Becoming "the Sistine Chapel of Food" required a lot of invisible hard work. As Rotterdam's Markthal turns one year old, MVRDV's Head of Public Relations and Business Development Jan Knikker reflects on how the PR and media hype around Markthal Rotterdam was organized. This article is also supplemented by an interview conducted by ArchDaily with Winy Maas and Jan Knikker, which connects the parallel lines of the building's design and its PR campaign.
If I say that this is a PR story will you believe a single word? Markthal Rotterdam is a PR story with astonishing results: since its opening by queen Maxima in October 2014, our office MVRDV has nearly doubled in size to 110 staff members and it’s still growing. We - and The Financial Times - call it the “Markthal Effect”. In the first year the building reached over 8 million visitors, more than the Eiffel Tower, Bilbao Guggenheim or Tate Modern. 800 articles were published worldwide. It was hailed as a Sistine Chapel for food, a symbol of urban renaissance, a cool place to go. With the roughly 4 million visitors that came from outside of Rotterdam, the city saw its tourism grow.
How did that happen? It would be an easy assumption to think that a great building naturally attracts this kind of attention. But it all started quietly. In 2004 developer Provast and MVRDV won the competition with a plan that resembles the current design, except with one big difference: the colorful art piece which brightens up the inside of Markthal was at that stage also all over the outside facade. In any other city that would have lead to an instant protest movement against the zeppelin hangar covered in a gigantic fruit wallpaper. But not in Rotterdam. Public awareness started only once the construction became noisy.
Above, a video of some of Markthal's residents. Videos of residents and stall owners, produced as part of the PR campaign, are included throughout this article.
In 2013, three years into the construction, Markthal’s superstructure started to emerge above the fence. People started to realize that this totally unbelievable building would actually happen. It hit me that this could be the big one for MVRDV, the project that would become a household name, much better known than its architect. I wanted to make full use of the potential and called Provast to become involved in its PR.
Our client, Provast, specializes in high end inner city developments, routinely opening their mixed-use buildings with big bang celebrations, and they initially did not see the added value of the architect’s office interfering with their opening. The architect in the end is a small company among the contractors, developers and the 25 other companies that worked on Markthal. Provast was clear that the opening was going to be their party, and they had to invite thousands of people who had somehow participated in the decade it took to realize Markthal. Fair enough, but together with Rotterdam Marketing (the city’s public-private marketing engine) we convinced them of the need for a collective approach regarding the PR and we succeeded in shaping a team consisting of Rotterdam Partners, Provast, Corio and MVRDV. We created short communication lines within the team to act fast. The sheer potential of this project for each organisation was exciting, and this made the teamwork effective.
Rotterdam Partners were surprised by our open door policy, saying “It’s unique, MVRDV always says yes.” As the building grew, the interest in it started to grow, stirred up by this active PR team. The higher up the structure got, the more press and site visits we organized, including highlights such as the 5,000 visitors during the national construction day, or the 90 foreign journalists that visited Rotterdam and Markthal for the presentation of the new Toyota Aygo. For the last two months before the opening, all PR people visited the site on daily basis, meeting groups of tourists and estate agents on their way through the construction site, with hard hats and rubber boots - the site had started to become a public attraction. Then the contractor had enough. For the final month they closed the site in order to be able to finalize the construction. Of course we all ignored the ban as much as we could and sneaked in through every gap in their security. By the time Markthal was ready to open, we had been able to tour an unprecedented 12,000 people over the site.
Provast director Hans Schröder, an entrepreneur at heart, saw a business opportunity. He decided to start a souvenir shop inside the building. We thought it to be funny, and in an afternoon filled with laughter we designed him mugs, cushions and umbrellas. To our great surprise he instantly forwarded the designs to a manufacturer in China and so the Markthal souvenir range was born.
A month before the opening we organized a press preview for magazines with long deadlines, a makeshift cafe was built inside the hall and the press gathered. Alongside the magazines, some newspapers also demanded access. Publishing the building before completion is tricky; it’s not finished, it’s not populated, but the journalists have to write a conclusion. The only thing they can do is guess and discuss the architecture as such, but architecture is an applied art: if you can’t see the use all critique remains fictional. The best solution would be a presentation a month after the opening to write an informed article based on the question of whether the building functions well or not, but the law of news gathering and the location of the building in the center of Rotterdam made this impossible. This was too big to be kept quiet.
Hysteria started when Provast received a positive answer to our request for Queen Maxima to open the building. Already more than 200 journalists had RSVPed, and now 150 additional requests hit the team, from high brow to entertainment, attracted by the royalty. The size of the PR team was doubled to deal with the rush. At this stage the phone would not stop ringing at Provast. People started to demand access, but Provast had only 1,600 spaces available for the opening, so many had to be disappointed. Construction lasted up until the last day, and while the first food was being stocked up, some market stalls were still under construction.
September 30th 2014, one day before Maxima came, was the day of the press opening. One of the apartments became a press center, and all day long there were tours through the building - often 50 journalists at a time, divided into different languages and guided by PR people speaking these languages. The division was simple: Provast had no business abroad so MVRDV did the foreign and architecture press and Provast the Dutch news outlets. Corio went for the food press, to give Markthal’s entrepreneurs a head start. Rotterdam Partners strategically organized the visits and toured the gigantic group to see other parts of the city.
In the hall meanwhile it was a party, after the proud market vendors had invited their family and friends to what was to become their last free day before Christmas. Both groups started to mix and the hall exceeded its officially allowed amount of visitors. The fire department had to let people wait outside.
Winy Maas and Hans & Hans (Provast’s Hans Schröder and Hans de Jong) gave two press conferences for national and international press, and Winy Maas then gave 14 interviews in a row, in four languages. In the evening Winy Maas hopped from one restaurant (30 foreign journalists invited by a Ministry) to the next (a group of 20 foreign journalists invited by Rotterdam Partners). The PR team was up until late to help the happy and mostly fizzed up journalists, only to raise red-eyed in the early morning to make sure the countless TV channels would get a good spot to film the queen.
The opening was all sing-along, laughter, multi-cultured - about Maxima’s flowery dress and happy stall owners. When the invited crowd in their suits and cocktail dresses left the building to have drinks in the adjacent church, the public was for the first time allowed to enter the building. They had been waiting for 10 years and now they were in a rush. Within 5 minutes the hall was absolutely choked, heads all over the place and constant flash lights buzzing above the crowd. Sale had started instantly.
The next morning was devoted to press clippings, hundreds of emails requesting images despite the fact that there was a website to freely access them, and the enthusiastic press flooded in: “Markthal the new Food-Walhalla”, “The Sistine Chapel of Food” “Superdutch goes Supersized in psychedelic marketplace”, “Will Rotterdam’s Markthal be equivalent of Bilbao’s Guggenheim?” Within the first week we counted 120 articles and 95% of them were good to excellent; a humbling experience. Even local newspaper AD’s investigative journalist Antti Liukku had written a positive piece and The Guardian’s Olli Wainwright seemed genuinely impressed: his article was critical, but not as hard as he is known to treat other buildings sometimes. The fact that underneath the article The Guardian had correctly mentioned that his trip was sponsored sparked a debate about the work of Rotterdam Partners, however their team seemed used to it and, unimpressed, just counted the British tourists that came to the Rotterdam Info-Point with a copy of the article in their hand demanding the location of this “folly.” There is no such thing as bad publicity and the investment of a few hundred Euros was turned into an article worth £18,000 of advertisement value.
“High trees catch wind” is one of the most Dutch of proverbs, and soon a destructive pamphlet titled “Fuck off with your bio-smoothies” was written by Zihni Özdil and Arjen van Veelen. The writers analyzed the Markthal to be a symbol of unwanted gentrification and called Markthal an “historical clusterfuck of gentrification, segregation and neoliberalism.” The article was initially published in the smaller newspaper NRC Next but made it into the edition of NRC Handelsblad, a serious business and culture-oriented publication, and so Hans Schröder wrote a letter defending the building’s budget entrepreneurs. But the damage was done, and Markthal started to get a reputation for being expensive. The PR team learned the prices of chicken in the hall (ranging from €2.99 to €26.95) and had to tell the story over and over again. It was a cultural thing: the German, French, Italian or British press was not fussed about this as in these countries markets are more pricy than supermarkets and their produce is better. But in Holland the market is the place to go if Aldi is too expensive. I sent an email to Zihni Özdil, a sociologist who had earlier predicted a land slide for the Muslim party that never came, telling him line-for-line what was incorrect in the article - a useless exercise as he never replied. In the meantime, Markthal was sent in for the Aga Khan award for architecture “in which Muslims have a significant presence.”
While Markthal counted its millionth visitor in the first three weeks, the total count of articles went up to 550, from all over the world, even in distant countries such as Vietnam, Australia, Iran and Columbia. So much popularity is suspect to architects, and while the building received one real estate award after the other and the engineer of the cable net facade was elected engineer of the year, the architecture community did not see the arch as a worthy winner.
Among the praise the critics hit hard, on all levels. Eminent sociologist Arnold Reijndorp wrote an eloquent analysis of the building in which he stated that Markthal is not a market. Germany's Baumeister magazine followed the same logic. Critical monitoring is the essential democratic task the press has in society, but articles with incorrect information gave me sleepless nights. A spectacular water leak in an apartment turned into an urban legend about complex installations. One day inside the hall I overheard a young architecture student walk into Markthal and say “typically MVRDV, bad details.” The detail he looked at while saying this made its designer engineer of the year, but old prejudice is hard to beat. Tastes differ and the building is called too gray, too colorful, too chique, too raw, too this, too that. In the meantime, unaffected by critics, more people keep visiting the building than ever imagined, tourists come to Rotterdam and the press keeps writing about it. On various social media 20,000 images of the housing arch can already be found.
After six months we made a first evaluation and interviewed inhabitants and market vendors. The general consensus is positive; there are issues but nothing that cannot be solved. We also had an epiphany: the market lady who sells her family’s cheese told me that Markthal is a real market. “Some people complain that tourists just eat or just look but don’t buy. But all I see are potential customers. If they are not in front of my stall I get out there and lure them in with nibbles, or I simply yell. The stalls with staff that play on their cell phones are doomed. Waiting does not work, this is not a mall, this is a market.”
PR is certainly easier with a strong subject such as Markthal, but it does not just happen. Do you remember the high expectations for the EMP in Seattle, or the Royal Ontario Museum extension in Toronto, or the City of Arts & Sciences in Valencia, or the MARTa in Herford? The overall urban development and investment needs to be right, and then it’s just very hard work: it is the invisible work of calling, spinning, emailing and organizing countless visits. Markthal had an eleven page information sheet, so much was there to say about the various aspects of the building. Its architecture, its technology, its sustainability, its construction, its financial side, the tenants, the history of the site. Each journalist had a different approach and interest and we tried to meet these interests individually. We initiated hundreds of visits, interviews and we said yes to even more. Most visitors were toured by Rotterdam Partners to other initiatives in the city, to see designers, artists, De Rotterdam, the Urban Farm, the innovation port M4H, the bottom up, the top down, making each visit a multi-potential event.
Even now, every day a journalist or person of interest is being led through Markthal, and Rotterdam benefits from this. Markthal is not an object on Mars, so visitors want to know more about the city that made it possible to create this building, its entrepreneurial spirit, its hunger for innovation, its history and its people. Thanks to the open nature of architectural practice and the popularity of Markthal, we are able to deliver them the story and answer their questions honestly, without lies or a hidden agenda. After all, we are just an architecture office and not a Silicon Valley market dominator or a polluting car company. We can afford to be honest.
Many thanks to the power team that shaped Markthal’s public appearance: Krystle de Koster-Heselaars and Chantal Hoogeveen for Provast, Eva Lambooij for Corio (now Klepierre), Kim Heinen and Judith Boer for Rotterdam Partners and Isabel Pagel and Jan van de Kamp for MVRDV.