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Market renewal: Borough Market, on the south side of the Thames, has won a new lease of life in recent years.

In summer this year, the president of Barcelona's La Boqueria market attended a London conference on the future of markets and fresh produce--and announced the 'twinning' of his market with Borough Market, arguably the oldest market in the metropolis. It was a splendid occasion, with delicious foods of every description consumed by an understandably cheerful audience. Outside, the market was packed with local office workers, tourists and residents, and one might have imagined that Borough Market had enjoyed a thousand years of uninterrupted success, but the reality is that it was only as the result of an architectural competition that the market was saved from closure.

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The story of Borough Market shows how places of exchange can rarely rely on history for their future success, however long that history might be. In the case of this market, its origins began when the Romans came to London in the first century BC, and stopped on the south side of the Thames, pretty much where the market now is, before bridging the river and establishing Londinium.

Subsequent centuries saw the growth of informal markets in the area, sometimes moving their precise location for ownership reasons, until the middle of the nineteenth century, when the present site was established, and the running of the market was made the responsibility of trustees, all of whom had to be local residents. The more usual control of markets was by local authorities, or market authorities run and organised by the people who made money there--for example the butchers in the Smithfield meat market in the City of London across the river. But it is doubtful whether differences in control had much impact on the long-term decline of Borough Market as a wholesale trading place, that is to say a market not open to members of the public. Other wholesale markets moved away from the centre of London in the 1970s (Covent Garden) and the 1980s (Billingsgate fish market), with only Smithfield remaining in anything like its old form.

Borough Market might have ceased trading altogether, but for a decision by the trustees in 1995 to rethink the nature of the market and, importantly, to hold an architectural competition to determine its future. The fundamental change was to make Borough a retail as well as wholesale market, transforming its character by creating a new magnet for ordinary shoppers.

The competition was won by the London architectural firm Greig + Stephenson, which has been working quietly on rejuvenation of the market and its structures for the last decade: five years of analysis and strategic planning to help fund-raising, and the last five building out the results. Rather like 'slow cooking', the Greig + Stephenson approach was to renovate anything which could sensibly be saved, and to make-sense of the street patterns and routes of the area, taking care not to wreck a delicate tapestry with hasty or over-scaled interventions. At first sight, the casual visitor today would be hard put to detect evidence of obvious architectural activity in the market, a tribute to the architect's light touch. Although it is now a retail market, there is still wholesale trading activity, and this gives the place a special character, which is further transformed at weekends by specialist traders and Londoners interested in their wares.

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In the last four years improvement works have taken shape with the landscaping of the Green Market, an area next to the medieval Southwark Cathedral, where weekly markets are held, plus infrastructure provision. Work on the main market building and additional structures began in 2002, with a new glass roof and electricity substation the obvious signs of improvement, while below ground 500sqm of old basements have been renovated for storage.

Greig + Stephenson's restaurant building fronting Stoney Street fits in cleverly with its surroundings, taking a listed nineteenth-century cast iron building and supplementing it with a wedge-shaped concrete addition. Finishes of the new part are glass, concrete, hardwood and knapped flint, contrasting with the old Covent Garden portico.

The latest stage in the work will see the fitting out of a new restaurant (called Roast--why had no one ever used this name?), using existing market structures but in this case adding a portico comprising bits of the mid-nineteenth-century Floral Hall, the flower market located in Covent Garden. (This has undergone a transformation of its own, becoming part of the adjacent Opera House complex.) The same architect has just completed the remodelling of a former carpenter's store into a bar and restaurant around the corner in Brew Wharf Yard--it has its own micro-brewery; new places to eat include the Brindisa restaurant, reinforcing the Spanish connection.

The chairman of the Borough Market Trustees, George Nicholson, has been a driving force behind the market's renewal, and can take justifiable pride in what has been achieved to date. The market is not a huge one, but it is a point of intensity in an area otherwise rather quiet once commuters have gone home. The bars and restaurants which contribute so much to its character make this, much more than New Covent Garden or Billingsgate, a place of exchange.
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Author:Finch, Paul
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2005
Words:858
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