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Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market: A precedent for the Birmingham Wholesale Markets

Birmingham Wholesale Markets

As co-deliverer of the CABE Urban Design Summer School, each year we focused on a section of the host city (whether Birmingham, Newcastle or Bristol) as a case study. Each year three sites were selected, usually one in the city centre, one around the urban fringe and one further out, perhaps in a town or village. Each had existing buildings and some positive attributes to inspire the design teams to revitalise the site. Like much of the regeneration throughout the UK in the past decade, a clean slate was often viewed as a most appropriate starting point for the exercise.

The Birmingham Wholesale Markets was one such site where opportunity grew from the existing site; the site contains massive, iconic sheds located adjacent to the heart of the city centre. They are located adjacent to the celebrated Bullring (merely a successful city centre mall with chain stores) and the city’s main high street. It is also topographically dramatic. It is lower than the shopping district, with great views from the Bullring to the top of the roofscapes of the Wholesale Markets.

Pike Place Market

Years ago I visited Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washingto. My first sights on Birmingham’s Market site  immediately brought visions of the site being developed for small and medium independent market stalls, interspersed with restaurants and a few local chains amongst some local street performers. It would be a magnet for people. The sheds could provide a great three dimensional canvas used to highlight and support local entrepreneurs. The potential seems logical and inspirational. In one move, you could support true social, economic, cultural and physical regeneration in a great, diverse city! It would, much like Pike Place Market, cater to the local population, and in its success draw a local to international audience for its distinctiveness (which would effectively be a marketof the local people).

My excitement diminished with each team, bar one, planning to raise the ‘ugly, utilitarian’ buildings as part of the Big Project for the summer school. Each then planned a non-descript, typical regeneration scheme based on some theme of ‘sustainability’ or ‘water and nature and parks’ or ‘city centre living’. All could have been developed in any UK city and would contribute to the continuing sameness felt across so many new developments.

This was a few years ago, but it has stuck with me. Why don’t we recreate the places that leave a lasting impression in our minds? If those who claim to work in urban design do not lead others, who will?

Chatuchak Market Plan

Last week in Bangkok the same idea came to mind; I visited the Chatuchak Market, sandwiched in between a city bus station, two Metro stops and one Skytrain station. This site holds an unbelievable 8,000 market stalls with a dizzying selection of food, fashion, home wares, art and other goods you never knew you needed or desired. I again thought about the possibilities for the Birmingham Wholesale Markets.

With the apparent construction of a future Birmingham market to hold the existing 94 businesses on site (presumably to be built further afield in the city), the site’s future should be best utilized for the citizens of the city, and to the benefit of the city as a whole. The continuity of the site (its physical attributes) should be viewed as a link from the past use to the future. They should not be sacred, untouchable and listed (nor should they be viewed as disposable); they should be viewed as a living architecture able to accommodate changes and mould to future needs in time. In fact the buildings of the Chatuchak Market were simple structures, apparently altered to cover and expand the site. This is also the case with the Pike Place Market. Both are city destinations, both focus on local citizens and their desire to build a business, and both act as a stepping stone for businesses to grow and expand. Such a large site adjacent to the premier shopping centre in Birmingham could only create synergies that will help regenerate the countless nearby warehouses and industrial structures nearby.

An interior street in Chatuchak Market showing some of the 8,000 stalls

The Wholesale Market site has the potential to continue the renaissance of a great industrial, multi-cultural city, and lead the city into the future like no Big City Plan could do by itself!

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