Ghent Market Hall
By Martin Søberg
The Ghent Market Hall by Robbrecht en Daem architecten & Marie-José Van Hee architecten is confidently contemporary yet clearly at home between historical monuments – an astonishingly reassuring public structure within a delicate urban environment.
The Ghent Market Hall has gently transformed the well-preserved center of this historically significant Flemish city and provides a new, open-ended platform for civic interaction. The project, comprising the Market Hall and surrounding urban spaces, was designed in collaboration between Robbrecht en Daem and Marie-José van Hee. It demonstrates an ethos of contemporary public life considered as a dialogue between various distinctive voices. The Ghent Market Hall stands gracefully between the Belfort – a late-medieval belfry – and St Nicolas’s Church, St Bavo’s Cathedral, the city hall, and the urban spaces of Korenmarkt, Gouden Leeuwplein, and Poeljemarkt. The church, the cathedral, and the belfry were all rid of surrounding urban fabric in the beginning of the 20th Century in order for them to appear as discrete monuments. Later, space was cleared for a planned extension of the city hall, a project which was nonetheless never carried out. All of this left the city center with large amounts of heterogeneous urban space merely used for car parking.
|Ghent is nowhere the décor of an ancient town, nowhere is it dreamy, it never and nowhere shows the decayed possibility of another, simpler, better, richer life. But at the same time it is not violated or damaged. Very heterogeneous, (…) orphaned remnants of disappeared cities stand calmly, undifferentiated, side by side.|
|/ Paul Robbrecht|
The Ghent Market Hall spatially divides the area into a new sequence of clearly defined yet varied urban spaces. In accordance with the city authorities’ strategy of easing the center of Ghent of heavy traffic and upgrading urban space quality, Robbrecht en Daem and Marie-José van Hee have managed to tie together the fragmentary elements of this spatially highly diverse area by introducing a more homogenous paving consisting of dark basalt.
Considerate contrasting architecture
The Ghent Market Hall is intended for public events. It is an open structure, both spatially and in terms of its programming. On top of four heavy concrete piers rests a large double pitched roof. This sheltering timber structure is clad in glass shingles and pierced by numerous pipes which allow daylight to flood into the hall and artificial light to sparkle from within at nighttime. The triangular figure of the pitched roof paraphrases the exposed gables and massive roofs of surrounding historical houses and monuments, contrasted by the abstract repetitive pattern of glass shingles and pipes. The Ghent Market Hall is full of such contrasts between open and closed, figuration and abstraction, light and dark, and between the massive roof construction and the penetrability of its ground floor. At the back of St Nicholas’s Church, Robbrecht en Daem and Marie-José van Hee have included a public tree-filled Green which is accessible from the lower level of the Ghent Market Hall. This level also contains technical facilities, bicycle parking, and a café with a covered terrace facing south towards the Green.
The rectangular plan of the Ghent Market Hall accords with the classical typology of a covered public space: the basilica. A variation of this typology is also present in the plans of St Nicholas’s Church and St Bavo’s Cathedral. But whilst the medieval sacred buildings are enclosed in order to support hierarchy and procession, the Ghent Market Hall completely lacks such control of movement. It is accessible from every direction, and it is programmable – a platform for public interfaces, the content of which are however not specified.
Intelligent urban transformation
Robbrecht en Daem’s architecture is generally characterized by a non-sentimental sensitivity towards its surroundings and attention to tectonics along with an intelligent balancing of abstract and figurative components. Previous civic projects include the concert hall in Bruges (2002), the renovation and extension of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London (2009), and the renovation of the Rubens Square in Knokke (2004). Marie-José van Hee’s projects come with a strong attention to architecture’s basic spatial elements and poetic material effects, as demonstrated in such projects as the Bracke House in Wetteren (2012) or in reconversion projects such as the de Borger de Brabanter Residence in Rendeux (2005). Robbrecht en Daem and Marie-José van Hee have collaborated for more than two decades.
Robbrecht en Daem and Marie-José van Hee’s Ghent Market Hall is of considerable value to the public realm, a multipurpose structure which redefines the spatial layout of Ghent’s historical city center and its significant medieval monuments. The Ghent Market Hall is an important demonstration of how contemporary architecture may adapt to heritage environments, not as a postmodern cliché of historical motives, but as a considerate alteration of existing conditions for the sake of the common good.