a view of the market square at the center is the reflective clock tower

In Bermondsey, London, Local Designers Collaborate to Revive a Neighborhood Market 

The Blue, an historic street market, gets new facilities courtesy of Hayatsu Architects, Assemble Studio, and an engaged community.

For more than a century, a street market known as ‘The Blue’ was the beating heart of Bermondsey in Southeast London. On Saturdays gone by, hundreds flocked to the historic neighborhood, a site with roots reaching back to the 11th century when it was once a pilgrimage route to Bermondsey Abbey. Market punters used to sample goods from more than 200 stalls that famously sold everything under the sun. “You can buy anything down The Blue” was the phrase everyone went by.

However, since the 1970s, the market has been in gradual decline: shunned from the road to make way for vehicles and pushed into a post-war housing estate, its business has been usurped by a supermarket mega complex nearby. Today, The Blue is a far cry from the communal hub it used to be, and with it, the lifeblood it once provided has dripped away. In 2005 a Metropolitan police report defined the area a hotspot for “race crime and youth disorder.”

“I’ve been selling fish for about 40 years. And I’ve seen it go from a packed market to it being more or less only me having a stall here.”

Russel Dryden, fishmonger and Community leader
The Blue Market Brick building

“I’ve always run a stall here,” said Russell Dryden, speaking to Metropolis. “I’ve been selling fish for about 40 years. And I’ve seen it go from a packed market to it being more or less only me having a stall here.”

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Witnessing the market’s decline, Russell took action. After contacting fellow local businesses, he made the market and its vicinity a Business Improvement District. “It gave us the opportunity to sit at the top table,” he said. His work paid off: eventually, the BID was granted $2.7 million from the Greater London Authority’s Good Growth fund to futureproof the area.

Using that money, London-based practices Hayatsu Architects and Turner Prize-winners, Assemble Studio, have provided the market with the infrastructure to hopefully thrive once again. On the face of it, the changes made aren’t show-stoppers. The most notable addition to passers-by is a shiny new clocktower—a twee timber structure clad in tin can scales embossed by residents and supported by stilts with a clock abutting atop. The tin cladding stands out in the local visual context but has particular historical resonance—Bermondsey is the birthplace of the tin can, with the first being produced during the 19th century.

detail of the clock tower's embossed tin roof
Locals gathered to emboss the tin shingles that clad the market’s central clock tower. The reflective material is an homage to the Bermondsey’s history as the first producer of tin cans.
a terrazzo water fountain
Under the tower is a water fountain made from terrazzo using brick and stone aggregate salvaged from previous demolition works—and produced by the Granby Workshop, Assemble’s fabrication arm.

“We wanted to involve the local community and make something that could manifest at an architectural scale,” said Takeshi Hayatsu, founder of his eponymous studio, speaking of the community workshop that saw Bermondsey locals emboss the tin—all of which was part of the extensive community engagement and consultation that took place for the project.

A more subtle change is the new timber bollards that have replaced concrete ones and been pushed closer to the street, allowing more space for traders. The concrete from the others hasn’t been wasted, instead, it has been stained red and reused for seating. The refurbished market can now accommodate 36 stalls. It’s a far cry from the 200 that were once here, but it’s a better foundation for growth as the market looks to become a genuine community hub again.

The tower is the central focal point of Bermondsey’s market, flanked on either side by Oak-framed canopies that provide shelter to potential traders. Better electrical services for stalls have been provided, too. Prior to this, the market’s infrastructure was severely lacking. “Nothing was working on the market,” said Dryden. “None of the electric was working, things broke and weren’t fixed, you know? We just couldn’t run a proper market.”

a community planning meeting taking place with models of the market and surrounding area

Hayatsu calls the new market area a “village green”—a place designed to be more than just a space to trade, where people can hold community events, perform, or relax. Though the market doesn’t sprawl out onto the street like it once did, visitors are encouraged to arrive by foot: much of the budget has been used on improving the pedestrian experience, largely down to street markings and motifs courtesy of graphic designers Stinsensqueeze, who are based in Bermondsey. Funding was also used to give shopfronts a facelift, too, while new paths into the village green area are being carved—with a new route linking to a soon-to-be-built housing development just north of the site.

The result is a pleasing rejuvenation of an area that now has the infrastructure to see its market come back to life. “The market has changed,” admitted Dryden. “Market trading, owning shops—it used to all be passed on, father to son. But now most kids go to university or get educated and don’t want to work their mum and dad’s business like they used to, that era’s gone. Now it’s about getting new traders in, a different generation—and that’s what this is for.”

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