Memories of El Born, the first covered market in the city

15 June, 2017 | Barcelona People, Unknown City

These days the market of El Born is best-known because of the remains from 1714, because of culture and the recovery of historical memory, but the site has a long history which is closely tied to providing for the city. For centuries, the site which is now the Born Centre de Cultura i Memòria was where groceries and provisions were sold and in the Middle Ages a market was held there.

When people talk of ‘going to the square’ in Catalan the chances are they’re off to the market, a concept which comes from when markets were held in open squares as there was enough room there to set up stalls. Historically, El Born has acted as an open air market in the square, a covered retail market, and a wholesale market, up until the start of the 1970s when the Mercabarna facility opened up in the Zona France area. Local residents later rallied to avoid it being knocked down and various projects and usage proposals fell through, until the decision was taken to preserve the site and turn the remains in the subsoil, in good condition, into a museum feature. The remains are from the Barcelona which was demolished after 1714 by Bourbonic authorities in order to build the military citadel which would control the city for over a century.

The 1714 tricentenary commemorations prioritised and promoted information on the archaeological site, though the history of the market was still to be recovered. The exhibition Born, Memories of a Market stresses the importance of the site as a source of provisions for adjacent neighbourhoods and the city as a whole.

The text describing the exhibition states: “El Born was the nerve centre of the city’s most densely populated and active neighbourhood. Despite the demolitions to make way for the Ciutadella [citadel], urban changes and liberal renovation of the city’s network of markets, the square still operated as an open-air market until 1876”. Despite the demolition to make way for the Ciutadella, a large esplanade remained on the site where the market was held and regardless of the social changes and rise of other places such as La Rambla, where the Boquería market was growing, El Born was maintained.

It’s perhaps no coincidence then that this was where the first canopy was erected over a market in Barcelona, in the style used at the time by important European cities. When drafting the project for the structure, the architect Josep Fontserè Mestre actually paid great attention to the Les Halles market in Paris, even though the project was ten times smaller. The architect worked with Josep Maria Cornet i Mas, the industrial engineer for La Maquinista Terrestre i Marítima.

In reality, the construction of the market was a proposal by Fontserè himself and was part of the broader project which won the international competition in 1871 to fill the space left by the military citadel which Barcelona had just recovered for public use.

El Born thus became the first covered market in Barcelona and would soon be followed by another, in Sant Antoni. The two of them were the first markets to be built using a metal structure. The newly-covered El Born market started life as a local retail market, with different sections according to goods and hygienic conditions and facilities which mirrored their European role models. The fruit and vegetable stalls were located in the central hall, while butchers, poultry, salted fish and fresh fish stalls were located in the wings.

The construction of new markets, such as the Mercat de Sant Josep, otherwise known as La Boquería, and the Mercat de Santa Caterina, on sites where convents had been demolished, meant that El Born would subsequently be found to be oversized, with an economic performance which didn’t meet expectations.

From the end of the 19th century the sale of wholesale goods and produce was shared between various markets and that caused serious problems, particularly for La Boquería, until finally, seeing that the retail market at El Born wasn’t working, the decision was taken to transfer all fruit and vegetable wholesalers there. It was a provisional arrangement which ended up lasting 50 years, from 1921 to 1971. Iconic images from this period remain, with labourers transporting large piles of wooden crates and pyramidal piles of melons and watermelons. Some of the images were taken by photographers at the time and others persist in the retinas of people who worked there of lived locally.

In its fifty years as a wholesale market, El Born went through difficult times, such as the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, when it was collectivised, and the post-war period, with shortages and rationing the order of the day. The wholesale market gradually got smaller. There was actually talk of transferring it as early as 1930, but it wasn’t until 1962 that a public competition was announced for a new central market. The winning project was for the construction of Mercabarna, in the Zona Franca. In 1971 the central fruit and vegetable market was moved there and El Born closed down.

Once empty of commercial activity, pressure came from local residents to prevent it being knocked down, even though there was no project in place to define its use. Various options were considered and it was used for different activities such as large exhibitions and popular festivals. Finally, after the remains from the start of the 18th century came to light, it was decided that the cast iron structure should act as a canopy for the archaeological site. The exhibition Born. Memories of a Market is on until 26 November 2017 and recaptures the history of the market, showing what life was like in that microcosm of stallholders, hauliers, purchasers and others which had been created over the years. Some of them provide first-hand accounts in videos shown at the exhibition, which also includes documents, images and items associated with the market.

Photo captions: Activity outside El Born market. 1963. Photo: Marroyo. | Exhibition El Born. Memories of a Market | Around El Born. 1964. Photo: Marroyo. | Stalls in El Born market. 1971. Photo Brangulí – AFB.| Selling fruit around El Born. 1961. Photo: Juan Antonio Sáenz Guerrero – AFB. | Demonstration at El Born 1977. Photo: Pérez de Rozas – AFB. | Accounts at the exhibition from stallholders, workers and local residents. Photo: JAF. | Carts and workers outside El Born.1963. Photo: Marroyo.