Entrance to La Boqueria market in Barcelona

La Boqueria: from market to mass tourism theme park

The Sant Josep de la Boqueria (La Boqueria) Market is a large public market in the Ciutat Vella  district of Barcelona, located in close vicinity to the famous La Rambla street, it is now one of the cities foremost tourist landmarks.

The example not only shows how markets can become the meeting point between the local and the global tourist flows (Barcelona has 7.5 million tourists every year and the market has become part of the classical city tour) but it is also the example most cited in contemporary literature as a best practice of how markets should cope with contemporary retail transformations. A “themed” experience environment for the mainstream tourist in search of local authenticity or the solution to the much discussed problem of how to compromise between new economic interests and the tradition, La Boqueria is definitely a place to explore in the search for the future of markets.

Compared to other Spanish examples, La Boqueria has a very long history, established as early as 1217, as an open air market outside the old city gates. Since then the market has steadily grew and restructured and its current cast iron cover and contemporary shape dates back to 1914, part of an ongoing municipal program to hqigieneze and control informal street trade which by the end of the 1980s gave birth to 39 food markets around the city.

RazvanZamfira_laboqueria_old_photoIn the mid 1980s a comprehensive study was carried out to understand the state of municipal markets and local retail. The result was a municipal market modernisation plan that reimagined the network of existing markets as new economic engines and neighbourhood revitalisation hubs which supported the vibrant, small and independent commerce as a reaction against what was seen as the excess expansion of supermarkets and shopping centres taking place in the US and France. Nonetheless the plan was not to exclude supermarkets but to make them relate to and complement the traditional market by bringing them inside along with new consumers, the tourists which started to flood Barcelona since the 90s. As an additional step, since 2005, the municipality has set up the Municipal Institute of Barcelona Markets, designed as an autonomous body for the direct management and administration of municipal markets which has brought yet another level of management directed towards transforming the traditional city centre markets into tourist attractions and luxury consumption spaces.

RazvanZamfira_la_boqueria_luxury_restaurantThese reinvented markets, with La Boqueria as a prime example, are considerably more “upmarket” with a bigger proportion of sellers shifting from selling essential food products towards more upmarket gourmet and delicatessen products which has lead to commercial gentrification and “touristification” resulting in the displacement of traditional traders and costumers who are now priced out. The success of the market and its international name of reference shown by the great number of prizes it has won (which include the prize for the best market in the world, awarded by the World Markets Congress held in 2005 in Washington DC) is also strongly related to the contemporary trends in tourism which seek new experiences, something unusual, different, unique, local. The food markets are exactly what these new consumers are seeking, since they offer authenticity and a local feel connecting the visitor with local history and culture, tastes and eating habits. Its extreme nature in La Boqueria eventually lead to civil society protests against tourism and forced the municipality to enforce stricter rules regarding the access of large groups of tourists in the market at specific hours. Furthermore, the involvement of the locals has lead to the development of a small part of the market as an educational environment where children and adults can take cooking classes and organise gastronomic events.

RazvanZamfira_Barcelona_tourism_protestsNonetheless, we can conclude that although the goal of keeping the traditional market alive in the fight with supermarket chains has been achieved, the essence of the market has in many ways been lost. Now, the “Barcelona model” of market regeneration is being exported across Europe but it should also be a worrying tale about the need to balance out different approaches when reinventing our public amenities.

Location: Barcelona, Spain

Year constructed: 1914

Initial function: covered food market

Surface area: 50 000m2

Transformation year: ongoing transformations since 1980s

Project initiator: Barcelona Municipality

Architecture office: – 

Existing functions: luxury restaurants / food stands / culinary workshops