Markets Are More Than Just a Place to Shop

A Dutch design firm shows how markets can be a community center.

Market exterior
A supermarket in the Groningen district of the Netherlands.

 Ronald Tilleman / De Zwarte Hond

Markets have historically been the life and beating heart of every wonderful old town and city in Europe. But what do you do in a new community in modern times? Design agency De Zwarte Hond is setting an example in Meerstad, Netherlands.

"Meerstad is an up-and-coming district of Groningen. The area is popular for its open space, greenery, and the Woldmeer recreational lake, around which a neighborhood with 5,000 new homes will be built in the coming decades," said De Zwarte Hond in a statement. "Eventually, the area will grow into a vivid city district."

Touring it on Google Maps, it's clear that it's not too vivid yet. It needed an "inviting community center, which will serve as a place for residents to shop, gather, and eat."

closer look at structure

 Ronald Tilleman / De Zwarte Hond

De Zwarte Hond is a design agency for architecture, urban design, and strategy that has designed "a revitalized circular version of the traditional market hall design" for developer MWPO. It's a superhub from the Dutch supermarket chain Jumbo ... but it is not your usual supermarket.

canopy hanging out to provide shade

 Ronald Tilleman / De Zwarte Hond

Of course, we came for the wonderful cross-laminated timber "cathedral-like" structure.

"The large canopy, which extends out more than five meters, provides sun protection and draws the structure into its green surroundings with the use of elegant columns and net-like wooden trusses. Additionally, cleverly designed cross forms provide the building with stability, ensuring that no additional wind bracing infrastructure is required. The choice of wooden construction also ensures a positive climate impact."
interior photos of shopping area

Left: Ronald Tilleman / De Zwarte Hond | Right: Ronald Zijlstra

But just as interesting as the structure is the thinking behind the use of the building. Thanks to technology and pandemics, shopping has changed; many people now order online or do self-checkout. We have seen Amazon roll out stores where you don't have to check out at all. That certainly doesn't build community, but it may be the future of grocery shopping. The people behind the superhub are taking a different approach.

The architects explain:

"Our aim was to make the shopping experience personal and social once again, and to offer residents a refreshing alternative to increasingly popular express delivery services. The impressive spatial qualities of the structure are essential here in fulfilling its purpose as an attractive and multifunctional community centre. Accordingly, the supermarket becomes a place for the purchase of everyday groceries, but also a way to meet each other, thereby contributing to the social sustainability of the Meerstad neighbourhood."
simple flexible plan of building

De Zwarte Hond

However, they are hedging their bets. They have designed the building to be flexible and adaptable, with a layout that will not become outdated or demolished in the future. "The building could, for example, accommodate a community center, a museum, or even homes in 20 years’ time. In this way, SuperHub manifests itself as a future-proof community hub that will grow along with the development of Meerstad."

exterior view angled

 Ronald Tilleman / De Zwarte Hond

It's hard to imagine this kind of supermarket in North America, where grocery chains are automating everything, including the checkout and doing everything they can to get you in and out as fast as possible, with as little human interaction as possible.

It is different in the Netherlands. Dutch design magazine Frame reported Jumbo actually introduced "chat checkouts" or "Kletskassa" where elderly shoppers can have a conversation with employees. "Many people, the elderly in particular, can feel lonely. As a family business and supermarket chain, we have a central role in society," Jumbo CCO Colette Cloosterman-Van Eerd told Dutch News. "Our shops are a meeting place and that means we can do something to combat loneliness. The Kletskassa is just one of the things we can do."

view from a distance

 Ronald Tilleman / De Zwarte Hond

There is much to love in this building and from the thinking behind it. It's built of wood, which stores carbon but is also biophilic, making it more comfortable to be in. It's got solar panels and bees on top and geothermal storage underneath. It's got high ceilings and long spans for futureproofing. But most importantly, it is about building a community.

It is such an interesting alternative to our grab-and-go culture. I wonder if it would work in North America.