Island life diversifies

Cows, cash and now creative industries – Guernsey is nurturing its cultural side but still needs to build design ambition

Most people think Guernsey is a tax haven for the super rich, a backwater tourist destination, or a windswept island covered in cows. These slightly unappealing views of the island keep a lot of people away. But with one of the lowest unemployment levels in Europe, low crime, a vibrant local economy and a warm climate, this affluent island is a very attractive place to live and work.  

Shortly after establishing SOUP in Highbury, London, in 2012 with Patrick Walls and Jamie Le Gallez, we set up our Guernsey studio following a growing number of enquiries in the Channel Islands. After spending 12 years away from the island where I grew up and was educated, I was excited about the opportunities this little island had to offer.

 
Guernsey enjoys a warm climate and vibrant local economy.
Guernsey enjoys a warm climate and vibrant local economy.

Guernsey is a world-class financial centre, but a vibrant arts and cultural scene has helped attract some big names in the creative industries. Last year, a committee of business owners, including myself, formed a collective called Creative Industries Guernsey. We set it up to guide the local government in providing support for emerging digital industries, and to inspire young people to take up careers in applied, creative workplaces. It successfully piloted the Creative Academy, which provided teaching and studio-based work experience on the island. The group held a design conference in 2013, with speakers including postgraduate tutors Theo Lorenz and Professor Tanja Siems from the Architectural Association, who spoke about plans to bring their groundbreaking Interprofessional Studio course to the island next year. 

Guernsey also nurtures entrepreneurial spirit with initiatives such as StartUp, which gives young people mentoring and advice for starting their own businesses. Plans for work hubs similar to Google campus and for super-fast fibre connectivity are also being tabled, demonstrating that Guernsey is serious about diversifying its output. 

Dramatic 100m sheer cliffs, wide-open beaches on the west coast, and views of neighbouring islands provide obvious design cues, but sadly most new buildings are not taking advantage of their stunning settings

Building types in Guernsey are quite varied. Outside of the main town, the architecture is a mixed bag of converted granite farmhouses, fisherman’s cottages and chalet bungalows. The main town, St Peter Port, is a busy mix of office blocks, historic buildings and small houses, with few buildings more than six or seven storeys high. There seems to be a frustrating lack of ambition in the design of many of the buildings across the island. Dramatic 100m sheer cliffs, wide-open beaches on the west coast, and views of neighbouring islands provide obvious design cues, but sadly most new buildings are not taking advantage of their stunning settings.

When I first returned to the island, I was surprised to find the title of ‘architect’ was not recognised under Guernsey law, Architects are still seen to have the master-craftsmen role. But we are more interested in collaborative methods of working between specialists and professionals, introducing construction methods and techniques developed in the London studio. We have also worked closely with the local building merchants to introduce new products and systems to our clients. We are thoroughly enjoying working in the Channel Islands, working on a number of residential projects of various scales.  •

Max Babbé is strategic director of SOUP