Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Venice of the North Part II


The day I walked around the Central Motorway (see Venice of the North Part I below for images) was cool but sunny. The trees planted beside the motorway where it slashes through Exhibition Park and Brandling Village were bright with fresh foliage; sunlight flashed on windscreens as cars and commercial vehicles passed by.

What could be the problem?

The Central Motorway was planned when car use in the United Kingdom was lower by far than today; particularly lower in the regions further away from the Home Counties. Ambitious to a degree, it was less a road system than a planning statement. It was a tool with which the small core of Newcastle city, old, refined and yes, faded it must be said, was to be made irrelevant. I remember on a first visit to Newcastle in 1971 seeing a large drawing headed 'Newcastle 2000?' in a window. It presented an isometric view of a city criss-crossed by broad highways spotted with the odd vehicle, flanked by numerous Modernist tower blocks; think Scalelectric and Lego. This was to be a completely new city, modern, clean and sharply proportioned, a break with the past in more ways than one.

As  child I remember going through grey and derelict streets - some spaces between dingy shops boarded over, above which growths of shrubs could be seen against scarred brickwork. Bombed out buildings. Together with my mother we climbed steps into some forbidding goverment office, huge dark and cold, to wait for 'our turn'. As I recall, we were there under sufferance. Post War England was still then a place where social degree counted. For ever after I have equated the sight of marble with the objectionable term 'knowing my place'.

T. Dan Smith's generation of socialists were determined to overthrow privilege and to build it out of sight. The association of a unjust and unwarranted social division with buildings is hard to grasp now; not then. The temples of the ruling class had to give way in a new democratic age, one best expressed in the Modern Movement in architecture. It is with that aim in mind I write about what went wrong.

The plans were never completed as conceived. It was evidently much easier to gain access to government funds for road building than to attract investors for commercial ventures; a few of today's many empty office blocks around the city date from this time, including one surviving 'vista blocker' stretching out over Pilgrim Street. Some money did flow into Newcastle. Marks and Spencer's store on Northumberland Street was built in this period.

The Central Motorway went ahead despite protests. The lovely Royal Arcade was demolished. The Holy Jesus Hospital building with its quaintly small brick, was cemented into a canyon of a prison surrounded by dual carriageways. A vast office block named Swan House was built partly to cover the throat of the Motorway as it led off in the direction of the Town Moor beyond Shieldfield, Sandyford, Brandling Park and Exhibition Park, a route that took it through Victoria Square. Completed it acts as a physical barrier between two halves of the city. As such it remains; inflexible and immovable now.

In the photographs I took on that day I made sure to record all the pedestrian routes from north of the road towards the city centre. All require walkers to enter tunnels. I am no longer young and I am not so small; but I always feel uneasy entering pedestrian tunnels; I do not suffer from claustrophobia either. It is however somehow a threatening experience. Walkers have no choice. It is this or a bus. Yet, in my early days living in the city a walk to work or study was popular and easy. Now pushed underground by cars, the experience seems less attractive; even on a sunny day in Spring.

I had to weave about to gain access to views of the motorway. It's branches cut in and over one another. The complex around Exhibition Park is particularly confusing; in a car in heavy traffic it can be decidedly alarming. A link to the city and the north combines with one going west to south. Huge concrete legs stride between grown trees. A slice of Brandling Park is linked to Exhibition Park by the largest of the motorway's underpass pedestrian tunnels, one that incorporates stairways to abandoned bus stops. Climbing up I found only broken glass, green slate marquetry walls daubed with anti-graffiti paint and a close up view of speeding traffic. Perhaps someone had a dream of crowds being dropped off here to attend rallies in what was left of Exhibition Park?

Later, beside the Great North (formerly Hancock) Museum, I found Lord Armstrong's statue glaring down from its plinth on the 'city' spur of the motorway and took his photograph. (See slideshow) He looks grim, even for an arms dealer. Unhappy? He might feel more so if he had been unlucky enough to have been placed next to Swan House. The southern end of the Central Motorway is certainly far less prepossessing; in fact it is a blighted, cheerless place in any weather. Abandoned by its corporate tenants last century, Swan House was converted into apartments and given a flashy contemporary name. It should have been demolished.

What is done is done. Roads have been widened, most recently around St Thomas' in the Haymarket. Of the remaining parts of the jig-saw of urban motorways planned to meet up here, there are currently no plans to complete. It seems unlikely anyone would try to do so now, much less likely they would find the public support Smith could count upon or buy. The days of T. Dan Smith are over. Guided only by a misplaced vision of equality, Smith did much damage to the city of his birth, even beyond the scope of the Central Motorway. Contrary to belief he did not profit from the schemes he laid in place, though others did. When I saw him in the flesh he was living out his time quietly in a tower block of quite intentionally inappropriate design for its setting, with, however, a great view of his one abiding legacy to Newcastle; the western spine of his 'grands projets' speeds past below.

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