East Quay

Piers Taylor’s cultural centre is a microcosm of its coastal setting – a small town on a rugged pink rock

In some ways, I was involved in this project before it was a project. A group of local women had set up a grassroots organisation called Onion Collective to explore ways to improve social mobility in Watchet, a coastal town in Somerset. Through conversations with the town’s residents, they developed the idea to build a cultural centre, with workshops and a gallery. They gained permission from the council to use the site, but when we undertook the original design, we didn’t know if we would ever have the money to build it.

The programme was deliberately quite loose, and we wanted, above all, to make sure something got built. The idea of a concrete plinth emerged from there: we thought we could start with this monolithic structure with in-situ concrete internal and external walls and slabs, and then add different lightweight elements on top as funds were secured. It would be like Watchet itself – emerging from this strong concrete base just as the town rises from the rugged masonry of the surrounding cliffs. The plinth, with its large spans, would house a gallery, cafe and large workshops, while the ad-hoc assembly of metal-framed pods above would contain artist’s studios and accommodation.

The beauty of this approach was that it allowed us to be much looser in terms of where things went. We could have big, open spaces for the gallery and cafe within the plinth, and then we could place these asymmetrical loads on top. If it had been another constructional system, we would have needed intrusive downstand beams and columns. I liked the idea that, on the upper floor, you could move anything anywhere, any time. Again, it would be like the town itself, with courtyards and spaces between buildings that you could infill over time. There’s also a walkway across the top of the plinth and a bridge that connects it to the coastal path. It is a major piece of public realm, open 24 hours a day.

Most people were on board with the idea of fair-faced concrete from day one, and I think that was partly because there is a very strong attachment to the geology of the place: the pink rocks of the Triassic coast. The sand in the concrete is local, so has a very rich pink colour, which really does bind it to this part of Somerset. Initially, we designed the concrete with a stratified finish, in reference to the cliffs. But as we cast it, we realised we wanted something more in keeping with the surrounding dock. So we switched to phenolic ply formwork, which still leaves a beautiful finish, but is less overt.

It was really important that this building should age well. This part of the coast is incredibly windy. It’s an extreme environment – you can see it in the way the stone harbour walls have eroded. Concrete offered us the promise of something robust, durable and easy to maintain – a vital consideration for a small, local organisation. It could have a lifespan of hundreds of years, and it will undoubtedly change enormously. I like to think future generations will add to it, put another storey on top. Who knows? That’s the flexibility that concrete gives you.

The robustness of the structure translates to a very protective, shell-like interior. I’ve been there on really cold, windy days, and you go in and feel this sense of silence. The thick, thermally massive concrete structure, with the same finishes on the floor, walls and ceiling, has a cathedral-like quality. One of the things that surprises us is how positively people have responded to this space. Concrete is often seen as a hard and cold material, but here it feels warm and friendly. There is a psychological aspect to a material that feels so secure.

Piers Taylor is founder of Invisible Studio Architects. Interview by Nick Jones

Photos Piers Taylor, Jim Stephenson