Interior view of Mercado San Fernando in Madrid

Mercado San Fernando: a “business accelerator” for neighborhood retail

Located in the Lavapies / Embajadores area, in close proximity to the city centre of Madrid, Mercado San Fernando shows us how markets can play the role of facilitators and democratic spaces of expression in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-generational neighbourhood.

In the past two decades, Lavapies have gone through a complex process of restructuring which has transformed the neighbourhood from an area populated by rural migrants in the 80s into an “arrival neighbourhood” for international economic migrants from Ecuador, Colombia, China, Marocco, Bangladesh and Pakistan in the 90s. Its low rents, dynamic real-estate market, proximity to the city centre and its multi-cultural and multi-ethnic social fabric has also attracted young professionals and students looking for an affordable urban life style. On top of this, since 1997, the right-wing Madrid local government has heavily invested in transforming the area, from what they saw as a low class, dangerous neighbourhood into an upper class area, which they believed was more suited for its central location. Their investment in marketing, cultural institutions, redesigned public spaces, heavy policing and CCTV has attracted yet another class of more affluent inhabitants to Lavapies while excluding its current inhabitants and their needs.

How does this complex set of dynamics then influence a neighbourhoods public spaces and facilities and in this case, its main food market? San Fernando Market has been living and assimilating all these social transformation as an organic metabolism enforced by the daily interactions between merchants and neighbours.

The market mixes its old tenants with new and innovative local businesses
The market mixes its old tenants with new and innovative local businesses

The market building was created in 1944, as part of a comprehensive nationwide program undergone after the end of the Spanish Civil War, by the Franco regime, which substituted former weekend outdoor markets with specialised buildings more suited to hygienic requirements of the time. The market building, designed by Casto Fernandez-Shaw, combines an exterior design inspired by monumental neo-classic Austrian architectures with a modern reinforced concrete structure covered by three longitudinal recessed vaults that allow proper lighting and ventilation for its interior which mimics the city pattern with hallways resembling streets and a central square.

In the 90s, the appearance of supermarket chances but more importantly the number of new convenience stores and small food shops run by the neighbourhoods new inhabitants, ethnic merchants, had taken a tole on the importance of the market as the main shopping facility in the neighbourhood. These shops provided more competitive offered in terms of schedules, prices and supply while the markets clientele had been reduced to only old people with more traditional consumption patterns but lower spendings.

La Casqueria sells second hand books by the kilo
La Casqueria sells second hand books by the kilo

Initially this situation was seen as an opportunity by the municipality to try to transform the market into a luxury food court, taking La Boqueria and Santa Caterina Markets in Barcelona as references, but after a failed attempt in 2005 to obtain the necessary funding and another failed attempt in 2008 to attract the Eroski supermarket chance to move into the building because of the economic crisis the market authority decided to follow another path.

The market also works as an extension of the neighboring community centre
The market also works as an extension of the neighboring community centre

After a series of round tables with representatives of alternative neighbourhood groups, experts and activists, university professors, market merchant unions and Slow Food promoters, in 2010 they started to advertise the cost of concession of spaces and offer them to various initiatives from the neighbourhood. In 2012 a Market Traders Association was formed as a legal body representing the markets new tenants and until 2013 all 55 rented places were already occupied by a new heterogeneous group of young entrepreneurs with no past experience in trade but with new ideas on how to promote local, organic and artisanal products in line with the existing character of the neighbourhood and away from other more elitist proposals directed primarily towards tourism.

Puesto en Construcción (PEC) is a coworking space in a former fish shop
Puesto en Construcción (PEC) is a coworking space in a former fish shop

The purpose of the existing market activity is not to displace the traditional trade but to integrate it into a new type of project and encourage it to transform according to contemporary needs. Its current food traders come from a family tradition of food production or have strong links with local organic food production cooperatives while its other merchants focusing on hand-made crafts and professional services, all highlight the use and symbolic value of what they create with natural materials, manual labor and recycling materials.

The union of these diverse groups, combine the traditional and the new, obtaining the right balance between food, crafts and services, innovation and the vernacular while generating new common values. In this sense, San Fernando Market is not only an example of contemporary market synergies but also an example of how a market can become a true symbol and meeting place for a super diverse neighbourhood like Lavapies.

Location: Madrid, Spain

Year constructed: 1944

Initial function: covered food market

Surface area: 50 000m2

Transformation year: 2012

Project initiator:

Architecture office:

Existing functions: ethnic restaurants / food shops / clothing shops / community centre