The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1922] The Barras Market: An Exceptional Public Space.

United Kingdom

The Barras, Scotlands largest indoor market, has been established for over eighty years and is situated near the Gallowgate in the east end of Glasgow. The Gallowgate is an area with a history of social deprivation, despite being only five minutes walk from Glasgows thriving city centre commercial area. It attracts large and varied crowds every weekend. Formally called the Barrowland it is made up of nine distinct markets. Traditionally regarded as where you could buy everything from "an anchor to a needle, today it is sometimes better known for its black market retail of copied and counterfeit goods. The market also incorporates an outdoor area, where stallholders sell their fares, and the Barrowland Ballroom, with its vast neon sign, another Glasgow landmark

The story of the Barrowland is colourful. Tradition has it that Margaret McIver, the extraordinary entrepreneur who built up the Barras market from one barrow selling fish and fruit, threw a dance event for all her stallholders every Christmas. It was after finding all the local halls already booked one year that she decided to build her own. The original collection of outdoor handbarrows were therefore covered over. By 1931, the market was completely enclosed, which allowed Mrs McIver to build a second floor. This was opened as a dancehall on Christmas Eve 1934 with a Barras night out which was to become an annual event. For the rest of the year the ballroom was let to a local band, but the queues for the dances brought home to Maggie McIver that she had a money-making opportunity she was failing to exploit and so she packed in the fox trotters and tango-turners throughout the thirties. American servicemen introduced jiving and jitterbugging during the Second World War. At that time the neon sign on the front of the ballroom was in the shape of a man pushing a barrow. It was a landmark that was to turn the Barrowland into a footnote in history. Lord Haw Haw, a German radio propaganda broadcaster, described it in such detail, claiming it led German planes to bomb the Barras, that it was removed. Nevertheless, the jiggin' continued. The music suddenly stopped in 1958. The first sadness was the death of Maggie McIver, "Queen of the Barras" and by that time a millionaire, in June. In September her ballroom was gutted by fire. It was rebuilt by her family as a tribute and the business is now run by her grandson. The new ballroom was built to comply with new regulations and The Barrowland Ballroom, as proclaimed by the spectacular neon sign that remains a Glasgow icon more than forty years later, was re-opened with some splendour on Christmas Eve 1960. Now it has re-invented itself as a rock concert venue; not just a venue, but number one in Britain according to a poll of established bands. It is not difficult to see why it tops not just the big-name stadiums but even the top-quality competition now offered in the high class quarters of Glasgow.

The market remains the biggest attraction. A typical crowd consists of regulars to whom the market is a routine part of their week and occasional visitors who are shopping for something specific or just looking around. On the last Saturday of every month, there is a special Farmers Market where you can find organic meat, fruit, vegetables, bread, cheeses, free range eggs and countless other things. There are also a large number of antique dealers, with several shops open all week long. Though steeped in tradition there are plenty of up to date stalls selling the latest mobile phone gadgets, computer games, DVDs. Some genuine, others not, even the technology of the counterfeiters is state of the art. A few stallholders just have laptops to burn computer programmes on demand. Though there is a criminal element, there is rarely a feeling of insecurity, largely because of the characteristics of the space. Jacobs (1961, p.35) states &to make a safety asset, in itself, out of the presence of strangers&there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private&the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously&

The indoor areas have a more organised feel to them, with a defined layout like primitive supermarkets, the long aisles of stalls lead you up and down with doors branching off into other markets. Some of them large cavernous sheds, some small tight alleys, all have a feeling of order. More established and without the need to pack up at the end of the day, when closing time arrives, out come the tartan rugs to cover up the goods for another week. Outdoors is less defined but with vendors lining the streets it attracts the punters and is clearly recognisable as a market. This classic local market scene is one that exists in cities, towns and villages across the globe, from Oriental bazaars to North American car boot sales. Visited by locals and tourists alike, these markets are an institution providing a source of employment and income as well as a visitor attraction. Tourists may look to buy a symbol of the local culture or to simply soak up the atmosphere. It is this mix of local culture, service to the community and character that define markets and specifically the Barras as an exceptional space. But which factors contribute to this being a truly public space?

There is a growing belief of a decline in the significance of the public realm and that many social and civic functions that traditionally occurred in public spaces are being transferred to private realms. Ellin (1999, p.167-8) observed how public space is appropriated by private agencies such as the inward-turning shopping mall. With quasi-public places becoming widespread in Glasgow, the Barras provide an open, accessible alternative, which remains vital to the community. Without the need for private transportation which makes so many of these out of town malls inaccessible to those of lower income. This shows in its continuing success despite these alternatives.

Carmona et al (2003) states that a key element of any discussion of the public realm is accessibility and identifies three forms of access: visual access, symbolic access and physical access. The four wrought iron archways that welcome you to the Barras define the market area without blocking visual or physical access and also serve as cues that along with the visible stalls provide symbolic access.

Lynchs (1960) idea of legibility of city areas shows an early Environmental Psychology concept that under certain criteria places become easier to comprehend and to attach to. The Barras easily fits into his description of a Node. &these concentration nodes are the focus and epitome of a district, over which their influence radiates and of which they stand as symbol& (pp46-48)

It would be very easy for Glasgows unfortunate sectarian problem to rear its ugly head here. Being predominantly an Irish Catholic, or more significantly, Celtic Football Club, orientated area, many of the local bars proudly show their colours. However wander up some of the aisles and you will find portraits and memorabilia of rival football teams from both sides of the city, side by side.

Glasgows famous wit is also a large part of the Barras charm. Stall holders shouting and joking to attract a sale. Walking around you get a true sense of the community spirit, hawkers chatting with each other in a friendly way, at the same time trying to out do each other for a sale. Gehl (1996. p13) states that &in poor quality public spaces, only strictly necessary activities occur. The social activities, conversations and shopping that thrive in the market area are testament to its success.

As much of Glasgow's east end is given a long needed revamp, there is some danger of the Gallowgate becoming gentrified. Already large property developments are springing up around the market area. There has always been a mix of socio-economic groups clearly on show here with people coming from all over Glasgow and I think this will continue. With its spirit and charm, I believe that the Barras is and will remain a truly exceptional public space, continuing to be vital to its community far into the future.


Ellin, N. 1999. Postmodern Urbanism. Revised edition. Princeton Architectural Press.

Carmona, M. Heath, T. Oc, T. Tiesdell, S. 2003. Public Places  Urban Spaces. Oxford. Architectural Press.

Lynch, K. 1960. The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jacobs, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.

Gehl, J. 1996. Life Between Buildings : Using Public Space. 5th Edition. Copenhagen: Arkitektens Forlag.

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