A retrofit project from Featherstone Young in Wrexham’s 1990s car park and covered market now sees market traders sharing the ground floor with a contemporary arts space: an unusual alliance, it works in large part thanks to an enlightened approach to public realm.

It is Autumn 2018, and six months after the Oriel Wrexham opened as Ty Pawb (Welsh for ‘Everyone’s House’), there is little sign of the antipathy that saw locals pasting protest posters all over this traditional market town’s walls declaring: ‘If they want Art they (can) go to places like Chester’. In fact, on the Thursday afternoon that I visit, a small crowd of 30 are gathered on plastic seats to listen to some classical guitar inside the colourful PVC curtaining that screens off this area during free Thursday lunchtime concerts. And there are many more gathered at the big, wooden sharing tables around the corner, by the reformatted market stalls, enjoying tasty snacks from the new and changing line-up of pop-up food stalls nearby.

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Photo credit: James Morris

A more than generous provision of attractive public realm has been transformational for this scheme – and, arguably, for this community. The programming and design of these areas has been spearheaded by (respectively) the gallery’s creative director Jo Marsh and architects Featherstone Young as a way of intensifying connections and activities within this unusual car park/market/art gallery hybrid. As another civic gesture, there is Everyone’s Wall (Wal Pawb) – an annual billboard commission co-curated by the arts team and market traders. It covers two walls of the newly constructed art gallery set inside the building, with windows sliced into its timber structure to provide peepholes for those both outside and within the main exhibition hall.

In terms of events and activities in these public, market and gallery areas, ‘I don’t think there’s anything we didn’t envision,’ says Featherstone Young co-director Sarah Featherstone - from pop-up pizza nights to music festivals. In fact, a recent music event, Focus Wales, was at risk of being drowned by wet weather, and ended up occupying almost every spare corner of this building, including the well-appointed performance space within the art gallery.

So much of what makes this shared interior streetscape work would be invisible to the untutored eye: for example, Featherstone Young’s decision to break up the typical gridded, linear procession of market stalls to create frequent cut-throughs between the newly timber-lined stall clusters. This allows for far freer flows between stalls and public areas, and opens up sightlines to where the action is as well as the exits and entrances.

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Photo credit: Simon Bray Photography

Two new glazed public entrances have been added (bringing the total to four) to open up flows and vistas between the town and adjacent neighbourhoods. On the sunny, south-facing side of the block, an area dedicated to building services and machinery at street level has been removed in order to create a 6m high entrance which now floods the food hall with daylight. Another new entrance has been punched into the western facade where the mayor’s own dedicated 6-bay car park took up part of a two-storey section. This now becomes the main arts venue, featuring two exhibition spaces, a shop and the aforementioned performance space – with the Arts Council of Wales as one of the funders, dance and theatre are areas that Ty Pawb wants to promote. With skylights punched into the top of the concrete structure daylight floods down into the central gallery and all over the upstairs circulation spaces. Flexibilty is writ large on this floor, too, with meeting rooms doubling up as rehearsal and education areas, and all the activity inside communicated via views into and out of the rooms.

Porousness is also communicated in the wire mesh that separates the gallery doorway from the wide, light-flooded entrance hall. But it’s the combination of utilitarian and crafted qualities that make the shared public areas particularly appealing – friendly, tactile elements like, for example, handmade wooden sharing tables, with matching benches and perky red stools. These were all designed by Manchester-based carpenter Tim Denton, and created together with an assortment of volunteers at local community workshops; each helper was given the task of hand-turning a single detachable leg in a gesture that made the task manageable for these mostly amateur carpenters, but which also resonates with the overall Ty Pawb concept of many individual components coming together to form a coherent whole.

By Veronica Simpson