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Architect Matt Williams discusses the awakening of a post-industrial port | FCBStudios

Architect Matt Williams discusses the awakening of a post-industrial port in his native homeland of Cornwall

"We should work for simple, good, undecorated things, but things which are in harmony with the human being and organically suited to the little man in the street." Alvar Aalto

Nothing will ever happen in Hayle”. This was the phrase that was frequently stated by the local community in my youth regarding proposals to regenerate a derelict but historically significant industrial port. Since the decline of the mining industries, South Quay has lain derelict, despite a number of attempts to secure its future since the 1970s. Proposals emerged: proposals floundered. Whilst popularity and investment increased in adjacent Cornish maritime settlements, dereliction continued in Hayle.


In its heyday, Hayle was the only port serving the Devon and Cornwall tin and copper mining industry and thrived on the export of minerals and heavy industrial machinery to locations across the world. The port sits within the World Heritage Site and includes several Listed structures, a scheduled ancient monument and a SSSI - a catalogue of accolades which symbolise its wealth of natural and historical assets. Though within sight of the spectacularly beautiful St Ives Bay, Hayle enjoyed very little of its neighbour's bustling prosperity – falling within the most deprived 20% of the UK.

So what shall we do?

This was a question posed from the outset of the new chapter of the regeneration process – a conscious movement away from disagreements of the past. The regeneration of South Quay presented a number of development challenges – the most significant being indifference in the local community, or general resistance to change. This had to change in order to enable change to occur. Determined, straight-talking people needed to begin to discuss what could be done. Over the past 4 years, the design team, client, heritage bodies and key stakeholders began to talk face to face about what they feel is important for the future of the Port, putting aside differences of opinion and pulling together common threads of passion. People began respecting, listening to, understanding, responding to, and implementing what is important to the essence of the Port and the community.

Aside from the ‘landmark’ architecture of the new harbourside food store, it is the more subtle interventions which will unlock the future. The listed quayside is being sensitively restored and made fully accessible for the community and visitors to use; the Victorian sluicing mechanism integral for maintaining a clear navigable channel between harbour and sea is being reinstated; the rich heritage of Hayle is explained publicly and openly; a simple robust contemporary architectural language which responds to the industrial backstory yet responds to the modern world has begun to emerge.

In my formative years, I visited an exhibition held at Tate St. Ives by the 2005 Turner Prize winning artist – Simon Starling. On reflection, this exhibition formed a valuable contribution to my design process as an architect – the important lesson of appreciating Process. In the exhibit ‘Autoxylopyrocycloboros’ Starling embarked on a voyage on a 20ft clinker-built timber vessel, powered by a single cylinder marine steam engine named ‘Dignity’. Prior to Starling owning the boat, she had been salvaged from the seabed and painstakingly restored by the previous owner. After setting off on his circular voyage, the artist embarked on dismantling the vessel piece by piece, plank by plank and using the timber as fuel for the boat’s steam engine in order to keep it progressing on its journey. Eventually, the vessel sank back to the seabed. At a ‘high art’ level, this piece of visual art evokes thoughts relating to the ancient Greek symbol ‘Ouroboros’ – the tail devouring snake. However, I took a different take on this. My lesson related to the way the work was carried out, recorded and exhibited – a series of stills projected via an old school projector, the slow speed of slide transition drawing your attention to which elements of the vessel are critical to keeping it afloat, and which are not. The thing we view – the catalogue of still photographs – is the result of the process involved. The richness of the result would not be possible without the process being carried out thoroughly.

Bringing these ramblings full circle back to the challenges that face Hayle - those involved with making things happen, should view the ‘process work’ as being fundamental to the long term success of the output. Despite the positive influence the current local community is having on the shape of Hayle's future, the governing bodies who are tasked with protecting World Heritage Sites, still oppose what has been done, alluding to a pastiche approach being more appropriate. Historically, Hayle has flourished by responding to contemporary requirements: Without understanding that the process of change is a necessity, the place dies.

Matt Williams

Image Captions:

1. Hayle Harbour from above ©P. Channon
2. Ship building in Hayle Harbour (image courtesy of Harvey’s Foundry Trust)
3. South Quay dereliction ©M. Williams
4. Hayle Estuary ©M. Williams
5. View from South Quay head © M. Williams
6. South Quay food store ©M. Williams
7. Still from ‘Autoxylopyrocycloboros’ ©S. Starling
8. Still from ‘Autoxylopyrocycloboros’ ©S. Starling
9. Still from ‘Autoxylopyrocycloboros’ ©S. Starling




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