by Jincy IypeFeb 16, 2023
Built in 1914, the Mercado do Bolhão sitting in the middle of the beloved Baixa district of Porto in Portugal has its own charm that is equally humble and charismatic. It is one of those buildings that have all the necessary architectural elements and spatial aura (that we try but always fail to pinpoint) that inevitably find a special place in everyone's heart. When Porto residents speak of Mercado do Bolhão, they do so fondly as if speaking of a family member or an old friend.
Its gigantic mass, a testament to Portuguese architecture, stretches along an entire block with Alexandre Braga Street to its right, which was transformed into a pedestrian-only passage last year. The shops and houses on this street are at the moment going through an extended makeover. Thus making the Bolhão market a singular character that was allowed to have an immense impact on the other urban elements surrounding it.
Local residents have memories of how the market was before its restoration, which took more than four years, and was further delayed because of the pandemic. The restored Bolhão continues to house the same function as a fresh produce market. However, the architectural change is unmissable. While before the buzz was that of a local market coming to life as a daily ritual, it is now vibrant with tourist excitement. It’s hard not to notice the overflow of enthusiastic tourists in Mercado do Bolhão, as Porto (Portugal’s second city) has become a hot tourist trend and continues to attract travellers from all over the world. The city is less about locals and more about tourist entertainment and the gradual shift in what the stalls of the market offer reflects this. On its two floors, the market now has a total of 79 stalls located on the ground floor, along with several restaurants located on the top floor and many shops facing outwards.
The building is situated on a sloped block and has a gate along each side of its rectangular footprint. The main entrance on the southern side opens to the fresh produce market on the ground floor. From this entrance, the visitors find their way into the giant central courtyard of the building. This space is a stretched courtyard where the merchants are lined up under a renovated and freshly designed steel shade-like roof that protects them from the rain and sun. However, there is no separating wall between them. This was one of the points of disagreement when the designs of the rehabilitation were published. The so-called Barracas do Bolhão, the original stalls inside the central courtyard, were destroyed and replaced by the steal shades. The original drawings of Mercado do Bolhão show that the stalls were designed at the same time as the building, by the original architect Correia da Silva. However, before the restoration, the market stalls had lost their coherent design due to neglect, so the architect in charge of the rehabilitation, Nuno Valentim, decided to omit this element from the design entirely. Despite the protest by some citizens, the stalls were replaced by a reinterpretation of the original design. The original inspiration is there, but the arrangement is more open and transparent, allowing for an uninterrupted single-point perspective. It creates an illusion that the market extends to the horizon, and as if one can explore its charm forever.
Looking back from the horizon to the floor we notice the rough grey concrete. The humble appearance of the flooring material allows the white architectural elements such as the fountain and statues at the entrance, the remaining Beaux Arts style columns, and the curved railings to stand out. It is also in aesthetical harmony with the minimal style of the steel roof and the new slim columns that hold it, a suitable example of restoration architecture.
As the visitors walk along the rows of stalls and merchants, the triangular shades shield them from the humid heat of August or the pouring rain of April that Porto is so famous for. The absence of the original closed stalls or any kind of dividing wall is a human-oriented architectural decision that allows for uninterrupted interaction between the merchants and the buyers and a fluid stroll for the visitors. At the other end of the market, we reach a set of beautifully curved stairs that begin as one and curve out on both sides to take visitors to the first floor. This restored set of stairs is a place where tired visitors sit and nurse a glass of wine or troops of happy locals sing folk songs on special occasions.
Another way to enter the first floor is by the northern gate of the building that opens directly into the first floor. This entrance takes visitors through a wide and short corridor that opens to a balcony that stretches along the entire first floor and looks at the courtyard below. This spectacular view is even more enchanting during the night as the lighting design makes itself known. The thoughtful lighting from under the shades illuminates the ground floor and creates a magnificent contrast with the darkness of the steel roof. From this balcony, visitors can walk along the first floor and explore the restaurants situated there. It is on this balcony, in the middle of the block, that a modernist metal bridge exists between the western and eastern entrances of the market to connect the parallel streets on both sides. It eases the passage of the pedestrians who wish to only cross to the other side. Yet, they cannot help but pause and be captured for at least a few seconds glancing at the vibrant market below. This modification was done in the 1940s, as a floor was added to the building, dividing it, and making a passage between Rua Alexandre Braga and Rua Sá da Bandeira.
The Mercado do Bolhão has its roots back in 1839 when the City Council of Porto decided to establish a square on this land. The location by some accounts was previously a vast marshland intersected by a stream that created a water bubble, thus the name "Bolhão." Over time, the square underwent improvements. In the early 20th century, city officials recognised the need for a new market outside the expanding city. A project ahead of its time, incorporating reinforced concrete along with metallic structures, the original building was designed by Correia da Silva in 1914.
Throughout the era, the market has undergone several modifications. Other than the façade and the outer appearance of the market, Nuno Valentim and his studio have modernised the infrastructure of the building. Complete redesign of the leaking roofs, an extended equipped basement for storage and ice production rooms, efficient supply and distribution channels for trucks and couriers, direct underground access to the metro, elevator lines, the viewpoint balconies on the first floor, and an efficient modern drainage system are only a few of the infrastructural changes that have made the life of the people working there easier.
On the aesthetics side, the renowned Portuguese architect strived to salvage and enhance the essence and spirit of the market while adapting it to modern times and the contemporary use of a market as a public space in the centre of Porto. On many occasions, his firm consulted the merchants and the women working in the market to have a better understanding of what needed to remain and be restored to make the design a better solution for its users. Notably, some original tilework, statues and curtains from the old building were saved. It is observable in every bit and corner of the building, even in the steel shades that have completely replaced the original stalls, that Valentim tried to stay true to the original design. The architect believes that the “classification of 'Monument of Public Interest' attributed to Mercado do Bolhão recognises the patrimonial value of two inseparable dimensions—the singularity of the Beaux Arts building and its function as a traditional market.”
However, it is only this much that an architect and his art can do in the face of tourist-oriented gentrification. For the past few years, Porto has become subject to extended tourism marketing, and it has already caused a great shift in the spirit of the city and its economy. Not far from Mercado do Bolhão, Porto has Rua Santa Catarina where the beautiful Porto-style tiled houses are all renovated for Airbnbs and all the usual suspect fashion brands lined up, sharing the exact function and look of many such streets in several European cities impacted by mass tourism. Mercado do Bolhão has also been made to adapt to the shift in the nature of the urban dynamic in Porto.
In this sense, Nuno Valentim and his team have succeeded relatively in their objective. The new Mercado do Bolhão has managed to guard the essence of the market and its charm while bringing it up to speed with contemporary concepts of openness, comfort, and transparency; a building that serves local buyers, tourists, and merchants alike. Although Mercado do Bolhão is transformed to face the change, it hasn’t utterly succumbed to it but rather accommodated it, while remaining true to itself, its architectural charm, and authenticity, as it is the way of Portuguese pragmatism.
Name: Mercado do Bolhão
Location: Porto, Portugal
Year of completion: 2022
Architect: Nuno Valentim