The Pannier Market

The Pannier Market is perhaps one of the most unique buildings in the South West. Although the title of the most unique building would go to the Eden Project’s bio-domes, the Pannier Market is a building that is recognised on a national scale. Designed by local Architects Walls & Pearn, it reflects the more liberal style of architecture in Plymouth in the late 1950s. The building has a Civic Trust award, and was listed to grade 2 status in 1999 – one of only three post war buildings in Plymouth with listed status. Sadly, today the original architecture and detail are either obscured by modern additions, or have been changed by over twenty years of modifications.

Construction of the Pannier Market commenced in 1957, with the building being ready for trade in September 1959. It was built on the site of the previous ‘Corn Exchange’ market.

The main shell of the building is approximately four to six storeys high, with retail units of one storey high surrounding and extending out of this shell. The roof, designed by engineer Albin Chronowicz, has a vaulted wave-like profile that gives the Pannier Market its distinctive appearance. It is only 2.5in (5.25cm) thick at the thinnest profile, although recent modifications may have changed this.  

The geometry of the building is very interesting, and whilst being relatively simple, changes according to the street from which it is viewed. The Frankfort Gate aspect is perhaps the simplest, with the straight lines of the shopping units being well defined to leave the wave-like profile of the roof and concrete tiles of the main building in full view. From New George Street, the building is different, where the profile of the roof is of a gentle curve, and a wall of tiles extends from this curve down to a wave-profiled canopy that juts out of the building. Below this canopy, are windows which align with the windows of the first storeys of the shopping units.  From Cornwall Street, the main building is a wall of glass approximately four to five storeys high, angled away from the viewer, and extending up to the curved profile of the roof.  There is no canopy, rather a wave profiled line of retail units extending for the length of this aspect (and out towards the viewer). The first storeys of these units are completely glass.  

Also very interesting, is the internal layout of the building. The main space for the market stalls is vast, and covered by the huge vaulted roof/ceiling, parts of which are painted in a light blue colour. A first storey balcony (perhaps more appropriately described as a mezzanine floor) is accessed by internal stairs (of open plan design), and contains a row of cafés that look out through the first storey glass windows of Cornwall Street. Around the main space, internal doors and windows allow access to the retail units surrounding the building.

Some of the best features of the Pannier Market are the works of public art. The entrance porches of New George Street and Cornwall Street contain some truly fantastic contemporary examples of artwork by sculptor David Weeks. These unique and colourful works are actually set in to the internal plaster and filled with paint. They not only depict market scenes and customers, but also provide information as to the layout of the market and even where some of the goods or produce have come from. The exterior and interior of the building are also painted in some typically 1950s and quite bright colours. For example, the underside of the wavy canopy of New George Street is painted in a ‘canary yellow’, and the interior walls are tiled in a bright blue. 

In 1985, the building received a minor ‘facelift’. The original bold colours of the 1950s were painted over in magnolia and the colourful interior tiles removed. The white slim line letters spelling “Market” were replaced with coarse black versions, and the concrete tiles on the Frankfort Gate entrance replaced with larger versions (taking the number of tiles per block from 50 to 34) - the centre block was also skimmed over in concrete that was then painted white. The New George Street entrance was changed, with a pebble dash curtain wall replacing the tiles between the roof and wavy canopy, and the thin metal glazing of the Cornwall Street roof was painted red. The interior fittings were changed also, with the original conical lights (hanging of the red supports) replaced with plainer, more modern versions. The building was changed again from 1999 to 2000. It was decided that the market was not fit for the new Millennium and that the building needed a more modern feel. The original entrances were ripped out, and glass porches added. The turquoise window panels were painted white and a reflective film applied to the retail unit windows. Decorative pylons were installed outside of the New George Street entrance, and the ground around and into the market was paved in brown and purple clay paving. Despite the Market being listed to grade 2 status in 1999, these alterations decidedly contrasted with the original architecture and were of comparatively poor quality. However, the City Council unusually decided to restore the David Weeks artworks, and in 2003, some of the original 1950s colours (canary yellow canopies, blue ceiling…) were re-painted.

Today, the market is a well-known local landmark, and contributes to the lively West-End of the City Centre. Hector Stirling’s  relaxation of the strict rebuilding standards in the late 1950s did give the West End a few poor quality buildings, but it also gave Plymouth the Pannier Market.

Text and pictures by Graham Hobbins    click here to e-mail Graham