In this, the first part of an in-depth interview with award-winning architects, East, co-founder and director, Julian Lewis, discusses the “relatively unusual” experience of working with a cultural organisation, the Gasworks brief and East’s innovative interpretations…
Have you worked closely with a cultural organisation – such as Creative Folkestone – in this way before?
Although we have collaborated with community groups, and been involved with educational establishments for many years, working with a cultural organisation is a relatively unusual experience for us.
The most comparable experience might be East’s involvement with The Sorrell Foundation, around 10 years ago. East were selected by The Sorrell Foundation to work in conjunction with the pupils at Sussex Road School, in Tonbridge, Kent. The Foundation wished to strengthen the role of design in the Academic Curriculum, from early years, across the country, and East were tasked to help train the pupils (on average 8 years old) to act as client group for a project to extend their school.
Whilst the project placed genuine emphasis on the role and experience of the children, (at one point the head teacher was barred from joining a meeting because he was talking too much), the teaching staff were of course closely involved in the consultation and engagement process, and they were strong advocates of the activities, mainly because of the close understanding gained through sustained communication, and dialogue with East and the Sorrell Foundation.
Like Creative Folkestone, The Sorrell Foundation were aspirational in their social interests, and articulate in their ability to bring design and social values to the forefront of the activities.
Perhaps because they had a broader perspective based on research, rather than a project-by-project interest, their role as a co-client (alongside Kent County Council and the school itself), included characteristics of ‘enabler and mentor’ rather than just ‘deliverer’, which brought an interesting mixture of ‘hands-off/light touch’ alongside ‘guiding force’.
Perhaps one key difference is the way in Creative Foundation have a closely engaged relationship with Folkestone, because of the place-specific nature of their identity. The Sorrell Foundation’s involvement with the schools was more theme- led, rather than engaged with a unique locality.
The proposals from East displayed at Sunflower House included:
- open space with community uses;
- open space with temporary events;
- open space with self-build housing;
- housing and community uses – co-housing fields arrangement;
- housing and community uses – self-build / perimeter arrangement variant 1;
- housing and community uses – self-build / perimeter arrangement variant 2;
- housing with education or cultural uses.
All of these include common elements such as allotments and a playground/community garden. How were these common elements decided?
The brief for this project was open; to imagine the future of the site. The brief also emphasised the importance of providing opportunities for communities and visitors to come together, and to create education, skills training and work opportunities for local residents, their families and communities.
Although the brief was open, and the design team was encouraged to be imaginative when considering proposals, it was also important for there to be an element of realism and viability in the proposals. East’s approach to the brief was first to understand as much as possible about the place, the community and its history. This interest was greatly helped by the exhibition and documentation of the history of the gasworks site which had been successfully consulted upon and presented by the local community.
It was clear that the historic structures and spaces of the gasworks site hold a rich array of local stories in living memory.
We attended several events, workshops and presentations in order to develop a sense of how people felt about the site and also, what our own reactions to the site were. It was clear that for many, the site had for many years been out of sight and out of mind. This was partly because the gasworks equipment had been removed years ago, and the site was derelict and locked; meaning the site was largely inaccessible apart from the eastern section, which contained a recent work of art; a part of the site to which Creative Folkestone could gain access.
Our feeling was that to rekindle interest in the future we needed to open it up to the public. We felt that by opening the wall up in certain areas, and providing a walkway that ran through or at least into the site, would provide the public with an extraordinary view; of the industrial and semi-naturalised wilderness of the site.
The various uses included in our proposals were identified for a number of reasons. During consultation we heard several times that accessible open space was desirable. We also knew that the Council were keen to develop affordable housing.
Recent programmes in other parts of the country had shown how access to new homes could be supported by smoothing the planning process and reducing costs by encouraging self-build housing, as well as co-operative housing. Planning policy could be updated to encourage this kind of development.
The provision of café, community, and educational uses came about through hearing people comment on our early ideas about the site, as well as from our belief that these complementary uses would help stitch any new housing development into the local community.
East devised strategic options for development each of which would start with the edges and open up the interior. Then a phased approach could start with the walkway and some self- build housing, along with some accessible open space. This in turn would encourage further developments, raise the social and financial value of the site. Even if developments took some time to come forward, the use of the site for public events such as fairground/event uses and/or outdoor cinema could be considered.
Provision of community and education buildings could be developed alongside additional housing. All variants for the new development would be set around a public realm and open space strategy that would help connect the site to its surrounding neighbourhood. All of the above ideas were imagined within a strategy informed by the site itself; a quite surreal, surprisingly large and atmospherically and historically rich environment that was once occupied with a range of different types of extraordinary buildings, uses and structures. We felt that this specific condition offered some license for whatever happens next to the site to be as extraordinary, varied and impressive as this.
This idea was further bolstered by the idea that we are not at the start of the process, but merely part of the evolution of the site. As our team collaborator Paul Elliman said of the Gasworks apparatus, ‘This used to be the future’. The process of imagining the future started a long time ago; which enables us to make use of what was and is there when considering what might change.
From the early stages of the project we considered that the success or viability of any development on the site should be considered in terms of the potential for the site to become as much of a social asset as well as a financial one. The common elements/uses are specifically outward looking so that these spaces can be used by both existing and new residents within the local community.