Brief Encounters

Veronica Simpson is sold on a Somerset town’s new model of community-driven, arts-led regeneration

I HAVE experienced buildings as inhabited cliff faces before, but usually they are tall buildings: rugged concrete edifices (the Barbican, for example), with embedded balconies that make you feel as if you are a bird, surveying the landscape from your private eyrie. East Quay Watchet is not about private eyries. It is a very public cliff face: a friendly, three-storey version that lounges beside the harbour of this Somerset town. It nestles into the pre-Jurassic geology and echoes that local rockbed in its red, pink and grey tones, its sprawling form inviting the public up the open staircases and along its terraces.

Anyone should feel they can access its friendly, concrete contours. And yet it is no less impressive, on so many fronts, than its bigger, more brutalist, cliff-face cousins.

East Quay, an assemblage of galleries, artist studios, restaurant, shops, and holiday pods, is the brainchild of a group of local women, mostly parents with young children, many of them ex-Londoners who had moved here for the rolling Somerset landscape, fresh air and cheaper property. They were, however, frustrated by the lack of cultural and creative facilities and the sad cloud of economic decline that had settled over the town in recent decades – its once vibrant harbour closed in the 1990s, and a local paper mill closed in 2015, taking with it a fifth of the local jobs. Though that hadn’t happened when their plans started gestating. Over conversations in playgrounds and pubs, they became convinced that a contemporary arts and food-led visitor attraction could massively improve the quality of life in this small town, enriching local creative education and resources, but also boosting the economy thanks to a more dynamic offer than the simple attractions of its vintage waterfront shops and inns.

The pods are furnished either with salvaged or hand-crafted elements, combined with great creativity by Pearce+The pods are furnished either with salvaged or hand-crafted elements, combined with great creativity by Pearce+

They established themselves as a community interest company called the Onion Collective (for their many layers). Luckily, among the core team of 22, they have business, marketing and TV production skills, as well as arts education, tourism and sustainable development experience. But one of their most potent ingredients was the self-belief that came from two founding members, Jess Prendergast and her sister Naomi Griffith, whose own upbringing was far from conventional: their parents moved the family to an abandoned, 1933 BBC radio transmitter on the edge of Watchet and promptly turned its more bunker-like spaces into a 40-tank aquarium, still thriving as Tropiquaria, the local zoo. The pair had already demonstrated social entrepreneurial form, thanks to setting up a successful space for skateboarders in Minehead.

The Collective also knew that they could do better than a failed mixed-use development project that was proposed for this site back in the ‘00s by Urban Splash, but which fell foul of the 2008 recession. They also had the luck to attract one of architecture’s more maverick talents in Piers Taylor of Invisible Studio, who has been part of the team since 2014. As the Onion Collective brainstormed facilities, Taylor started sketching out forms inspired by the makeshift and evolutionary nature of the coastline, as well as the nautical flotsam and the pert, brightly painted, railway signal boxes that pop up along the coast line. He proposed a phased construction, starting with key facilities – restaurant, paper mill, studio and shop spaces, plus the main gallery – in its robust ground storey, with additional elements to be layered on top as and when.

Each pod offers quirky views across the arts complex or wider Watchet landscapeEach pod offers quirky views across the arts complex or wider Watchet landscape

They managed to convince the local council to fund a feasibility study, which was persuasive enough to secure them a L5.3m grant from the government’s Coastal Communities Fund. In the end, they raised L7m, which enabled the whole thing to be constructed far more quickly than anticipated, with Ellis Williams as executive architects. Onion Collective themselves commissioned the delightfully individual yet cosy, self-catering pods which are scattered across the structure (hired out on a nightly basis) from local architecture and design studio Pearce Plus. Each one offers interesting vistas within the complex and out to sea. Using salvaged elements from local junkyards, lashings of plywood, creativity and ingenuity – not to mention craftsmanship – with which all these elements are deployed is what makes these pods far more chic than shabby. Pearce Plus was also asked to create the ‘anti-classroom’ education room, which has the feel of a large and welcoming, adult-friendly playspace.

Owen Pearce describes the Collective as a very ‘hands-on’ client. Georgie Grant, now director, happily recalls the group’s response to Taylor’s first sketches, when they asked for a building that would exude joy. But as construction approached and the working drawings emerged, with everything looking a bit too ‘beige and boring’, as Prendergast describes it, she herself took the drawing and started colouring it in with much bolder shades and stripes. The finished building is far from boring – Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian describes it nicely as a ‘piratical encampment’. The pink tinge in the concrete came from using local red sandstone aggregate. When it was suggested this be value-engineered out for the more usual grey, the Collective put its combined (and formidable) feet down. And anyone who spends time in this welcoming outcrop will feel very glad for that decision: its rosy contours are part of East Quay’s message that this is something far from ordinary.

Now jewelers, sculptors, photographers and furniture designers are installed in the studios. Other tenants include geological consultancy Geckoella, which runs workshops and talks among their rock collections, and a fully equipped print studio, which operates on a membership model. Two Rivers paper mill is also based in the ground floor. The calm industry of their paper making – pulping cotton fibres, pouring the mulch into moulds, pressing sheets of paper and hanging them on racks to dry – shouldn’t mislead anyone that this is some cottage industry: they actually produce some of the UK’s finest watercolour paper.

Invisible Studio's quirky design evolved out of close consultation with clients Onion CollectiveInvisible Studio's quirky design evolved out of close consultation with clients Onion Collective

If there is a spirit of improvisation in its design and inhabitation, the Collective’s wider mission is far more serious. Grant says: ‘The plan for this space was to create 37 jobs, and then we realised that wasn’t enough. We needed to create an industry.’ They looked at insect farming for food, ‘but the market isn’t there yet’. There was a proposal to move into biomaterials for construction, ‘but then the pandemic happened and it was all too much.’ Plan C is construction blocks made from mushroom pulp. But Grant was, when we spoke, daunted by the prospect of ‘the energy bills going up by 630%’. Prendergast adds: ‘Our whole business is community focused regeneration. How can towns flourish? [And] not through having external developers come in and make lots of money out of us, in the usual extractive way?’ Small wonder this impassioned crew are now popular speakers at regeneration and political conferences.

In the meantime, a year into operation, their East Quay arts space is drawing new visitors to the town. Says Prendergast: ‘We expected in our first year about 100,000 and maybe 45,000 to the galleries. We have ended up with 198,000 and galleries just under double, at 72,000.’ On that front, at least, mission accomplished.

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