BiodiversityBuildingCommunity ProjectsConsumerismEco-VillagesEconomicsMarkets & OutletsPeople SystemsSocial GatheringsSocietyVillage Development

The Ancient Taberna in a Future World

by Øyvind Holmstad

Ladakh, India
All photographs © Craig Mackintosh

A taberna (plural tabernae) was a single room shop covered by a barrel vault within great indoor markets of ancient Rome. Each taberna had a window above it to let light into a wooden attic for storage and had a wide doorway. A famous example is the Markets of Trajan in Rome, Italy built in the early 1st century by Apollodorus of Damascus.

According to the Cambridge Ancient History, a taberna was a “retail unit" within the Roman Empire and furthermore was where many economic activities and many service industries were provided, including the sale of cooked food, wine and bread. – Wikipedia

Some people claim that the Markets of Trajan was the world’s first shopping mall. But there is a difference to today’s malls. Trajan’s Market was beautiful and it offered ingenious personal services and variety, something which is rare today. I’ve yet to see a beautiful shopping mall built in the era of consumerism. Those few nice examples are all reused train stations and so on, from a lost time. No, the Trajan Market was not at all like today’s ‘supermarkets’ — it was a superb market!

Dubrovnik, Croatia

The Markets of Trajan was a real super market, not because of its size, but because of its tabernas. I think you can find something similar today in Morocco, in places like Marrakech. It offers a personal experience, not a Disney experience. Maybe Christopher Alexander walked around in one of these places, looking for a carpet for his grand collection, when he got the idea for pattern 87?

Pattern 87, Individually Owned Shops:

When shops are too large, or controlled by absentee owners, they become plastic, bland, and abstract.


Do what you can to encourage the development of individually owned shops. Approve applications for business licenses only if the business is owned by those people who actually work and manage the store. Approve new commercial building permits only if the proposed structure includes many very very small rental spaces.

The profit motive creates a tendency for shops to become larger. But the larger they become, the less personal their service is, and the harder it is for other small shops to survive. Soon, the shops in the economy are almost entirely controlled by chain stores and franchises.

The franchises are doubly vicious. They create the image of individual ownership; they give a man who doesn’t have enough capital to start his own store the chance to run a store that seems like his; and they spread like wildfire. But they create even more plastic, bland, and abstract services. The individual managers have almost no control over the goods they sell, the food they serve; policies are tightly controlled; the personal quality of individually owned shops is altogether broken down.

Communities can only get this personal quality back if they prohibit all forms of franchise and chain stores, place limits on the actual size of stores in a community, and prohibit absentee owners from owning shops. In short, they must do what they can to keep the wealth generated by the local community in the hands of that community.

Even then, it will not be possible to maintain this pattern unless the size of the shop spaces available for rent is small. One of the biggest reasons for the rise of large, nationally owned franchises is that the financial risk of starting a business are so enormous for the average individual. The failure of a single owner’s business can be catastrophic for him personally; and it happens, in large part because he can’t afford the rent. Many hundreds of tiny shops, with low rents, will keep the initial risk for a shop keeper who is starting, to a minimum.

Shops of Morocco, India, Peru, and the older parts of older towns, are often no more than 50 square feet in area. Just room for a person and some merchandise – but plenty big enough. — Pattern 87, A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, page 432 – 434.

What we find here is patterned capitalism, which is the exactly opposition of anti-pattern capitalism. Yes, competition is good when it doesn’t mean you are allowed to eat your “siblings,” like the strongest shark baby in a shark mother’s belly. Then we get monsters like Wal-Mart, Woolworths, Coles, etc

A monster is any fictional creature, usually found in legends or horror fiction, which is somewhat hideous and may produce physical or mental fear by either its appearance or its actions. The word "monster" derives from Latin monstrum, an aberrant occurrence, usually biological, that was taken as a sign that something was wrong within the natural order…. — Wikipedia

Ladakh, India

The fact is that our modern societies are full of monsters, like in a horror movie. The nature of order is broken!

The human pedestrian city was erased by forces linking the automotive industry and the steel industry with governments that satisfied every wish of those powerful political lobbies. Just as public space was erased from the built environment, however, private space was being offered in shopping centers outside cities, isolated within a car environment. People still crave personal contact in an urban space, but in many locations this is only possible in a commercial shopping center or mall. Governments now used to working with builders and real-estate developers who build such malls promote this model. – Life and the Geometry of the Environment, by Nikos A. Salingaros

Amman, Jordan

The link between governments and real-estate developers is our bondage, still they claim these shopping malls to be part of a “free” market. What we see here is the opposite of a free market, when monsters grow too big they go in symbiosis with governments and infect democracy with their controlling tentacles. It’s almost like parasites which are able to control the brain of their hosts. No, for a market to be free it needs to be connected to the people and their community. Only a small market is a free market, where the locals are free to take part — not being subservient to large corporate groups, controlled and enslaved under the vicious franchise image of individual ownership. No, but as a free merchant and the proud owner of your own small business, secured by the freedom created by a balanced pattern language — where humanity and mutually beneficial interpersonal relationships are the goals, not profit!

Amman, Jordan

The truth is that these monstrous shopping malls are like terrorist attacks forced upon us and the world by fundamentalist modernism and ideological capitalism. That we have got fundamentalist and ideological Islamism in return should not be regarded as strange. And all this is kept going by the spread of “parasitic” memes released by media, supported by corporate money and the “starchitects.”

What is also very interesting about pattern 87 is that we see here a cross over point between two languages, the economic and the architectural. In our “modern” society we separate and segregate everything which needs to be connected. Pattern 87 is a way of economic thinking which is completely dependant on the architectural language working well. Economic theory today is not holistic, like it would have been under the guidance of interconnected pattern languages. Pattern 87 does not only secure freedom for the individual, it also secures a resilient and independent local economy. There is nothing we need more in a peak oil world!

Sri Lanka

The guidance of permaculture principle ten, to use and value diversity, tells us to use and value the taberna structure. The only limits to what you can use a taberna for is the imagination. And, as a taberna is achievable by everyone, true individualism can blossom. A taberna world is a world for everyone!

Dubrovnik, Croatia

An in-group consists of about 25 people plus or minus. If it’s much bigger the benefits of social control and the strong evolutionary powers of the handicap principle will break down. The in-group model as a basis for sustainable future societies is suggested by the Norwegian human behavioural ecologist Terje Bongard. The taberna structure is ideal to form an in-group, where 15 – 35 tabernas can form a taberna mall. This way a structure of individualistic ownership can form social co-operations, and harvest the benefits of both.

Ladakh, India

A taberna world is a personal world, not plastic, generic, bland, and abstract, like today’s world. Pattern 87 gives us a society where shopping doesn’t rob the individual and the community of dignity and choice and enables more localised transparency for the true costs of the transactions made. I’m sorry that today’s consumer culture, if not turned around, will just enlarge this hole of emptiness, just like sugar does for the hole in your tooth. The more you get, the worse the pain. Pattern 87 offers a new kind of shopping, where shopping sustains both community and personal relationships. And this is what we really need!

Surely, the ancient taberna belongs to a future world of joy, sustainability and freedom!

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Further reading:


  1. The taberna reminds me a lot of the flea market – something I do not see much of these days. However, with the current economic situation worldwide it will make a comeback, I believe.

  2. There’s nothing more beautiful than the small, specialised store, run and coloured by the labour and ingeniousness of it’s owner. However I find in the article quotes a certain disconnect in the understanding of why, and how to again make this a feature of daily life in western countries, who are now succumbed to trying to recreate through top-down means what you are describing.

    Alexander:Do what you can to encourage the development of individually owned shops. Approve applications for business licenses only if the business is owned by those people who actually work and manage the store. Approve new commercial building permits only if the proposed structure includes many very very small rental spaces.

    I assume he is adressing local governments here. And it is exactly that he puts his faith in local governments to be benign and not evil, that is the problem. Public choice theory tells us exactly what Salingaros explain; governments, if awarded the power to choose who is worthy or not to make a living, will inevitably yield to the most powerful interests. The solution here is to have local government not awarding licenses at all.
    There may be a role for local government in facilitating markets through allocating space for stalls, markets etc., as long as it can restrain the urge to control, restrict competition and enforcing dubious “standards” (health and safety is important, but it is often used as a way to restrict competition).

    Also: The profit motive creates a tendency for shops to become larger. But the larger they become, the less personal their service is, and the harder it is for other small shops to survive. Soon, the shops in the economy are almost entirely controlled by chain stores and franchises.

    No, the profit motive is also what drives the small market vendor, the problem isn’t profit. What creates the tendency for shops to become larger is because we as a society favour the larger players through the tax and regulation system. If someone came from outer space, they would think we hate labour and trade, because we hammer these actions with taxes and restriction beyond belief (as opposed to capital gains and real estate speculation, which is highly encouraged, supposedly in the interest of “homeownership”). Wage taxes are prohibitive, but the worst is VAT. It destroys local businesses, both as a function of reducing demand and profit, and adding huge compliance costs, and inevitably hit smaller actors the hardest. Local governments will do their best to make things worse, either through herding businesses into certain developments through zoning and restrictions on property use, or licensing arrangements.
    Why do you think the only small, owner-run shops (that survive long term) in Norway (that we both call home I assume), are run by immigrants? There’s certainly an element of culture, the lack of alternatives in an economy that favours constant upwards movement in costs and wages, keeping labour within the family and away from the tax-system, and in some cases a healthy disregard for both taxes and regulations.
    There are a few high-income countries where small business bloom side by side with chain-stores and malls, and Hong-Kong comes to mind. HK taxes income lightly, sales and trade not at all, and land more heavily than most countries. It doesn’t score as “good” as Norway on the GINI-coefficient, but it provides ample opportunities to work, create and prosper, and most importantly, it doesn’t illegalise being on the margins (too much), and it’s on the margins that interesting and innovative things, small and big, appear.

    Otherwise, agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of the article, I’d rather not have malls and big chain stores dominate my town, but in regards to the debate in Norway (I saw this article linked on an article on, I fear that the food chain comission will make matters worse, not better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button