Monday, July 14, 2008


New offices at Maling Square. See post below for details
of Newcastle's already extensive stock of empty offices.

A new development looms over Stepney Bank.

Battlefield (a.k.a. the City Stadium) overlooks the Ouseburn Valley; indeed, was built over it in the late nineteenth century. The Ouseburn was until recently a scene of industrial activity and associated pollution. A lead factory was once a prominent feature of the Lower Valley. Today there is no single activity which defines the Valley. A large scrap metal facility; a national centre for the Children's Book; a stables for the promotion of horse riding; a floor carpet outlet; a music and entertainment venue; a 'city farm'; a fine art print studio; numerous small businesses. The variety of enterprises are matched by the variety of buildings, some dating back to the earliest days of the valley's occupation, some brand new. Several old buildings have been given a a face lift or adapted to new purposes such as the National Centre for the Children's Book. By the late 20th century, the Lower Ouseburn began to attract the far-sighted, especially creative people; a theatre company set up in the Cluny, a former warehouse, and a pattern familiar from other cites of creative minded people seeing the 'hidden potential' so-called run down areas resulted. 

The Ouseburn Trust
has helped establish the district's credentials as a centre for creative endeavour through a combination of regeneration and recovery. Access to the city of Newcastle is via the Quayside, itself the focus of ambitious and (mostly) successful regeneration. It the case of the Quayside the impetus was provided by commercial drive; few old buildings survive. Instead a fresh start produced some striking designs, though subsequently the architecture has been markedly utilitarian, and a dilution has occurred. New projects are less post-modern than opportunist. (Further west along the river at Forth Banks new buildings have sprung up which lack any visual reference point except 'corporate Mediterranean hotel'.)

There are alarming signs that the opportunists have Ouseburn in their sights. The attractions are obvious. The 'business model' is well tested and practically writes itself. Artistic and community enterprises make attractive (and amiable) neighbours. The sheer variety of building types also are attractive to many, especially the young. They are 'trendy'. Once the pioneers 'break the soil' as it were – usually with public money – the developers follow, falling over themselves to grab as much as possible and move on. Democratically the local authority ought to provide the check upon them. However, in recent years successive governments have made the process easy for speculative developers and harder to resist. It fact most local authorities will not take steps to block developers since bearing subsequently the entire legal costs can be so onerous. In effect many undesirable schemes – undesirable in the sense that the proposal cuts through existing plans or conservation area objectives – get through by brute force.

There ought to be some common sense applied here. It is so obviously in the interests of all that development and re-generation go forward together and at a steady pace. Sudden over-kill will jeopardise everyone's investment, both of financial and human resources. Do the 'men in the white Porches' get it? I doubt very much if they do. One cloud on their skyline presently is the current 'credit crunch' and its associated economic problems. This may force speculators to re-think their commitment, always a pragmatic affair: How much can I make? 

My own guide to these matters is the largely forgotten architectural critic
Ian Nairn (1930–1983). I read Nairn's London Observer column years ago  and discovered in him those sympathies for relationships which helped me appreciate the built environment. His warnings – he coined the term "Subtopia" as a portmanteau word to cover his most pressing concerns about the negative impacts of planning – seem prescient. Alas, much of what he wrote is out of print. Nairn I am certain would have lots to say about Ouseburn. The different flavours, facets and prospects which are contained within the small compass of the Valley. I very much hope these can survive the present scramble.

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