Featherstone Young’s innovative hybrid arts centre and market hall generates reciprocal advantages for culture and commerce, finds Angus Morrogh-Ryan

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Words
Angus Morrogh-Ryan

Photos
James Morris

In the context of our high streets and malls being increasingly associated with doom-laden headlines about retail closures, Featherstone Young’s Tŷ Pawb (Everybody’s House) in Wrexham signals an innovative approach, combining a stalls market with an arts venue to create a dynamic public space that is sustainably rooted in its community.

Wrexham is a historic market town characterised by roof-lit galleria and cast-iron-columned food halls, which traditionally would have been dedicated to specific produce, such as butter or meat. Tŷ Pawb relocates Oriel Wrecsam – formerly known as Wrexham Arts Centre – within perhaps the most aesthetically and technically challenging of these, The People’s Market: a solid, purpose-built 1990s brick and concrete multi-storey car park and market hall.

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Working with such a building could have been a tough gig, but Featherstone Young has ably overseen a radical restructuring of its spaces and the implementation of a new visual language that ties everything together. The reworked building creates the conditions for an accessible programme of new social uses, which are truly transformative and meaningful to the everyday life of the town, and bring participation in the arts to a far wider audience than traditional arts centres.

Following an earlier feasibility study for Oriel Wrecsam, Featherstone Young had got to know Wrexham well and understood the significance of pedestrian desire lines. The popular car park’s location between the urban centre and edge-of-town modern retail attractions allows Tŷ Pawb to take advantage of this established footfall and position arts, community and commerce at the crossroads. The new facilities include two art galleries, market stalls, a performance space, a learning centre, and several cafes and bars. There are also affordable studios and meeting rooms for rent to local artists and businesses.

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The sum of the parts should allow both active participation, creative engagement and financial resilience. Also fascinating are the in-between spaces and edges which have the capacity to handle what Tŷ Pawb’s creative director, Jo Marsh, calls “urgencies” – spur of the moment activities, such as pop-up art installations or performances, which need to be nimbler and more responsive compared to standard gallery-based programming, but which have high impact in the context of an active food hall and market. Similarly, a large-scale, revolving billboard called the Wal Pawb (Everyone’s Wall) shows a rolling programme of artwork curated by Oriel Wrecsam and the market traders. The opening show features souvenirs of the town made by artists, as voted for by the community.

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From first thing in the morning, these covered in-between spaces are teeming with life. They are somewhere to escape the weather, to gather and to be genuinely public. As the surrounding traders set up, parents chat over morning coffee whilst their children are happily occupied with free-to-access board games, toys and craft materials left for them on tables and benches within the Sqwar y Bobl (The People’s Square). It is warm-hearted proposition, which places an abundance of trust in the community, who have responded with a sense of belonging and respect.

Sqwar y Bobl is demarcated by heavy industrial plastic sheet curtains suspended on rails. Translucent yet weighty enough to divide the space when concurrent activities are programmed, they allow for flexibility, enabling informal, spontaneous events.

Spatial generosity has been enhanced by introducing cuts into the existing precast concrete construction, bringing natural light deep into the plan and creating dramatic vertical connections and double-height spaces. The challenging deep plan and low ceilings of a car park have been “opened up to be lighter and more welcoming”, says architect Sarah Featherstone. “A palette of raw, robust materials with a streetscape aesthetic provides a uniform, neutral backdrop to the spectrum of activities that will bring the building to life.”

Plywood wall linings with softwood ribs provide natural warmth to a material palette of fair-faced blockwork and galvanised steel mesh, which answer the need for security and durability. Similarly, the gallery linings were isolated from the car park walls to cost-effectively avoid cold bridging and acoustic penetration, and provide a service zone.

The original concrete-tiled floor remains throughout and ensures a continuity between between inside and outside. The blurring of boundaries is a key design device that gives agency to visitors who might otherwise have felt intinimated, breaking down visual and perceived emotional barriers to entry.

My favourite is a window that links the market with the interior of the main gallery space – traditionally a line that more formal art galleries do not cross. The building’s transformation is announced externally with a new entrance and the graphic treatment of the facades, employing the new Tŷ Pawb name and logo designed by Cardiff-based agency Elfen. This signals Tŷ Pawb’s presence within the town, and in the future will function as a canvas for a changing display of artwork.

Featherstone Young has worked closely with furniture maker Tim Denton who, in the spirit of Tŷ Pawb’s mission to engage the public, has designed the furniture and built it collaboratively with community groups in workshop sessions. This impressive co-design strategy has placed the community in the middle of the process of creative making, from primary school pupils building the reception desk to local artists helping to make supports for trestle tables. Shop furniture and market hall benches were built by college students and pay asymmetric homage to traditional Welsh stick chairs. A local woodworking group lathe-turned stool hooks and table legs, and members of the public participated in workshops to create stools and boxes for the shop. It is refreshing to see that as well as learning key skills, these participants have contributed so visibly to the legacy of Tŷ Pawb.

Projects such as this can’t be taken for granted. They naturally require an alignment of stakeholder and funding support but also, importantly, those rare people, ‘champions’, who protect the ambition and who so believe in the prospect that they wake in the night worrying about it. Tŷ Pawb was commissioned by Wrexham County Borough Council, with support from Arts Council of Wales and the Welsh Government. At a time of austerity, when there is pressure on local authorities to cut funding to arts organisations, it is commendable that this council has recognised the positive socio-economic and cultural outcomes that investment can generate.

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Key to the success of this project is the correlation between the business plan and the architecture. Featherstone Young was astute to recognise that an arts venue could not happen here without the support of the market traders. Significantly, it ensured that this group participated closely in the project’s development, taking time to listen to them and accommodate their concerns. It is fundamentally the study of the behaviours and the needs of a community that ensures that any architecture is meaningful and maximises the opportunities available. Without that, capital investment will never be well founded and the sustainability of an organisation always in doubt. It is reassuring that Tŷ Pawb recognises that this new home is only the beginning, and that a fundamental principle going forward will be to keep a keen eye on the programming of these spaces to ensure that they remain relevant.

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