression occurred anywhere but in the British provinces. During the nineteenth century other industrializing countries faced similar demands on their traditional marketplaces and food distribution patterns as a result of, among other factors, changing attitudes toward ownership of public services, the railroad, and the rapid rise of urban populations. Municipal authorities, architects, and engineers outside of Britain (for example in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and New York) exchanged market plans and drawings in a variety of journals and handbooks, and they published handbooks on the comparative system of public markets in different cities. These publications, primarily from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, attest to a widespread demand among local officials—not just in Britain—to understand the market hall’s administrative demands, complex social and economic networks, and reciprocal relationship to the urban infrastructure. Likewise, urban planners today, throughout Europe and the United States, have discovered that new or historic market halls can be incorporated, with success, into downtown redevelopment schemes.

Equally lacking is mention of London’s role in the evolution of the British market hall. Granted the capital’s market history could fill a separate volume, the authors could have at least acknowledged that London, too, looked for new solutions to its traditional market buildings and spaces during the nineteenth century as well as today. London was a major player in the national and transnational development of new market types, as architects and civil engineers not only from the British provinces but also from other European capitals tried to learn from its progress and mistakes. And, although the authors put the Crystal Palace of 1851 in its place, arguing that provincial cities and towns embraced iron-and-glass construction well before Paxton, they also could have mentioned that prefabrication allowed for the exportation of cast-iron markets to the British colonies, such as India and the West Indies. In short, the book’s sharp focus on the British provinces would have been complemented by a more comparative tone.

Nonetheless, Schmiechen and Carls have carefully explained the economic, political, and social forces that led to the construction of hundreds of market halls throughout Britain in the two centuries after 1750, as well as the developments in architecture and engineering that facilitated this prolific building campaign. Their book will serve as a useful reference for historians of nineteenth-century architecture and urbanism. It draws on a wide range of contemporary sources, is generously illustrated, has an excellent index, and promises to stimulate further scholarly treatment of market halls in other countries.

Helen Tangires
Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C