East Quay: a monument to the arts and community brings the English port city to life
Developed by Onion Collective and designed by Invisible Studio and Ellis Williams Architects, East Quay is a new artistic and community landmark intended to revive Watchet’s local economy, by addressing “social, cultural and environmental justice”.
In 2013, Onion Collective CIC was founded in Watchet, Somerset, by a group of women. They had diverse professional backgrounds, spanning television production, tourism, academia, economic advice, conservation, and cultural work, but one goal: to make East Quay a new artistic and community landmark for the English city, a reality. The non-profit social enterprise formed after the failed attempts of a previous developer to build a mixed-use development on-site. The last plans were scrapped after the 2008 financial crisis. But now Watchet is home to its new arts and community center, created to a design by Piers Taylor and his firm, Invisible Studio Architects and Ellis Williams Architects.
The team’s variety of experience has influenced their methods of engaging with the local community through consultations and regular public meetings. They directly involved the people of Watchet and built trust with the wider community, including the local council. The project has since received funding from several sources, such as the Getting Building Fund from the Heart of the South West LEP and the Arts Council England, including £ 5.3million from the government’s Coastal Communities Fund.
East Quay: a community landmark for Watchet
This port city is located in a former industrial center, with its local economy traditionally based on coastal exports and commerce. Historically a hub for papermaking in the UK, Watchet’s last 250-year-old paper mill closed in 2015. With its economic identity under threat, Watchet has also consistently ranked low in the industry. social mobility index and had a low performance of SMEs (small and medium enterprises) nationally.
East Quay aims to change that. The building serves as a landmark on the Watchet landscape, “a porous object that can be climbed, traversed and explored”.
Designed by Invisible Studio and Ellis Williams Architects, the sprawling £ 7.3million structure consists of a courtyard, two art galleries, 11 artist studios, stationery, studio printing, an educational space, a restaurant and five accommodation modules. The main concrete plinth, which is pink in color, the product of a locally sourced aggregate of red sandstone, serves as the roof and passage landscape between the harbor and the historic West Somerset Steam Railway. It also supports secondary structures – accommodation pods on stilts.
An assemblage of colorful and robust materials, such as corrugated iron, completes the landscape and the material composition of the port. “It’s not about a building, it’s about a series of places, which are of very little value,” says Taylor.
The compact and playful interiors of the accommodation modules were designed by the young architectural firm Pearce + Fægan. The two lead designers worked with an environmental psychologist and a local high school to also design the Creator Space, an alternative after-school education room, where kids and teens can enjoy activities not typically found in. your general youth club.
The communal and industrial nature of East Quay is reflected in its artist studios open to the public, hosting many practitioners, from sculptors, photographers, furniture designers and jewelers to engravers. The new stationery studio is not only a tribute to Watchet’s industrial past, but also to British craftsmanship, with papermaking one of the critically endangered skills, according to the Paper Industry Technical Association . The studio is operated by one of the few traditional paper makers in the country.
Contemporary art galleries currently display works by artists such as Neville Gabie, Suzanne Lacy and Deanna Payne. Onion Collective has deliberately chosen to bring the world of “high art” and local art to Watchet, advocating for art and collective creation to be accessible to all.
“Culture is the art of coming together, changing and developing,” says Jessica Prendergrast, one of the co-directors of Onion Collective. Often, exhibitions and large cultural institutions like this are located in central hubs. East Quay asks its visitors to take an interest in the cultural intricacies and intricacies of Watchet and what it has to offer.
Today, the Onion Collective continues to fund its projects at East Quay through consultancy work across the country. The center is Watchet’s largest business and is expected to create over 200 new local jobs over the next few years, making it a true community landmark.
East Quay is a living project that “many people over time have changed and expanded”, reflecting the vibrant and dynamic life of Watchet. The methods of co-creation and participation with the local population of Onion Collective will undoubtedly be a model for future communal revitalization projects. As East Quay continues to evolve over time, it showcases the ways in which architecture can respond and effect change at the heart of a community. §