Thursday, April 8, 2010

Saving Grace

In her newly published architectural guide Newcastle and Gateshead † I noticed editor Grace McCombie had included a citation for Vale House, 'Jesmond' Vale.

This is what she writes:

"A well proportioned tower block, Vale House, Landsdowne Gardens, can be seen to the s[outh]: 1966-68 by Douglass Wise & Partners with the City Housing Architect (D. Cunningham). Uncluttered white surfaces with a contrasting black central recessed strip at the centre of the two shorter sides. Poured profile concrete panels here were formed using shuttering designed by Derwent Wise, brother of Douglas." (McCombie 2009, page 245).

Vale House is, in fact, dire.

Created in the era of "Mr Newcastle", T. Dan Smith, Vale House, with, or, perhaps after heavy duty treatment during on-going refurbishment, now less 'designs' by brother Derwent, must be heaven to live in just for the view (but no pets and no gardens).

It is said that an acquaintance came upon the great William Morris in the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower. Morris had fumed against the 'ugliness' of the Eiffel Tower, so this meeting was something of a surprise. "Why, Morris! What are you doing here?" "It is the only place in Paris where I do not have to look at the Eiffel Tower" came the reply. Unfortunately, we all have to gaze at Vale House, an otherwise private residence.

Vale House exemplifies a defiance, a defiance of observable facts. Set down like a massive stump it denies. It detracts. It can do nothing else. Given the evidence of war torn Beirut or Sarajevo, such structures as this can survive artillery shells and firestorms. We are stuck with Vale House and several more like it scattered like plot markers around the city for a very long time.

I fantasise – why not? – that these tower blocks might be re-invented in some way. Greenery dangling off them in swathes; or, grotesque gargoyles adorning the crown. Pinnacles, as if from some Gothic pile, sticking up high into the sky. In other words, forget "well proportioned" and go for the berserk. If some exotic flying creatures, eagles or storks – I'm not fussy – could be enticed to set up home atop my re-hashed Disneyland folly, all the better.

That said, McCombie is on the side of the angels. Her text is a model of restraint and her occasional plaintive regret for the enormities practised upon this city by planners from the 60s on, is not allowed to distract from what remains still to be cherished and hopefully, maintained. But it says something that in the 21st century in Newcastle, famed Georgian home of the Industrial Revolution, an apologetic tone of supplication is the best for which one can hope by way of argument. And one is certainly needed.

The city has embarked on an orgy of spec building in an around the city centre which promises (threatens) to be the equal to the days when poured concrete was the hottest thing in architecture.

Newcastle and Gateshead. Pevsner Architectural Guides, Yale University Press 2009. ISBN 978–0–300–12664–8.

To end with, these two images of Ouseburn taken late on a Spring afternoon. Birds singing (and scrapping!) on all sides.

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