Featherstone Young has transformed a car park and dwindling market into an art gallery and community space that is flexible enough to be many things
The edges of our cities are spotted by the oily dark puddles of multi-storey car parks, shoppers gripping bulging shopping bags as they navigate petrol haze and grubby stairways to make it back to their vehicles. But Wrexham has reclaimed at least some of its parking bays for a different sort of venue, Tŷ Pawb, a gallery and community space with a market, reworked by Featherstone Young Architects.
In the 1990s Wrexham cleared the edge of town and built a new car park, the product of optimistic thinking about the city’s future as a market town and shopping destination. It faced the town with projecting brick-clad bays mimicking the city’s older streets and, below, the Peoples’ Market, re-establishing the trio of markets that have long defined Wrexham. Its rear was more uncouth, unmediated stacks of parking, bins clustering grubbily around the service entrance under a sweeping ramp.
It is not the most obvious place to display art. The original gallery Oriel Wrecsam was an annexe to the city library, alongside a park (and, inevitably, a car park).
Featherstone Young’s scheme for this a decade earlier had foundered due to lack of space and revenue cuts. By the time it came back on board it had been decided to take over the market space in the People’s Market. Clearing the dwindling number of market stalls that had spread their wares there might have seemed rational but it was at the nub of resistance to the plans. One poster baldly suggested that art should be left to posher Chester up the road.
Gradually a possible mixed mode of operation emerged – market stalls and galleries share the ground floor, with a food hall drawing on the thriving example of Altrincham market. At the same time Featherstone Young proposed that flexible spaces might replace two of the three highly conditioned galleries and that the first floor parking deck, used for maintenance and mayoral parking, might work for some of the back of house spaces, education rooms and offices for rent.
For precedents, Sarah Featherstone looked to Wrexham’s covered streets and markets, multiple routes leading to covered squares. Similarly, Tŷ Pawb has one formal and three smaller entrances, so it works as a cut through from the town centre to the edge-of-town Tesco, Mecca bingo and mega gym. The market stalls, some in blockwork around the perimeter, some more like pop ups in timber, have been gathered on the city side of the ground floor. Here too is the Sgwâr y bobl or People’s Square – an activity area where translucent industrial strips with red and gold highlights can be drawn around to make a more private space. Children worked busily on a ‘drawing disco’ on the day I was there. Sliding across this and most of the length of the plan, long tables sit alongside food outlets such as Plât Bach, borrowing the light from both windows that have replaced the loading bay to the south and from the main entrance. In one corner the box of tall gallery spaces is marked by reception desk and shop.
From the market stalls, dripping with lacy baby bonnets, you read the gallery as a ribbed ply box. The wall is imbued with depth and interest, benches cut into it and narrow windows giving glimpses onto the gallery. And two full scale billboards of art (Wal Pawb) – twist from one specially commissioned piece to the next and change each year as well. But let’s backtrack from all the busy complexity of the gallery-as-city and imagine we have parked up with the intention of visiting Tŷ Pawb’s beautiful touring summer exhibition of drawings. Drawing up to the car park from Market Street the gallery imprint is all over the four storey building in bold black angles and Tŷ Pawb spelt out in huge letters. A 9m high atrium is signalled by a glazed entrance cut into the concrete planks of the car park. Selective filleting of the concrete of the first floor slings a bridge over the atrium before the ceiling is reimposed over the reception and shop and leads on to an internal courtyard (Gallery 2), back up to full height, that asks for a gathering. Featherstone describes this as the leftover space, formed of the two serviced, insulated, conditioned spaces alongside it. They are: a studio and performance space with a sprung floor, bleachers and a loading bay – great for all sorts of events including film screening – and the full on Gallery 1. This 220m² of high quality gallery – conditioned and composed – comes as a surprise after the contingent spaces around it, the three lighting tracks allowing it to be split up fairly flexibly.
So the gallery is many things, with spaces that demand quite different sorts of programming, and a market and food hall to nurture. Its name translates as Everybody’s House and that is what it aims to be. Tŷ Pawb creative director Jo Marsh took over part way through the project. But with years of experience in learning and engagement at Oriel Wrecsam and a mission to be open to the people of Wrexham, she has worked with Featherstone Young to develop its idea of ‘baggy’ space. This enables ‘unplanned and unimagined’, impromptu activities, drawing spreading out on the floor, the parking of artists’-project ‘shepherds’ hut. In architecture terms it avoids the specific programme, favouring space over furniture, and Featherstone Young has styled much of the circulation as if part of the city – with ‘street signage’ and the matching original concrete floor. Marsh explains the idea of the Arte Util, or Useful Museum in its UK context, as promoted by Alastair Hudson of mima in Middlesborough, who now runs the Whitworth in Manchester. So she programmes things relevant to the location and its needs and to running the gallery responsively.
It looks exhausting when you add organising jazz Sundays, booking high end exhibitions (look out for Grayson Perry), answering stallholders’ queries, ending up with shoppers’ frustrations at parking meters... (the latter, at least, not the job of the Ty Pawb team). But the gallery’s own exhibition, Wrexham Is The Name, that works on many levels, is an example. Local and more widely known artists created works that relate back to the history of the town – from a colouring book to delicate asymmetric ceramics referring to city immigration. The selection had a year long run-up with the public voting to choose six from 25 designs, these specially commissioned objects are being manufactured and will be sold in the shop. The scarf with ‘Wrexham Is The Name’ could be seen on the terraces soon. The same attitude has brought to life some baggy spaces with stools and tables with timber with flashes of red that are scattered through the project courtesy artist come designer Tim Denton.
There are many many architectural ideas that have not made it through at this stage: outdoor seating in the south facing terrace next to the car park ramp, a community garden on the second storey deck, maybe even an artist’s eyrie alongside the lift gear in the car park’s tower. In the meantime the deep plan of the building means the programming will have to work very hard to attract a good number of people into the slightly gloomy flexible spaces that need the animation of activity, and to the market and food stalls to keep them vital.
The most unfortunate omission – a corollary of the limited £4.5million budget – is that all the signage firepower is concentrated on two sides of the building. Town side it is still easy to pass by without broaching the rather dingy, unreconstructed entrances. But there seems no better gallery to take on these practical challenges, drawing in artist and locals as it grows.
total contract cost
gifa cost per m²
Architect Featherstone Young
Structural engineer Civic up to stage 3; Haltec Stage 4-5
Services engineer Ingine, formerly Michael Popper Associates, up to stage 3;
ESD stage 4-5
Civil engineer Civic up to stage 3, Haltec stage 4-5
QS Stockdale stage 3, SP Projects stage 4-5
Building contractor Wynne Construction
Artist/furniture maker Tim Denton