The Iron Markets, a unique heritage

The markets of El Born and Sant Antoni are two of the finest and earliest examples of cast-iron architecture in the city of Barcelona. El Born, in fact, is the first large cast-iron building in Barcelona. Built in the late 19th century, their mission was to provide local residents with a more orderly and sanitary venue to buy their groceries, thereby making an improvement from the then-prevalent street markets. This was by no means an isolated development in Barcelona, but rather part of a trend that was booming at the time all over Europe, which left an impressive cultural heritage that is often overlooked.


After serving their local communities for many years, the decline of food markets, the passage of time and other circumstances led to the decay of both buildings by the 1990s. El Born, which had become a whosale market in the early 20th century, closed down in the 1970s and was almost demolished. As for Sant Antoni, still operating as a retail food market, had experienced a fall in its commercial activity, while the building itself was in a severe state of disrepair.

Where other cities have simply demolished their cast-iron markets, the Barcelona City Council saw an opportunity to put these markets back at the heart of Barcelona’s rich cultural heritage. The goal of the project, however, was not just to turn them into attractions to be admired, but to keep them as the centres of activity they were meant to be.


The goals were thus well-defined: to restore the buildings with the utmost fidelity to their original design, to integrate in them the archaeological remains, and to ensure their continued activity. Given that Sant Antoni was still serving as a market, the City Council chose to update the facilities and to develop a dynamisation plan, building upon the experience of Barcelona’s successful good practices with other markets. As for El Born, after many years of inactivity, it was decided that it would serve as a cultural facility. The initial idea was to turn it into the seat of the Provincial Library of Barcelona. The unexpected vast dimensions of the archaeological remains, however, led to the rejection of this plan. Instead, it would become a cultural and historical remembrance centre.


The project started to take shape in the early 2000s, when the architects were hired to draft the restoration of the markets. The works at El Born, which was not being used, could begin relatively early, starting with the conservation and study of the archaeological remains, which began in 2003. Thus, the restoration of the building itself started in 2008, and concluded in 2016. As for Sant Antoni, a new provisional building had to be built to host the market while the works were ongoing. Thus, after some initial field surveys of the archaeological remains that took place between 2008 and 2009, the works involving the building itself began in November 2009, with the demolition of additional elements that had been added over the years such as annex buildings in the patios. At the same time, the archaeological remains were excavated and integrated into the building. The ceiling and the structure were restored between 2014 and 2015, whereas the façade and the finishings have focused the works since 2015 and finished this September 2017.



Partners involved: The process of rehabilitation of both markest has been done through a participatory partnership process awarded by the European Public Sector Awards: urban planners, architects, local residents, neighbouring commerces and neighbour’s assotiation have taken part in different parts of the remdodelling process. Moreover, in the framework of a project funded by the EU (Urbact Markets), several cities like London, Dublin, Toulouse, Wroclaw or Torino, amongst others, have taken part to an international focus group to exchange and learn about markets remodelling process.


Some qualities that make this project outstanding in the European context are that they are excellent examples of the iron-cast arquitecture in Europe that survived to a context of general demolition in many cities; the fact that they culminate an historic process of recovery of similar cast-iron markets in the city of Barcelona that has been studied at international level; the fidelity of restoration respecting the original buildings combined with the preservation of its social character. Finally, for its restoration, the architects and urban planners developed a comparative research at European level of other iron-cast markets of cities like Paris, Belfort, Caen, Liverpool, London, Newcastle, Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg, Stocholm, Florence or Milan, which ensures a vast knowledge of the euorpean cast-iron construction standards that can be used by other European cities for similar rehabilitation process.