You’d be excused for believing a tangle of colorful containers had been swept in from the sea by a particularly violent storm if you walked along Watchet’s harbour front. However, this strange, piratical encampment with a candy-striped triangular roof and boxes on stilts is the new East Quay arts complex, a community-driven initiative with beginnings as improbable as the building’s shape.
A group of local women have instead built a unique complex of galleries and studios, complete with a café, school, geology workshop, print studio, and paper mill — as well as some eccentric vacation accommodations.
“We wanted to change the perception that there are no opportunities here,” says Georgie Grant, the community interest company driving the £7 million project. “Instead of seeing the usual type of commercial development that has no community benefit, we wanted to empower people to shape the place themselves,” said the group.
Watchet has been struggling to recover since its working harbour closed in the 1990s, resulting in mass job losses. The town’s economy was boosted by the opening of a marina in 2001, but the closing of the local paper mill in 2015 resulted in the loss of a fifth of the town’s employment.
With approximately 25% of young people attending university, compared to 50% nationwide, the region currently has the lowest social mobility in England.
When Urban Splash’s ambitions for a large mixed-use development on the harbour front were thwarted by the 2008 financial crisis, Grant and her group of young parents saw an opportunity to build something new.
“It all started with cider,” Jess Prendergrast recalls, remembering how the women’s Thursday evening pub evenings devolved into planning how to repurpose the space for something more beneficial. “We realized there were a lot of people in Watchet who were overqualified and underemployed, who’d had successful careers in London before moving to the coast to start a family.”
We could accomplish something good for the community if we pooled our resources.”
Prendergrast and her sister Naomi Griffith, who grew up in Tropiquaria, a local zoo, formed the Onion Collective with Grant and another friend Rachel Kelly in 2012, called for the onion’s many layers and rural, earthy associations. (They’ve been known to make adult men weep as well.) They formed a strong team, with expertise in economic consulting, marketing, and television production, and have since been joined by others with experience in arts education, tourism, and sustainable development.
They are now a group of 22 people who finance their efforts by providing consulting services to other towns and councils throughout the nation.
They collected money for a feasibility study and won a staggering £5.3 million from the government’s Coastal Communities Fund, the biggest such grant ever granted, after holding town-wide surveys in 2013 and persuading the council to give their alternative idea a try.
Piers Taylor of Invisible Studio, the architect who has been working with the group since 2014 to develop their concept, with Ellis Williams as executive architects, says, “I thought they would only raise enough money to build the concrete plinth.” “We designed it to be a strong foundation on which these different pavilions could be built over the next ten years.”
In the end, they were able to raise enough funds to complete the project all at once.
The end effect is a magical environment that seems as though it has grown and changed throughout time. It’s like exploring a small container ship, with rooms and cabins tacked on haphazardly.
Walking between the studio pavilions and housing pods, which are set at jaunty angles on the concrete deck, is like exploring a mini container ship, with rooms and cabins bolted on haphazardly. The design, according to Taylor, was influenced by the surrounding maritime flotsam as well as the railway signal boxes that dot the coastal train line — corrugated tin buildings on stilts painted in bright colors.
With off-the-shelf materials tossed together in an anarchic beach bricolage, there are echoes of Frank Gehry’s early work.
It’s a suitably varied backdrop for the many activities that take place within. Sculptors and jewelers, photographers and furniture designers are among those who, for the first time, have a public-facing shop window to their workshops.
As she fiddles with a wiry armature, artist Melanie Deegan adds, “The response has been phenomenal.” “It’s a lot more inviting than the previous space.”
People just come in and purchase things.” Photographer Glyn Jarrett sets up items for a cookery shot at his studio upstairs. He adds, “It’s amazing to be in this creative environment with so many smart people.” “I’m hoping that some of the talent rubs off on me.”
Geckoella’s Andy King and Jamie Foster put the final touches on their new workshop, where rocks and fossils will be inspected and processed in full view of the public. Next door, the staff at Two Rivers Paper prepare a soupy cauldron of cotton fibers before scooping it into molds and drying the sheets on huge racks – the process that produces some of the world’s best watercolour paper is visible to the public via a large picture window.
The art gallery is located across the courtyard, where restaurant tables spill out between two shipping container studios, where two exhibitions by Neville Gabie and Suzanne Lacy address themes of identity and community. With a solo exhibition by Bedwyr Williams planned for next year, the ambition extends beyond your typical beach gallery fare.
With bare swaths of earthy pink concrete – the (partly unintentional) consequence of utilizing local red sandstone aggregate – the architects have created welcoming places.
The Onions commissioned young firm Pearce+Fgen to design the “anti-classroom” teaching area and the innovative accommodation pods, while Invisible Studio and Ellis Williams were in charge of the entire project. They’ve created a fun learning environment with a multileveled platform structure that enables youngsters to work in, on, and beneath a stepped frame, or balance on a variety of inflated fabric balls that hang from the wall, thanks to collaboration with local school groups. It’s an ideal testing ground for anything from after-school programs to dementia support groups for the elderly.
Meanwhile, they’ve allowed their Airbnb interior imaginations go wild with the lodging pods, producing five themed vacation rentals that will help fund the center’s educational programs. One features a cargo net hung from a bedroom mezzanine over a living space for vertiginous aerial lounging, while another has images from local myths and tales carved onto its plywood walls, including the terrifying Gurt Wurm, the Quantock Hills’ sheep-eating monster.
One pod will be kept empty, intended as a constantly developing artwork that will be customized every few months by resident artists, while another will surprise sailors with an exhibitionists’ bathtub in a large window overlooking the ocean.
You’d think that handling a major project like this over the last eight years, juggling finances and contractors in the midst of a pandemic, would scare the Onions away from attempting anything similar again. They’re already planning their next scam, however.
Prendergrast adds, “We truly want to create a “imaginarium.” Before Grant explains, the term conjures up thoughts of a seaside Millennium Dome replete with vacuous platitudes.
“Every town should have a temple of imagination,” she adds, “where people can go to imagine what they want the area to be like.” “We’re all stuck in our heads about who and what we are, but we should be able to imagine other possibilities.”
As this tenacious group has shown, if you want to alter the place you live in, you can do it yourself with a little vision and a lot of patience.
Thanks to Oliver Wainwright at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.