Identity and belonging; twenty first century architecture for a town that's as old as the hills

Architect and broadcaster Piers Taylor, who has been appointed to create designs for Watchet's East Quay, writes about the things that inspire him, and the need for buildings to reflect the identity of their surroundings:

We’re at the beginning of a remarkable journey with Watchet, with the redevelopment of the East Quay. More than anything, it is essential that any new buildings here wear their principles on their sleeves and engage with Watchet in such a way that they form an essential, vital and meaningful part of an already compelling town.

I remember driving the great Pritzker Prize winning Australian architect Glenn Murcutt through the Cotswolds a few years back, and hearing him describe how formative that landscape had been for him when he’d visited in the early 1960s. He talked of the extraordinary continuity of material that created the sense of place, and reminded me how effortlessly and intelligently the buildings adapted and responded to landscape. Murcutt also described to me how the landscape of the Cotswolds had been so terribly spoiled since his visit in the 1960s by the rash of dumb buildings that littered the landscape, which failed so comprehensively to understand how to have any kind of credible conversation with context.

Murcutt knew a thing or two about place. He has pioneered an extraordinary architecture that speaks of the geology and geography of a locale. He uses the water table, wind direction, sunlight, flora and fauna to root a building to its site.

Murcutt was my teacher many years ago, and these are the themes that excite me, and the methods I use to design buildings. Post industrial revolution, when in theory a building can speak of anything, it has never been more important to cherish the particular, the local, the provincial, and all that these concepts can mean. Far from being outmoded, local topography, customs, skills, particularities and crafts truly have their place in twenty-first century architecture. They define and root a community.

As years went by, as Murcutt reminded me, we lost the ability to build in a credible way. But I sense things are changing. Now, more than ever, people are fascinated by provenance.

I’m from the South West, where I still live and work in a steep-sided water-worn valley near Bath. Historically it was a region where landscape and geography underpinned every settlement. It’s fascinating to trace this ancient landscape at many scales – from the individual fossil, the ancient footpath, the hedgerow, the watercourse, to the buildings that sit so inevitably alongside these things to the point that they become landscape.

At Watchet, there is an extraordinary opportunity to think big. Rather than just procuring a series of buildings that are in theory fit for purpose and function, there is an opportunity to use architecture as a method of speaking of the town's identity, of its history and pre-history, and, of course, of its future.

To find out more about the proposed plans for East Quay, click here

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