Monday, December 22, 2008

Fifty years and counting

In what will be my last post of the year I would like to write about a subject tangental to the coming destruction of the City Stadium cum Battlefield open space by agents of the Newcastle Upon Tyne City Council.

For the past fifty years Newcastle City Council has had a truly remarkable record in town planning. In that time it has achieved a consistent record of failure in all it has done.

From a starting point of presiding over what the then embryonic Civic Trust described as one of the finest Georgian – Victorian cities in England (i.e. world), it has worked hard to inflict a train of destruction upon this heritage and replaced it with warmed over mediocrity. What was once remarkable, civic and exemplary has been replaced by the kind of facade building which has blighted many provincial English cities. Set down in this city today, a stranger might wonder where they were, or even in what part of north western Europe. What one sees all around is now just a kind of wallpaper, found anyway.

The Central Motorway Scheme cut through the heart of the city. Presiding city boss T. Dan Smith (known as "Mr Newcastle") called this programme of sacking the city as building a "Brasilla in the North", where elegant squares and residential streets would be re-created as motorway flyovers. Smith was the first in a long line of the over-promoted taking unstoppable powers to themselves to wreck all they surveyed in the 'capital of the north east'. In Smith's case a desire to govern as a semi-autonomous regional potentate may have been inspired by early life Communist sympathies or have some deeper, psychological, cause, one which expressed itself in an orgy of demolition and gimcrack building projects. However, whatever his failings, he was at the end something of a character; the faceless, bloodless, apparatchiks who followed him were less memorably corrupt.

Eldon Square was once a graceful Georgian square, Grade II* Listed buildings standing in the centre of Newcastle close to the Grey Monument. Smith had Eldon Square demolished, except for part along one short side, to make way for a twenty storey high hotel which was never built. Later the site was taken over and expanded in stages to provide the large sprawling complex known as the Eldon Square (sic) Shopping Mall. This is less architecture than a machine to take money off shoppers.

These actions helped to frame the twin ideas that here was a city ripe for speculative developers and that in building terms, the past was expendable. Grey Street, long recognised as the major achievement of architect John Dobson has been mostly preserved and acts as a kind of fig leaf to the city council's rapacious planning policies and lack of judgement. So long as 'we' have Grey Street, the legend goes, 'we' are preserving the best of the past. Meantime, trees have been felled and parks and quiet streets destroyed in order to facilitate the private motor car.

I well remember the impressive Victoria Square, a grand leafy presence just north of the city centre. This was knocked down to make way for the Central Motorway scheme. Within years an underground railway – the Tyneside Metro system – was up and running, rendering the Central Motorway unnecessary; a decade later still the Western By-Pass obviated the need for traffic to traverse Gateshead and Newcastle on its way north or south. For the space of a few years only was the destruction of much irreplaceable heritage required. 

Smith has gone but his shade and legacy remain, even though some of it has been demolished and rebuilt again, as are parts of Eldon Square today. After T. Dan Smith, the idea prevalent in Newcastle is that the city must be re-built in some far-fetched comparison with a distant model of modernity: Chicago, Milan, Brazilla, Venice – the list has never been definitively written, and each new twist of electoral fashion produces the same dissatisfaction with plain old Newcastle as she was built by men and women who believed in something. 

At this point I have to make a confession. As  child I recall how thrilling it was when, watching a movie about the 'Spanish Main', a moment came when some strange sailing ship suddenly ran up the 'Jolly Roger' pirate flag and what had seemed so innocent was suddenly transformed. That moment has come.

I am an unashamed enthusiast for modern architecture. I believe some of the architects working now have ideas and inspirations to transform our experience of the built environment in wholly positive ways. New innovative buildings have, learning from Early Modernist failures, gained knowledge on how to make public spaces work. An inspired new building can transform our lives, showing us how to look again at the world around us and changing our perceptions of both ourselves and the places we thought we knew.

I believe this building is one such.

The idea for the form of the new University of Northumbria Business and Design School is based on the two halves (hemispheres) of the human brain.

Note the Central Motorway inchange in forground. This 1960s era scheme smashed through much of the inner city suburbs of Sandyford and Brandling Park, taking Victoria Square with it.

Critic John Grundy thought that this area around Manors (less than half a mile from Battlefield) was  worth coming to look at because it was so completely awful; a perfect demonstration of what a piecemeal approach to planning (sic) can achieve.

Not any more. The new University of Northumbria Business and Design School Building at Manors has made people to whom I have shown it sit up and gasp. Whatever else it is it is not mediocre. Like some strange vehicle – airship? – it occupies its dominating position with aplomb. In sunlight it sparkles like crystal; in rain it seems like a kind of grey Uluru (a.k.a. Ayer's Rock), peeping above the trees planted to screen the mutiplex cinema which formerly stood on this site. A space age building, it sits at ease within this previously barren landscape and has actually helped to point up the 'lost' qualities of the sprawling vista, not least the view south towards the Tyne Bridge and the expansive sky in all directions overhead.

What has this to do with Battlefield?

I think that the whole area stretching from this impressive building eastwards to the edge of the Byker district, and spanning the Ouseburn, is one of the most fascinating in the city and one in which I think the possibilities for development are rich, realistic and challenging. I will discuss these at greater length in due course, but I will end this post by stating my own position.

I do not think there is a contradiction in wanting to preserve places where leaves collect on footpaths, birds build their stick nests and building for development. It can and has been done elsewhere –  a fact, which when I pointed examples of it out to a Council employee, lowered the temperature of our conversation. People say, oh well, you cannot have progress and leave things as they are. No, but you can improve them. One has to have imagination and the will power to achieve the best of both. For too long Newcastle has had to settle for a very poor standard. This must end.

Best Wishes for Christmas
and a Peaceful New Year!

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