What’s Wrong With The New Market Hall in Gent?
Great weather during my recent visit to Gent. Being careful not to slip on frozen snow, the day was ideal for a walk around the city centre and its heavily discussed new building: the Market Hall (or if you prefer the “sheep shed”) by Robbrecht en Daem, just between Saint Nicholas’ Church and the World Heritage building Belfry (Belfort Van Gent).
I arrived by train and walked into the city centre, quite curious to see how this new building would fit into the historic context, but my attention and thoughts were also open to other buildings, places and impressions, having a look to the peculiar eclectic train station, new highrise being built on its side and the huge amount of bikes parked all around the station, including under the trees of the square in front of it.
Arrived in this long rectangular square (Kouter) I had a look at the city map, discovering that the historic centre has been “divided” in two for the visitors convenience: one part is where the most historic buildings are; the second where the most museums are. This is part of the new orientation system which includes also useful and frequent sightseeing signposts along the streets.
Looking at the yellow building I was wondering what an average heritage preservation officer would nowadays think about this colour and its relationship with the surrounding buildings. Somehow we tend to think about the past as a homogeneous pattern, meanwhile it is true that also back then, like today, some people/cultures liked to emerge and differentiate, meanwhile others preferred to disguise differences behind a standard front.
Even at a shorter distance, there is nothing offending any sense of proportion or heritage prescriptions in this building. Materials, colours and architectural shape are nothing but an interpretation of the historic context. You may find it a good or a bad one, but screaming at the scandal is not really the case.
The relationship between the two levels of the buildings and the green space in front of them somehow recall the original idea of building there a car parking. Even though the idea of the parking was cancelled, the lower level recalls the entrance to something underground, whereas today there is just a tiny café.
That is a weak point: having two levels in such a square must have some serious reason or at least a functional role. There might be one in this case, but this is not evident to me. By the way the green railing could have been lighter and nicer than that.
This bell could also be housed somewhere else: in the middle of the square, under the roof or in the basement. This is far too near to the Church and the concrete structure to support it rather pointless. This must be the result of some compromise and the Market Hall itself would benefit from its removal.
The space under the roof is great and I can imagine a lot of different ways to use it. But then again, regarding materials and details, the inner skin in tropical wood with the scattered little openings and the two couples of rails on each side, altogether they disturb the perception of space. On the contrary the glass tiles on the outside provide a very nice double skin effect, reflecting the sky above.
In any case the Market Hall is not the only peculiar building around. Below the Town Hall which was partly built between 1519 and 1539 in “flamboyant” late gothic style and later completed in a redundant Renaissance style. I don’t remember to have ever seen any black painted columns with golden capitals before.
Here you see that the Market Hall does cover the view towards the Saint Nicholas Church, but that is no problem, since the church has many other open fronts and cathedrals were never meant to stay on greenfield. On the contrary the new architectural language makes the historic surrounding more lively and interesting, mitigating the museums feeling you have when walking through the perfectly preserved city centres in northern Europe.
As a matter of fact Gent is home of treasures of inestimable value of Flemish culture. The Saint Bavo Cathedral is a gothic church with renaissance and barock decoration, hosting the famous Altarpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, an amazing polyptych panel painting of the early XV Century which is alone worth the trip.
This is the central panel giving the name to the 12 panel composition, which are painted on both sides. Some of them are currently in restoration, one was stolen and replaced by a copy.