Right, new year new beginnings. Let's start as we mean to go on and take a look at a group of people who want to get their hands on the cinema site.
There surely can’t be one person reading this that doesn’t want to see the Ritz Cinema Site redeveloped, and numerous other parts of town come to that. I'm sure we've all got ideas of what we'd like to see on the site in our brains but getting them down onto paper is another matter. Well, now a group of people who know exactly how to do just that have got together to produce their own visions for Royal Tunbridge Wells in the 21st Century, and they need your help.
Architects Stuart Page and James Galpin have created So Create A Difference. I happen to know James a little from Twitter so persuaded him to have a little chat. Below are his responses to my questions which in his own words don't give too much away so you really should spare some time to see their exhibition (details at end of this post).
This exhibition and workshop is a terrific idea, James, but what was the straw that broke camel's back and made you start it?
I'm not alone in being frustrated about the apparent freeze on development within the town. A survey from the early noughties asked residents what their favourite piece of modern architecture was in the town. The response was the Meadow Road car park opposite Fenwicks. Whilst it isn't a particularly offensive building I do find it a hard one to love, and the idea that this was the best we have to offer in terms of modern development really woke me up to the issue. Things haven't got a lot better since then with little modern development happening and lots of sites laying dormant which directly impact the quality of the town and its economic development. I have tried on several occasions to offer my services to the council to come up with a vision for the town which would help inform future developments and avoid the trap of choosing the future based only upon financial considerations, but a suitable opportunity never seemed to arise, so I decided it was time to organize a well spirited form of 'creative rebel uprising'. 'So Create A Difference' was then born.
Can you briefly explain the group, who is it made up of and how did you all get together?
The professional team is made up of a group of local architects who share my passion for how the town develops. We meet once a month over a beer (an event christened #twarchie by Mike Goode of the Twitter community) to discuss current issues relating to our profession as well as local issues. Several Twarchie attendees have given their support to the SoCreate event and support from the local Region of the Royal Institute of British Architects has secured other participants. There is no control over the ideas provided by each team member, but we organised which team would be responsible for which site, to ensure as much of the town was reviewed as possible.
Can you give us a little taster of your ideas?
The best I can give without giving the surprise element away are some graphics we provided for the competition to redesign the Cinema Site back in 2008. Unfortunately none of the six schemes designed made it to fruition, but many of the ideas are as relevant now to when they were produced three years ago.
What is the likelihood that any of your ideas will make it into production, or is that not the point?
The ideas coming to fruition would be wonderful, but I'm not expecting it. The main reason for having this event is to inspire commitment to the town from both residents and Council alike. Tunbridge Wells is a beautiful town and one to be proud of, but the blight is gradually setting in and the aspiration of the residents appears to be suffering. If the event can articulate ideas on how the town can develop, with suggestions made by the architects and good ideas given by the public, then these thoughts can be presented to the Council, who will hopefully take the concepts into consideration as time moves on. Along the way the people of Tunbridge Wells will hopefully be inspired into making their voice heard about their town and perhaps be reminded of some of its redeeming features too.
Have you integrated any old TW elements, such as Decimus Burton styles, into the designs or are you looking to the future?
The team has a rich mix of architects, featuring modernists and conservators alike. There will hopefully be something for all tastes in the ideas, with more input hopefully coming from the public open day when the town people can tell us what they consider to be the important elements that make their town. Sorry - still not giving anything away am I?
How can the public get behind you and perhaps even contribute?
Contribution from the public is the prime reason for organizing this event. We can very easily make designs for the town, but if they don't represent the town dweller's wishes then we would simply be just another heavy hand being imposed on a town that doesn't support the concepts. So the real work will be done on 26th January 2013 in the former Zoola Fish shop in the entrance to the RVP. We will have sketch pens at the ready and the space will be staffed with the participating architects to respond and draw for the visitors. All ideas will then be worked into a book which we will present to the Council on behalf of the town. I'd also like to have the work exhibited at the Gallery and online and would love a follow up feature on your blog if you're willing.
I think the cinema site development should be more about bringing tourists to TW than providing for locals, hence I'm not really a fan of shops or offices. I think we should have a huge museum, arts centre and creative spaces wrapped in an amazingly designed building that people would travel here just to see. Am I going to be excited by some of the teams plans or are you designing commercial properties into the design to generate profit?
The cultural offer in TW is certainly something that needs a boost. Hastings has a new gallery, as do Margate and Eastbourne. We may not have a coastline but we can still support a better cultural offer. A recent survey asked the town why they came to Tunbridge Wells centre. Most people answered that the reason for their visit was to shop, which is possibly only true because that's what is currently available to do. I would have preferred the questionnaire to ask why people travel from TW to London, if not to work. Then we go about offering more of that to keep people in the town. A gallery and a better arts building would be high on my list and I agree would form a real magnet for visitors to the town. The hotels and supporting services can then follow when demand increases.
A rather intriguing idea for a tunnel under Mount Pleasant?
Does the group have its sights set on any other spots in town? Union Square or the Civic Centre for instance? Any place you'd really love to get your teeth into?
There are 14 sites being reviewed, 12 of which have been allocated teams. These range from the Union House site in the south, up to the Arriva Bus garage in the north. The Hospital site is obviously a key development site and we are going to try and feature the recent designs for that site within the exhibition if the developers agree.
Some of the other sites up for possible redevelopment.
This project is being funded by the Royal Institute of British Architects West Kent Branch and by the RIBA’s Local Initiative Fund. Why did they get involved? Do they usually fund interesting projects like this or are they really serious about wanting to make a difference in Tunbridge Wells?
Funding has been provided by RIBA regional Local Initiative fund and the local Branch of which I was chair until last year. The RIBA invites applications for funding based upon set criteria to further the cause of architecture and in developing the public perception on the value of good architecture. This event very neatly fit their funding criteria.
Is anyone in the group incorporating a cinema into their design?
Come along on the 26th January and you'll see for yourself!
Thanks for your time, James, and I am really looking forward to sharing the follow-up feature here.
You can visit the exhibition at Royal Victoria Place between The Perfume Shop and Thorntons from Thursday 24th January, it'll be window-based with a drop-in on Saturday 26th January from 10am-4pm; the exhibition ends Tuesday 29th January. You can also visit their Facebook page to keep up to date.
Make sure you find some time to get along on Saturday and make a contribution. You never know, your idea could be standing there in a few years time.