Berlin’s Historic Market Halls

Ian Farrell explores the history – and current status – of Berlin’s 19th century Markthallen…

The former Central Markthalle at Alexanderplatz

The year is 1883. The newly founded nation of Germany is developing at a rapid rate, with the capital city of Berlin as its political and economic centre.

On the international stage, the country is making a lot of noise establishing itself as a major player in world politics as well as science and other realms. At home, much is also changing: major towns and cities are undergoing rapid industrialisation and modernisation, and none more so than the capital.

Berlin’s population is booming, with new Mietskaserne apartment blocks springing up in the thousands to integrate and accommodate the burgeoning working classes, who are helping create and found the city’s new neighbourhoods: Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg…

Everything seems to be on the rise – standards of living, education, hygiene – and there is a concerted effort to improve the infrastructure for the city’s ever-expanding workforce. A key part of this drive is focussed on restructuring the citizens’ supply of food and goods.

The old markets at which most of the population still buy their groceries are now deemed too unhygienic and difficult to control, a breeding ground for crime and disease. As a result, the Berlin Magistrate commissions town planner Hermann Blankenstein and architect August Lindemann to design and build fourteen grandiose new market halls, which would move all trade indoors where standards of hygiene could be more rigorously maintained.

The new Markthallen were placed strategically around Mitte and residential areas such as Kreuzberg, Wedding and Moabit, and were designed to provide customers with a greater variety of goods close to home in a safer, cleaner shopping environment. Each one even had its own police station to keep crime rates down. They were to herald the dawn of a new commercial age for Berlin’s inhabitants, one that would help define the city’s economic landscape for the 20th Century.

So where are they now? The twentieth century has been and gone, and the commercial identity of Berlin is clearly very different to what Herr Blankenstein had in mind. Obviously, much of this could not have possibly been predicted at the time – the mass destruction caused by two world wars, the boom in technology, the rise of online shopping. But nevertheless, surely something should still remain of such a grand scheme?

The truth is, despite the fanfare that accompanied the opening of the first four Markthallen in 1886 and their ten siblings over the course of the next six years, the scheme was never a complete success. Although outdoor trading had been made illegal in the city itself, many Berliners travelled just beyond the boundary to sites such as the Maybachufer, where they could still enjoy the lower prices and more communal atmosphere of the old markets.

At the other end of the scale, the first big department stores, such as Karstadt and Galeria, were springing up around the country, offering bulk-bought goods at discount prices. These privately-owned chains were the first sign of the aggressive model of capitalism that would blossom over the course of the next century, often at the expense of state-funded projects.

Markthalle VI on Invalidenstrasse. Image by Jörg Zägel via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

On top of that, the extra rent required to maintain Lindemann’s striking but elaborate architecture, and the higher standards of hygiene and safety compared to the old outdoor markets, led to complaints and withdrawals from many vendors.

Markthalle XII at Gesundbrunnen closed in 1898, just six years after its opening; the number of vendors had dropped below 50, making the site economically unviable.

The halls in Friedrichstadt (III), Dorotheenstadt (IV), Dresdner Straße (VII) and Prenzlauer Berg (XIII) all followed suit over the next few years, leaving just nine of the fourteen Markthallen still in business by the time Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and the First World War broke out. The Berlin Government’s grand scheme had proven to be something of a white elephant.

Despite this, some of the Markthallen did enjoy a certain level of success, especially the well-connected Zentralmarkthalle at Alexanderplatz. Unlike many of its smaller brethren, which often suffered from poor transport links and being hidden away in quiet corners of residential areas, this central hall was easily accessible for customers and traders alike. Wholesale butchers began importing frozen meats from as far afield as Argentina and New Zealand, and an extension was opened in 1893 to support this sector of business.

However, two world wars took their toll, and by 1945 many of the remaining market halls lay in ruins. A couple in the newly-established Eastern sector struggled on in one form or another within an economic model that never focussed on their development, while the West German government stubbornly overlooked the relevance the halls had to the local culture and community.

Instead, the rampant capitalism that accompanied the rebirth of the West German economy focused more and more on homogenous shopping centres and supermarkets, offering varieties of goods and discount prices that the Markthallen could not hope to compete with.

Which leaves us today with just…four. It’s interesting to see how their stories have diverged over past decades. The Arminushalle in Moabit has perhaps suffered the least turbulence; undamaged in the war and not being situated on prime development land, the tenth of Lindemann’s halls is the only one to have remained open for business almost continuously for its entire 112-year history.

Arminiushalle. Image by Paul Sullivan.

The resident traders have shown good business sense in adapting to changing times and demands, and today the renamed Zunfthalle’s leafy green interior boasts a wonderful mixture of new and old, with traditional butchers and currywurst stands next to a fish and chip restaurant and one man selling rather naughty “cakes on a stick.” It even has its own brewery.

Though now in similarly rude health, Markthallen VI, (Ackerhalle, Invalidenstraße), and XI (Marheinekehalle, Kreuzberg) were not quite so lucky, and underwent several renovations and changes of ownership after the war and the fall of the wall, before finally stabilising. As a result, they retain less of the traditional Berlin atmosphere, though a recent focus on local and organic produce has noticeably boosted their popularity.

The hall that has garnished the most attention in recent years, of course, is No. IX on Kreuzberg’s Eisenbahnstraße. There was much clamour when, in 2009, Florian Niedermeier, Bernd Maier and Nikolaus Driessen formed an initiative to stop the historic building being sold and turned into a modern shopping centre.

The trio won the campaign, the Berlin Senate accepting their offer ahead of the larger one from the corporate developer, and the historic Markthalle was finally re-opened in October 2011 after months of renovation work.

Of all the existing Markthallen it feels the most alive, full of glorious smells (the barbeque stand, the fish smoker), and the noise of children attacking the playground in the centre of the hall. Though not always packed to the rafters, there’s almost always a healthy bustle and one can certainly imagine what it must have been like in its heyday. Nikolaus Driessen, one of the instigators behind the initiative to rescue the old Markthalle, sees the revitalised Markthalle precisely as an alternative to the faceless modern shopping centres and discount stores that have taken over large parts of the city.

Though not traditionally food enthusiasts in the way that many other nations are, people in Germany – and especially Berlin – are now increasingly willing to spend proportionally more on food than they would in decades gone by. There is a growing sense that Berliners, like many other urban residents throughout the Western hemispehere, are tired of faceless, unscrupulous commercialism and want to connect more with their food – not just in terms of what they eat, but where it comes from.

“It’s not about bio [organic] food,” Nikolaus tells me. “You can buy apples labelled “bio” that are actually from New Zealand.” The emphasis at Markthalle IX is more on establishing a direct connection to both supplier and supply. This “self-certification” approach brings the traders closer not just to the owners of the hall, but also to their customers, establishing a greater level of trust on which a closer relationship can be built.

The stall owners naturally support the concept of providing sustainable, predominantly local goods directly to their customers. Some even go to incredible lengths to do so, such as the Austrian cheese seller who brings his stock to Berlin every weekend just for the market, and the highly rated chef who forsook the restaurant business in favour of opening up the canteen here, where he could work with local food and local people.

As Nikolaus says, the revival of Berlin’s old market halls brings with it a sense of history repeating itself. The ruthless capitalism that was so prevalent in the latter part of the twentieth century is beginning to stutter. The Berliner Carré shopping centre, which replaced the old Zentralmarkthalle after the fall of the Wall, is due to close in April.

Somewhat more ironically, Karstadt, one of the first department stores that hampered the original Markthallen project from taking off, filed for bankruptcy in 2010. The demise of such institutions would leave a convenient gap in the market for something more reflective of modern attitudes and an increasing wariness of large-scale commercialism. 

Markthalle IX. Image by Paul Sullivan.

As in the late 19th century, it is time for a new model. People want to connect more with their food, placing more importance on sustainability and quality than 2-for-1 offers.

There are also signs that the city has finally acknowledged the cultural importance of the old Markthallen, as shown by them favouring the revival of Markthalle IX over its more lucrative replacement with a modern mall.

Three out of the four remaining halls are listed as protected landmarks, and all seem determined to seize this zeitgeist, replicating the original idea while avoiding its mistakes.

There is more emphasis on the social potential offered by an indoor, open-plan shopping area, and less on simply being another place for people to do their weekly shopping.

Vendors are carefully selected for their ability to offer something different or out of the ordinary, and some of the halls organise regular events, such as the concerts in Moabit’s Zunfthalle and the regular Naschmarkt cake festivals in Markthalle IX.

It is a different beast for a different time and, as people become increasingly dissatisfied with the attitudes of big chains and discount supermarkets, the timing couldn’t be better. As Nikolaus Driessen said to me: “If it doesn’t work now, when will it?”