From fruit to futures

Spitalfields Market will be trading in lucre alongside the lettuces when a magnificent new development designed by Sir Norman Foster is completed.

Think market, think fruit and veg. Or second-hand books, antiques, cut-price, copycat "designer-label" T-shirts and frocks. There is, however, another type of market, equally gritty, equally boisterous, yet bang up- to-date, driven by computers and coming to Spitalfields on the fringe of the City of London very soon, despite outbursts of protest from local conservation groups.

Liffe (London International Financial Futures Exchange) is the largest futures and options exchange in Europe. It plans to build an enormous new trading complex on the 13-acre urban wasteland between Broadgate - the titanic Eighties Post-Modern office complex straddling Liverpool Street station - and what survives of old Spitalfields Market. The core of the new development - assuming it goes ahead - is, as plans reveal, a triple- height, column-free trading floor, which at 60,000 square feet is the equivalent of a premier league football pitch or the area of the Royal Albert Hall. On top of this is a second floor, 40,000 square feet, again triple height and column-free. Technical support spaces for these revolutionary new trading floors are three times as big again. "The physical stature of these huge market areas," says Sir Norman Foster, architect of Liffe, "is reflected in their world standing. Liffe is a close second to Chicago and well ahead of other international competitors. To put this into a financial context, a typical current trading day has a nominal value of pounds 170bn, which is the equivalent of the entire UK economy achieved over a three-day period. The activities of Liffe and its members contributed pounds 870m last year to the UK economy."

To put this financial behemoth into the context of Spitalfields has been the problem taxing Foster and Partners and the Spitalfields Development Group, which bought a 150-year lease on Spitalfields Market from the Corporation of London in 1987 and is charged with its regeneration. The building type itself - a giant modern market trading in lucre rather than fruit and veg - really does seem appropriate to the site. Anyone who has ever set foot on a trading room floor in full swing will recognise it as a street market (or a day at the races) in only slightly different dress. Loudly dressed lads (mostly in their early to mid-twenties) yell and sign frantically as they trade, a testosterone-driven cross between barrow boys and tic- tac men. To an outsider, the scene is one of mayhem: it is almost impossible to understand what is going on. What makes it strangely familiar, however, is that it has the atmosphere and many of the trappings of old Spitalfields Market. At heart, and despite a change in technology, Liffe belongs here. It will also bring 7,000 new jobs in its wake, many going to local residents, as well as shops, bars, cafes and all the accoutrements of dynamic City life.

The reason why local groups are suspicious is because they fear the scale of this boisterous invader. Perhaps, too, they have got used to Spitalfields becoming relatively genteel since the fruit and veg market moved to Temple Mills, Waltham Forest six years ago. Gone from the old market buildings, between Broadgate and Hawksmoor's magnificent Christ Church, are the hissing all-night artics, the whooshing of fork-lift trucks, the "Ois!" and "Ehs?" of brawny men unloading hundredweights of sprouts and broccoli, the low- rent hookers, beggars and poor old people sifting through discarded vegetables strewn across the early-morning streets. Spitalfields seems a little frightened of a return to the gung-ho, all-action life that will be part and parcel and indeed the very meaning of Liffe.

To cope with the scale, Foster has had to be ingenious. The Liffe buildings are to step down in height from 12 storeys facing Broadgate to just three facing the listed Victorian market. This is possible only by sinking the vast trading floors, or market halls, deep into the ground. These basements will go down 16 metres, the equivalent of six domestic storeys and will be the among the deepest in London. Their construction alone will take 18 months. Further ingenuity on the part of Foster's team of architects and engineers will bring daylight into the furthest reaches of the complex.

To ensure that Liffe is not an isolated urban island, a glazed street (or arcade) will run through the complex, a new link between Liverpool Street and Broadgate and the market. New public spaces realised in gritty materials (no heritage nonsense here) will help establish a real bit of city here, especially as Liffe will be flanked by auxiliary shops and cafes. The new buildings will be alive with bustling activity for much of the day and the design of this great machine for moving money will be such that much of the activity going on inside will be seen from the outside. It is as permeable as a Victorian market hall. "The facades," says Foster, "are a mixture of solid panels and different glasses - some transparent, others translucent or opaque. The texture of the metals which frame the glazing and extend to the panels will range from matt to polished. The palette of colour extends from dark greys to gunmetal, silver and white. This varied, but essentially neutral background will be a foil for the vividly coloured uniforms of the market traders and the ad hoc variety and life of the many shops, cafes and restaurants which are an integral part of the project."

Groups including Save Spitalfields, the Spitalfields Society and the Spitalfields Small Business Association, waspish at the moment, may feel more enthused about the scheme as its complexity and relevance to the area unfold. Liffe is not your average dull developer's office block. Nor is it a threat to the activities and jobs that have replaced the old fruit and veg market. The Victorian market hall is currently host to 90 businesses and 400 full-time jobs. The developers have learned much since the recession, so much so in fact that the Spitalfields Development Group has turned from bully to benevolent uncle, distributing largesse in Spitalfields and doing its level best to create a community as well as money.

The architectural mistake that the developers have made is not Foster's Liffe, but the 83 (with 74 more to come) flats built here recently in the guise of neo-Georgian houses. These are certainly popular, in the sense that they have all been pre-sold, but they make a mockery of the adjacent early Georgian streets that have survived this far and against all the odds, only to be faced with an unprecedented attack of suburbia- in-urbe. Odd that local groups do not question such inappropriate design yet attack Liffe, which brings the Victorian market intelligently up to date.

Developers have a knack, however, of appearing to be insensitive. Prickly, litigious souls, they wish to be respected, but too often act aggressively and with an astonishing lack of sensitivity. The Spitalfields Development Group has not presented the Liffe project attractively to local pressure groups and residents. It has also, while giving generously on the one hand, all but pulled the plug on the Spitalfields Market Opera, London's first chamber opera house and, although new, already a much liked and praised institution housed in the heart of the old market buildings. Bernstein's On The Town has just played to capacity audiences, while other musical and dramatic events have been organised here by local Bengali and Somali communities. A popular opera house is a perfect companion to market trading; who remembers the delightful pairing of old Covent Garden market (in its fruit-and-veg days) and the Royal Opera House?

The potential mix of sophisticated new architecture and restored Victorian market halls, opera and market trading, Georgian streets, a Hawksmoor miracle and a new generation of colourful barrow-boys at Liffe, has the possibility of making Spitalfields a very special place and a precedent for dynamic urban redevelopment elsewhere. Here, if anywhere, there is the need to get the mix right between what was and what could be, between metaphorical chalk and cheese, literal fruit and vegn

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