New London Architecture

Five minutes with... Jonny Buckland

Monday 08 July 2024

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor meets Jonny Buckland of Studio Saar to chat through the practice’s Davidson Prize-winning idea for the ‘Apartment Store’ in an old Debenhams building in Taunton

David Taylor  
Hi, Jonny, how are you? 
 
Jonny Buckland  
Very well, thank you, David. Nice of you to call.
 
David Taylor  
You've just won the Davidson prize, so congratulations on that, with your 'Apartment Store' proposal, which essentially is to turn an old Debenhams building in Taunton into new homes and what's called 'buzzing circular economy hubs'. Please describe it more fully than that, and the origins of your thinking?
 
Jonny Buckland  
Yes. So obviously, it's in a town in the south-west, which, as a team, we see is very similar to many towns and urban centres around the country. Department stores fit as quite large buildings on the high street and in these urban centres. We saw the potential of such large buildings to basically be reworked and adapted into thriving hubs of life. And for us, that meant homes, and playing with the idea of how homes can bring high streets and town centres back to life. But our proposal really wanted to explore, alongside that, how a project could begin with the community. I think one of the roots of my practice, and of some of the other people in the team, especially Landstory Design, Stories, and Bas, and Megaphone Creative – all of us actually – we all believe that the projects begin with the people. A lot of the work that we've been doing is around empowering people, and trying to understand what those motivations within the community are, that can create a project. And so, Taunton is a perfect example of a town where lots of retirement developments have been the dominant mode of new housing. And so, there's this real lack for youth, and the younger generations, to find homes. The Apartment Store looks to provide an array, a flexible set of different housing opportunities, from hostels to serviced apartments all the way up to two-bed apartments. Within the project we called it stepping stone homes. We were trying to play with how you work with deep-plan existing floor plates, how we can bring light down and create dual aspect living accommodation, and actually really give back the ground floor to the town. So, providing new connections to the river, to the High Street and actually populating that ground floor with uses that the town needs, and that can bring the town together. That's kind of it in a nutshell: mixed use development, turning a department store into an apartment store full of other ancillary and associated uses for life. 
 
David Taylor  
And obviously, this is quite replicable across the UK, isn't it, given department stores going out of fashion, essentially? I can think of quite a few which are littered around the UK's ailing town centres. Is it something that you can foresee as being a replicable model?
 
Jonny Buckland  
I do. But our focus has been looking at Taunton. I think there are similarities across all high streets, but I think the interesting thing about each of these department stores is they're a huge repository of space in the core of the community. I think what's interesting is how a community that's there, that's living and working, how all the different stakeholders and the Chamber of Commerce, all the way through to arts organizations at each place, can come together, and think about how these big, big buildings that were once the hub of consumerism can be reimagined to meet their needs. So, partly, I do think the Apartment Store idea is one that could really fit. But then some of the other uses might really be bespoke to each place; that really meet the needs of that particular town context.
 
David Taylor  
How did you form your team? You knew these people and just called them up and said, 'do you fancy it?' And how often did you meet to run through the idea?
 
Jonny Buckland  
That's a really interesting question. So we, as a practice, run a co-working space, the Silk Mill Studios in Frome. For the last four-plus years we've been working on our community-initiated master plan for a 12-acre site in Frome town centre called Mayday Saxonvale. And our team, we all started working together on that project. So we've got this long-standing relationship on this one project. One of our architects lives in Taunton - she brought the project; she brought the building type with her, saying “we should look at this building”. The Davidson Prize had been on her radar for quite some time. And so then we reached out to the rest of the Mayday team and said, “look, are you up for joining?” And then we managed to get Ben Stephenson from BAS placemaking consultancy in from Bristol. So we're pretty much a Southwest-based team with Paul Clark from Stories in London joining us, who's also the developer for Mayday. So that's how the team came about. And what's really interesting is that a lot of our learnings of working with the Frome community and the approach to what is a community-led masterplan on quite a large scale; a lot of our thinking and the networking that we've been doing in Frome has put us in a position where we have taken a lot of that learning and we're trying to do that with this department store now in Taunton. So yeah, that's how it came about. To get everyone together, there's a lot of Zoom calls. The power of Zoom! It's actually how we as a practice function across two very faraway countries in the world. 
 
David Taylor
What's the other country?
 
Jonny Buckland
India, and the UK? And so yes, Zoom was definitely it. But then we managed to get quite a few of us down for a couple of sessions, working and meeting stakeholders in the community, carrying out lots of interviews, and just being really on the ground. We probably spent three whole days in and around the High Street and the building, meeting them there. Meeting the Climate Action Group, and some other organizations that helped us realize how the potential for this project is real. People really want this particular building to come alive again. They all feel and describe the loss of Debenhams leaving the town as such a blow. And they all just want something positive to happen. The energy is palpable within the community, and everyone gave up so much time to support us, and give us all of the insights and knowledge, and that really did help us shape a lot of the narratives that came together in the final proposal.
 
David Taylor  
So how realistic is this idea? Might it move from being a paper idea to into reality, do you think?
 
Jonny Buckland  
There's an organization called Adventure in Frome and they are also engaged with work in Taunton; they are also based in Taunton. They are looking to facilitate some of these upcoming workshops and be that community contact for us on the ground. The building is currently open once a month for Cinema clubs. So the landowner, the owner of the building, we're just trying to work out where we can get together and find out all the different people that we need to bring together to have conversations around what's possible, where the motivation lies, in the community, where the leadership is, who's going to take these roles, and we're going to carry on as a team facilitating this process. We hope from that there might be this ball of energy, like there was on the Mayday project. It seemed pie in the sky four years ago, but the community got together, we got planning, and now Somerset Council are basically making a decision on the 31st of July this year, whether or not to sell the site to the community, or sell the site to another developer. We feel that it does take time for something that might feel really quite radical. But if we can help facilitate field of energy within the community, this excitement, through drawings, through some more design work, co-design work, trying to create something that does feel like it could be possible, then people start to maybe take some notice, the local authority might take some more notice. And those ideas might excite the landowner of the building.
 
David Taylor  
How might the community be able to afford the land?
 
Jonny Buckland  
So that’s a big question and there is not always a simple answer. But for example, on the Mayday project, we managed to secure £5 million social impact funding for the land purchase. To get to that point where we have designs that can attract that sort of money, it was a combination of donations from the community, bids, so actually going in for some funding to do certain parts of design work. Bit by bit, you get to pull together proposals that can get you the door opening for more and more funding. So: an incremental process, one that takes time, but not impossible. 
 
David Taylor  
That's fascinating. So, just on the Davidson Prize, itself, how do you view the competition - how it's run, how it's judged? Presumably, you're a big fan! (laughs)
 
Jonny Buckland  
(laughs) Yeah, I mean, it was a really great evening, to win the award. I think we've been watching the Davidson Prize since it started four or five years ago. And it's the multidisciplinary piece that really attracted us, that I think makes it so successful. That real emphasis on teamwork, and bringing that multitude of voices to a design task. That is, I think...
 
David Taylor  
 …Lifelike!
 
Jonny Buckland  
…Yes! We share our studio with Megaphone Creative and Landstory, alongside journalists, and graphic designers, and that sharing of a space and the way that projects come about through conversation – it is just so, so powerful. And so yes, I'd like to think that that's played such a huge part in the success of this project.
 
David Taylor  
And did they tip you the nod that you'd won initially before the evening, or did you find out, as I found out, in that room in Euston?
 
Jonny Buckland  
(laughs) No, we found out we found out in the room!
 
David Taylor  
Wow. 
 
Jonny Buckland  
Yeah. So, it was a real surprise. Yeah, it was really, really lovely.
 
David Taylor  
Did you go out and celebrate somewhere?
 
Jonny Buckland  
We actually all had to catch the train (laughs). Our frustrating train system just didn't quite give us enough time. We were staring at a night train back and none of us - we've all got kids - we couldn't quite face coming back at 6 am!
 
David Taylor  
Well, perhaps a little tiny bit of the £10,000 you won for winning first prize can go on some sort of little mini-internal celebration. But otherwise, how will you spend that tem grand if you put your mind to that? You got a five-grand honorarium as well, I think didn't you?
 
Jonny Buckland  
Exactly. As a team, I think we're definitely going to have to cover a few costs between us all, and then what we'll be doing is actually putting a good chunk of that money into the next stage of developing facilitation work and some community gatherings. To just see, like I said, where the energy lies within this multitude of stakeholders, possible stakeholders for the project. So that's what the team are focused on. Actually, you know, when we received the award, it was something that was really important to us. Working on this project, the whole idea is: okay, what can we do with our entry that will help the effort that we put in, help a project be more viable or actually have some future? So that's what the next step is. And we're excited to keep talking with the community and the people that we've met in Taunton to see what's possible. 
 
David Taylor  
Well, many congratulations again, it looks like a really interesting idea. And hopefully, it'll be an even more interesting scheme that gets actually built sometime in the next - I don't know - five years, would you say? 10 years? Optimistic?
 
Jonny Buckland  
Yeah, let's hope for five years. That would be great! (laughs)
 
David Taylor  
Thank you so much for talking to me, Jonny. And congratulations again.
 
Jonny Buckland  
Thank you, David. Lovely to chat.


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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