The role of an architect in town planning has grown from just being about the structure. Mike Hughes meets Simon Baker, who is helping breathe new life into an historic part of Scarborough.
For many Yorkshire towns, the market hall is older than the place itself. They were often the first signs of a community being established, with produce and goods to be traded. If the customers came in, then the permanent buildings began to sprout and a supply chain was started.
Now they are surrounded by hundreds of other shops, offices and converted apartments and have often lost their key role, but they still stand as a metaphor of a town’s progress and a reflection of its ability to capitalise on both its past and its future. So when Simon Baker – who has just finished his term as regional chair of the RIBA – showed me behind the scenes of his team’s work on Scarborough Grade ll listed Market Hall, it was reassuring to see the appreciation he had for the building’s history as well as its potential.
Group Ginger, based at the Tetley building in Leeds, was commissioned by Scarborough Borough Council to come up with a plan for the £2.7m refurbishment and redesign of the hall, working alongside Esh Construction. What Simon and his team has come up with is a contemporary reinterpretation of Victorian arcade architecture for a building that people will instantly recognise, but with major changes including a second mezzanine level for more shops, offices and meetings spaces.
The finished project will provide 22 ground floor units and space for temporary pop-up stalls to encourage entrepreneurs to try a pitch, and 14 new units on the upper level.
“The £2.7m investment here is indicative of a trend,” said Simon. “Public bodies are increasingly choosing to invest in supporting independent retail businesses. We see more and more developers investing in creating an element of theatre in the retail and leisure experience, in a drive to combat the lure of online shopping.
“Our role was to adapt and reconfigure the spaces, to make them relevant for the future. It was important to us, in approaching the project, that we didn’t alienate anyone – long-standing traders, customers or new start-ups – to help foster that sense of community that people love about market halls.
“The great thing about refurbishing and renovation is that there is a third party alongside the architect and the client – and that is the building itself.”
That skill in keeping all sides happy is a real challenge, particularly for those more established Scarborians (does anyone still use that term...?) who have a special place in their hearts for the banter and long-serving businesses that have served them so well over the years.
“It always has to be a place where people can shop economically to support their family in the age-old tradition of markets. It has to be accessible to everyone,” Simon tells me over a coffee a few yards from the hall, where work is progressing well.
He is originally from Birmingham, then studied in London and won a scholarship to go to the Architectural Association. After 12 years in the capital he moved to live in Harrogate in 2004 and work in Leeds, to follow a lot of regional projects, including working on The Deep in Hull.
“What I have always liked about Scarborough is that it is a ‘cheek by jowl’ place where there are fine buildings, independent businesses and a real grittiness and grandeur. It is that dynamic that makes it a really exciting place.
“Since I set up Group Ginger two years ago, we have been keen not to just replicate a smaller version of where we were before, but to have a turnover that created a sustainable business by doing projects that we really wanted to do.
“That means working with clients whose objectives are not driven only by commercial gain, but also by grander reasons like regeneration, community or education and who cared about the outcome. “We often focus on the theatre of the place, getting people to come and enjoy and engage, generating activity and putting that in the foreground. So we have the market, a bird hide for Yorkshire Water, Yorkshire’s Renewable Energy centre at Whitby and a large mixed-use retail scheme in the Midlands.
“But there is a synergy in that variety because the Midlands project is all about working with an existing historic town centre (Lichfield) and increasing the dwell time and making it an enjoyable place to be while complementing the old spaces with the new.”
The market contract came complete with a plan and consent from the council, but previous interpretations hadn’t hit the mark, so Group Ginger was asked to look at it and go through the tender process. One of Simon’s hallmarks that helped land the contract is a fluidity of design that means he is always interpreting and evolving ideas to make them perfectly fit the space in front of him.
“If you objectify architecture, then you start to protect the design in a way that is not permissive about how people can adulterate it,” he explains.
“There is a famous sketch by architect and cartoonist Louis Hellman which shows an architect pulling his hair out because someone has put net curtains up in his masterpiece – we’re not like that. “We like the net curtains because it shows that the occupant has adopted the space and made it their own. So we see the market plan changing, but not through us tweaking and manipulating it as we see it emerging on site, but because of it evolving through the occupation of the people. There is a balance there because the design guide gives the council some control over just how much individual traders work with those spaces, so that no one person is louder than the others.”
“There is a way of looking at the market where the management of it is like curating a play in a theatre. The people and the traders are like actors in a big production with the market manager as the creative director day to day. They need to control things so that the set doesn’t detract from the actors on the stage – otherwise you get a Camden or Blackpool high street where it just gets bigger and bolder to surpass the guy next door.”
There may be many architects that do not believe they can afford that line of thought – only choosing the projects that have a ‘heart’ and appreciating why people might want to change them after you have left. But it makes for a very content and stimulated team back at The Tetley.
“Teamwork is really important, and Nasa talk about seven being the optimum number for
a team – the space shuttle was based on seven astronauts because Nasa’s studies showed that after seven communication started to break down.
“We have a balance in the team, with people who focus on the delivery, but I look outside
of that to see what else we can bring to it,” says Simon. “In defining what the deliverable package of work is, I feel that we as architects are well-placed to interpret and to look at the intangible benefits and value. So the success of this project isn’t that it can be delivered on budget and on time, it is in whether people come there to shop and trade.
“I think that is what architects can do, but we get measured against a definable object and the perennial problem for architects as a business is the value quantification of the intangible.
“Yes, it is a luxury to be able to look for like-minded people who see that value and appreciate that, while we are a profitable business, the group isn’t about exponential growth and turnover it is about relationships and projects where we can offer our benefit.
“There is more than a single ‘bottom line’ for a business, and one of those multiple bottom lines is enjoyment.
“There is certainly a way of seeing the client/architect role as much more of a partnership with a vested interest in the outcome, perhaps developing the relationship away from the service industry. Where does architecture begin and where does it end? For some it is all about bricks and mortar and what we are talking about is theatre, atmosphere and experience and then pushing that even further to make a town centre a thriving place.”
The expanding influence architects can have on the areas around their projects is well illustrated at Scarborough, with the new space attracting new businesses that will then hopefully expand and take two units, but then might look outside the hall for their next premises. The stimulation from the market hall then moves in a measurable wave across the town.
“On the ground floor it is intended that the perimeter stalls are for the traders who intend to be there for a while,” says Simon. “But then the hall is open for a much more transitional model of trading, perhaps it will be chocolate brownies one day and Scalextric the next, each trying it out to give a mix and dynamism so it is unique each time, but with a level of consistency.”
The more work the more recognition, of course, and the experience and portfolio Simon and his team are building will no doubt attract attention and contracts further afield, although Scarborough may well be his perfect town, with that grandeur and excitement and streets full of magnificent buildings in need of a plan.
“We would do more markets, but we are not saying we are market specialists. However, it would be amazing to do more work here because there is latent potential and anything could happen. But there is no motivation if a project is not fun and exciting.”
One of the tests of the latest projects is when Simon, who has just turned 45, brings down the two mini-Bakers, his children aged ten and eight. They will be at the grand reopening along with his wife, also an architect, so he knows the pressure will be on...
“Any place that can be intergenerational has got to be a good place to go, so it needs to be attractive to pensioners and grandparents as well as children and families and feel secure and safe so that they will all be willing to stay there.
“A building like the market hall can’t be so focused on one group of people that it alienates others. I think a number of cities are starting to see markets as a turning point, with the discussion about food provenance and cooking and shopping responsibly by eating healthily and buying locally.
“Town and city councils are realising these are places worthy of investment – it is all there and if you can get the whole town to come together in a harmonious way it is a good indicator of the health of the town.
While Group Ginger is literally ground-breaking on St Helen’s Square, its work will also be a catalyst for two ground-breaking tech projects from the University of Hull, which will become vital to the future of the space. Most impressively, the university is creating an online market that can host all of the traders, but with one pay point, underlining that the site is a unified community working under one roof.
And it is also building a market intelligence system to track and analyse key trends and influences, which will be an important tool for any new businesses looking at the town.
That whole package of support, investment and forward planning started with the first line on a Group Ginger notepad as the plans were first being looked at.
With Simon holding the pen, the first priority will have been people rather than profit – which offers great hope for Scarborough, its residents and its entrepreneurs.