‘It all started with cider’: how a group of young parents transformed a port in Somerset | Architecture


WDrive along Watchet harbor and you’d be forgiven for thinking that a jumble of colorful containers was swept away by a particularly severe storm. But this bizarre pirate encampment with a triangular candy-striped roof and boxes on stilts is actually East Quay’s new arts hub, a community project whose origins are as unlikely as the shape of the building itself. . Where a development of luxury beachfront apartments was on offer, a group of local women instead created a remarkable complex of galleries and studios, complete with a restaurant, classroom, geology workshop, and studio. printing and stationery – as well as original vacation rentals at boot.

Georgie Grant (yellow hat) and Jess Prendergrast of the Onion collective on site at the East Quay Arts Center.

“We wanted to change the feeling that there are no opportunities here,” says Georgie Grant of Onion Collective, the community-based company behind the £ 7million project. “Rather than seeing the usual kind of business development that doesn’t benefit the community, we wanted to empower people to shape the place themselves.”

Since Watchet’s working port closed in the 1990s, with massive job losses, it has struggled to recover. A marina opened in 2001 in an attempt to revive the economy, but the closure of the local paper mill in 2015 took away a fifth of the city’s jobs. The region now has the lowest social mobility in England, with around 25% of young people going to university, compared to 50% nationally.

When plans for a large mixed-use harbor front development by Urban Splash were dashed by the 2008 financial crisis, Grant and his gang of young parents saw their chance to do something different.

“It started with the cider,” says Jess Prendergrast, recalling how the Thursday night pub night for women turned into a plot on how to take over the site for something more useful. “We realized there were a lot of people like us at Watchet – overqualified and underemployed, who had had successful careers in London and then moved to the coast to have children. If we put our energies together, we could do something for the best of the city.

Prendergrast and her sister Naomi Griffith, who grew up at a nearby zoo, Tropiquaria, joined forces with Grant and another friend Rachel Kelly in 2012 to form the Onion Collective – so named for the vegetable’s many layers and rural overtones. and earthy. (The group is also known to make grown men cry). With backgrounds in business consulting, marketing and television production, they formed a formidable team, joined since by others with experience in arts education, tourism and sustainable development. Now numbering 22, they fund their efforts through advisory work, helping other communities and councils across the country to realize their plans.

After conducting city-wide consultations in 2013 and convincing the council to try their alternative plan, they raised money for a feasibility study and secured £ 5.3million from the government’s Coastal Communities Fund. , the largest such grant awarded.

Young visitors in a creative space, East Quay art center, Watchet.
Young visitors in a creative space, East Quay art center, Watchet. Photography: Joseph Horton

“I thought they would only raise enough money to build the concrete plinth,” says Piers Taylor of Invisible Studio, the architect who has worked with the group since 2014 to shape their vision, with Ellis Williams as executive architects. . “We designed it as a sturdy base that could then see these different pavilions added on top of it over the next 10 years.” In the end, they got enough money to build it all at once.

The result is an enchanting place that has the impression of having evolved and enriched over time. Walking between studio pavilions and accommodation pods, placed at casual angles on the concrete deck, feels like exploring a mini container ship, with rooms and cabins bolted jumbled together. Taylor says the design was inspired by the surrounding nautical wrecks, as well as the railway signal posts that punctuate the coastal train line – corrugated iron sheds on stilts, painted in cheerful colors. There are nuances of Frank Gehry’s early work too, with ready-made materials brought together in an anarchic seaside craft.

It provides a perfectly eclectic setting for the wide range of activities that take place inside. There are sculptors and jewelers, photographers and furniture designers, all of whom for the first time have a public showcase in their studio.

“The response has been phenomenal,” says sculptor Melanie Deegan, as she fiddles with a stiff frame. “It’s so much more welcoming than the space I had before. People just come and buy stuff. Upstairs, photographer Glyn Jarrett arranges props for a kitchenware photoshoot in her studio. “It’s amazing to be in this creative environment with so many smart people,” he says. “I hope some of the talents might rub off.”

Downstairs, Andy King and Jamie Foster of geology consulting firm Geckoella put the finishing touches on their new workshop, where rocks and fossils will be examined and prepared for public view. Next door, the Two Rivers Paper team mixes up a fluffy cauldron of cotton fibers before putting it in molds and letting the leaves dry on large shelves – the process behind some of the world’s finest watercolor papers visible to the audience through a large windowed photo.

Across the courtyard, where restaurant tables spill out between two shipping container studios, stands the art gallery, where two exhibitions by Neville Gabie and Suzanne Lacy explore questions of identity and community. The ambition goes beyond your usual seaside gallery fare, with a solo show by Bedwyr Williams in the works for next year. The architects created welcoming spaces, with rough expanses of earthy pink concrete – the (partly accidental) result of using local red sandstone aggregates.

While Invisible Studio and Ellis Williams were responsible for the entire project, the Onions commissioned the young firm Pearce + Fægen to design the “anti-class” educational space and the inventive accommodation modules. Working with local school groups, they have concocted a playful learning landscape, with a tiered platform structure that allows children to work in, on and under a stepped frame, or balanced across a range. inflatable fabric balls hanging on the wall. It is a suitable experimental setting for everything from after-school clubs to groups of seniors with dementia.

As for the accommodation modules, they have given free rein to their inner Airbnb imagination, creating five themed vacation rentals that will subsidize the educational activities of the center. One sees a cargo net hanging over a living room from the mezzanine of a bedroom, to bask in the dizzying airs, while another has scenes from local myths and legends etched into its walls made of plywood – including the fearsome Gurt Wurm, the sheep-eating dragon of the Quantock Hills. . One capsule will be left blank, designed as an ever-evolving work of art, personalized every few months by resident artists, while another will surprise sailors, featuring an exhibitionist tub in a large window overlooking the ocean.

Artists at work ... East Quay Arts Center.
Artists at work … East Quay Arts Center. Photography: Jim Stephenson

You might think that running an investment project like this over the past eight years, juggling budgets and builders in the midst of a pandemic, would deter Onions from doing something like this again. But they are already making their next plan.

“We really want to build an ‘imaginarium’,” says Prendergrast. The word conjures up images of a coastal Millennium Dome, filled with tasteless platitudes, before Grant explains. “Every city should have a temple of the imagination,” she says, “a place where you can go to imagine what you want the region to look like.” “We’re all stuck in who and what we think we are, but we should be able to imagine different possibilities.”
As this indomitable collective has shown, if you want to change your place of life, with a little vision and a lot of patience, it is eminently possible to get started and do it yourself.

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