Who hasn’t sifted through books, plates and clothes at the Mercat dels Encants? Who hasn’t dropped by the old and new market, seen or heard a few stories or taken home an item with now evokes such vivid memories? This book aims to capture just that, to get us remembering our visits to one of the most famous markets in Barcelona and everywhere.
A collection of views, experiences, images and reflections set around the most extraordinary market we have in the city. The mainstay of the book is its pictures of the Els Encants, from yesteryear and today, taken by Rafael Vargas over the years. As with the Fira de Bellcaire’s plural reality, the book includes narratives – some in Catalan and others in Spanish – that accompany readers and help them to get from the book what they would from the Els Encants, some unexpected gems. It features photographs, experiences, history, analyses and comedy, since the book’s true central characters are the Els Encants and its people, stall-holders, customers, passers-by, hauliers, opportunists, voyeurs, auctioneers, collectors and fetishists.
A market with products, old, antique and new, a place for exchanging, auctions, shopping and haggling, agreements and disagreements, in short, a place for relations between buyers, sellers and voyeurs. This is the Mercat de Bellcaire, a space for community-life and diversity. And the Els Encants is one of the oldest second-hand markets in Europe and the most important in Barcelona, currently with 400 traders, distributed over four floors, two underground and two in the upper part of the market, housing a harmonious collection of new and second-hand products and acting too as a recycling market, from clothing to household furniture.
What were once stalls are now organised into metal modules, although the place maintains the spirit of the medieval market as well as one of the features that sets is apart from other markets, its auctions, which take place first thing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. In general, the products that are auctioned come from flats emptied out for various reasons or from probate settlements, court-issued evictions and tax debts, with items that once belonged to somebody. As Oscar Guayabero points out, “there is undeniably a type of cruelty in this marketing of memories and personal objects. It is the cruelty of life itself that cities have established for centuries. At the same time there is something tender about breathing new life into objects abandoned in the street. Such things, which would become junk and later rubbish, are turned into lucky finds and even treasures”. In addition to its ever romantic aspect, it also represents a way of recycling and prolonging a product’s life. Which is why the Els Encants Market is part of our life, our collective and our Barcelona roots, a meeting point that belongs to our collective memory.
If we look at its history, according to a study by Enric H. March, the Els Encants goes back 750 years. But it has not always been in the same place. Its original activity dates back to the 13th century, although our earliest extant documentary reference to it is from the 14th century. Originally located between the porches of the Sant Jaume church and the gate to the Jewish quarter, today’s Plaça de Sant Jaume, it was moved to Plaça Nova in 1358. In 1391, it was moved again, to Carrer del Consolat, between the Lodge and the Sant Sebastià Convent, at around the same time as the attack on the city’s Jewish quarter. It stayed there for five centuries, until 1888, when it was moved to make way for the reconstruction of the seafront being carried out for what would be the Universal Exposition.
The market’s new location was to be in La Rambla, from Palau Moja up to the Caserna dels Estudis, known today as Canaletes, where it stayed until 1816. It was in 1822 that the Fira de Bellcaire was moved again, due to a ban implemented by Barcelona’s authorities on selling old clothes, among other things, this time to Passeig de l’Esplanada, between El Born and the start of today’s Passeig de Sant Joan.
In 1835, some of the traders moved to Els Encants “The move led to confusion with the medieval Els Encants… Despite the spatial coincidence and confusion, the Fira de Bellcaire was made up of «drapaires de carretó» [rag and bone men] and held on Sundays, whereas the Els Encants took place on three working days: Monday, Wednesday and Friday.” Explains Enric H. March.
In 1888, when the two markets continued sharing their space, they were moved to Camí de la Creu Coberta, known today as Avinguda Mistral. However, once again, because of the preparations for the International Exposition of 1929, the Els Encants was moved in 1928 to another marginal site in the city, between Plaça de les Glòries and Camps de la Sidra. “It was an undeveloped patch scattered with factories and railway workshops and crossed by the Rec Comtal and railway tracks. It was here at this borderland site, which was meant to be provisional in view of the expected redevelopment of the square planned by Cerdà in 1859 – a project still in progress as we enter the 2020s–, that the Els Encants remained for over eighty years. It would be known here as the Mercat dels Encants Vells and the Fira de Bellcaire.” Enric H. March points out.
Finally, the new site of the Els Encants was officially opened on 25 September 2013, next to the El Bosquet dels Encants, on the other side of Plaça de les Glòries, which officially opened on 25 September 2013. The new site is meant to highlight a historical market that aims to regain its urban centrality. “It is hard to champion the old facilities at Les Glòries, given that their marginal image is deeply rooted in Barcelona’s public imagination. But it is in this borderland site, this no man’s land, that sellers ended up building a world governed by its own laws, as happens in the marginal spaces of highly populated cities”, concludes March. “I’ve always seen auctions at the Els Encants as the final distillation of a life’s accumulated memories.
Taking a stroll through the market in the early morning hours, when lorries arrive to unload a house’s emptied contents, is like watching a play. The representation of the final move that is meant to breathe life back into the objects taken, without sentimentality, from the Els Encants’ cold floors.” Josep Bohigas.
Els Encants Market is an example of coexistence between architecture and urbanism, an architecture designed on the basis of urbanism according to social needs, that is, what true urbanism stands for: designing cities for the people who live in them. But urban planning means providing solutions for problems that arise in the present day, offering solutions to the difficulties that citizens are faced with. The issue is that when an urban-development plan is established, launched and implemented, that social reality is now something else: “An implemented urban project is not normally the result of a decisive and courageous process, but rather something that results over a long period of time from doubts and contradictory projects which, in the best of cases, are a good reflection of the original uncertainties”, explains Josep Bohigas.
And Plaça de les Glòries, and what was meant to be the future project as the city’s central hub, is an example of this and represents a great unknown: “We’ve been stuck for many years in an urban-planning debate on how to address the Les Glòries «hole». In the meantime, its surroundings have been steadily turning into a highly central area involving powerful public and private programmes, launched through the astute urban reclassification of the 22@ neighbourhood.” Explains Josep Bohigas.
This central feature was also -partly- promoted with the creation of big public facilities designed by important architects, such as Ricardo Bofill’s “Temple-Teatre Nacional, Rafael Moneo’s Estoig-Auditori”, and the Zaha Hadid project for Plaça de les Arts, which did not go ahead, to name but a few. These architects were meant to be the creative engineers of this space, but, as Josep Bohigas explains,”the lack of urban-planning leadership caused each architect to run their own programme on their own patch of land, thereby nullifying any dialogue between neighbouring projects and the city.”