Wednesday, June 29, 2011

More than a fig leaf

Studentcastle Revisited

It ought not to work; work in the sense of being more than a collection of ill-judged or considered solutions to a problem. After all, who cares? Along the front side of Newcastle Quayside a set of facades has done well enough. Behind these, piled into a narrow strip between two main roads, what is to be gained or lost?

I do not know if such considerations played any part in planning thinking. What I sense (rather than know for a fact) is that what has happened has, in some haphazard way produced something more than bleakness. Unintentional it maybe but it demonstrates something about the way cities grow and overpower mere plans or concepts.

I walked about on that day surprised at my own surprise. I dodged from patch of shade to patch of shade in the standing heat of a hot day. Traffic, windows often down, stopped and flowed at the lights packed like a forest around the major junctions, colours hard to read in the glare. People, not all students I judged, sauntered past me as if they were expecting nothing less than Mediterranean skies. Caf├ęs offered more than snacks and cold drinks; they gave shelter. I noted one or two enterprises that have emerged to take control of the potential offered by several hundreds, perhaps a thousand now, of students resident in the halls that have been constructed around and about. Some of the new buildings are also new city flats and apartments for residential clients.

Original stone parapet over the East Coast Main Line. 19th c.

Here, beside the East Coast Main Line, rises a brightly adorned block, like as if IKEA had gone into property development. On the other side of the bridge stands the blank walls of the first wave of apartments to go up here abouts. Jump forward from De Stijl to Minimalism; the high security prison variety.

Not that variety had much input. In front of me now stands a building that looks at first glance to be a resurrected warehouse. The colour is deep co-coa brown. It dawns on inspection that this is a fine homage to the district's roots in commerce. It would look good anywhere. It sits on a triangular site that it owns as of right.

Opposite, on the farther side of the street in deep shadow, is a restored building, sadly as of today, unoccupied. Both have true class, and turn this stretch of Melbourne Street into a 'place'. Standing there in the deep shadows cast by the intense sunlight, a feeling of having arrived somewhere was palpable.

I wandered on and found an authentic Victorian or Edwardian corner building I suspect was once something more than it is now, bathed in that intense light. A survivor.

I went through a series of side streets off the main roads. Here there are earlier public housing schemes, judging from their design, dating from the 50s or early 60s. Trees that must have been under threat from the date they were planted out have come through and now cast shadows over pavements, stucco walls and balconies. An old man (well, older than me) called down to a friend (neighbour?) who was offering to run an errand.  Peace and quiet reigned. Perhaps it was just too much effort to make noise.

Then I walked up a kind of courtyard to a parking place where plantins had grown up through paving slabs and stood huge and flowering in the heat of midday; I was reminded of walking in Spain; there, even the parched places had flowers.

The western curve of St Dominic's transept was high above me, a glimpse of some Renaissance inspiration.

And then I found myself cooling under the spreading branches of a huge and luxurious fig tree.

Images, together with descriptions for this walk, are to be found on the site's Flickr feed.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Oh, dear ...

I have mentioned before the conversation - conversation maybe be overstating things a little - with the chief executive of a soon to be dissolved quango* about the role played by the arts in the regeneration of the inner city; how I received a disdainful reply, spoken over my head to a captive audience behind me, to the effect that in his opinion artists were undesirables with strange and perverse ways. There, so he thought, matters rested. He turned his back on me and struck up a more agreeable conversation with someone like himself in a suit.

Now comes this from the B.B.C. web site (My emphasis added.)

In Newcastle, a condemned, non-descript five-storey former solicitors' office block in the city centre has been commandeered by artists for use as studios. There will be 65 when the building is full.
Inside, the managers' cubicles have been occupied by fine artists, while the open-plan areas are littered with sculptural debris and half-finished large-scale creations.
Swathes of the generic blue carpet squares have been ripped up, the bog-standard white ceiling tiles displaced, and the building's past is further obscured by the jumbles of tools, electrical equipment, books and materials scattered around the floor. Artists in the NewBridge Project pay £15 a week for a studio. The project has also set up a ground floor gallery in an old housing association office.The initiative is run by Will Marshall and Will Strong, two Newcastle University fine art graduates, who say it has helped the local creative culture by allowing more graduates to stay in the city. One of the unique things about Newcastle is that there is this wealth of empty space," Will Strong says. There is a wealth of huge business premises slap-bang in the city centre that you can do very interesting projects from, rather than just being these scars on the city.

The reality is that Newcastle is over supplied with offices; there are two blocks within a short walk from where I sit; one of which, from external appearance at least, is beyond further commercial use without extensive and expensive refurbishment. Newer blocks have been erected in the past decade that still have no tenants. As much as I regret this circumstance, I have wonder who thought it was a good idea to add to an already saturated sector?

Full story here.

* In case you do not understand, 'quango' stands for "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation". Supposedly an arms length way of governing, these grew and grew in numbers and size down the years and are now being culled. The purposes of many were obscure, but the top jobs were lucrative for their holders.

Friday, June 17, 2011


Recently someone invited me out to lunch. Rare enough to make me punctual, even slightly ahead of myself. A fine day and I fancied a walk. It took me through part of the city I've wanted to view for months but never got around to.

I do not have a name for this area. It is a zone, one of those particularly apt urban expressions for a place that has no identity excepting the lack of one; a place one hurries through on the  way to somewhere else. It lies between districts I have covered on this blog, fringing the Quayside in central Newcastle, itself now well known and rapidly becoming the public face of the new Newcastle following a classic bottom up development in the 90s. For many today, the Quayside is Newcastle.

Just behind the glamourised waterfront is a less well known set of streets and buildings which have rapidly been added to in the past year. Indeed it is the fastest growing area of the city, fuelled by an expansion of halls of residence for the two universities: Northumbria, the newest of the two in the city and the older, 'red brick' Newcastle University. These  new halls now comprise the major buildings in this strip of city sandwiched between the Tyne and the main road to the coast through Byker, on the eastern edge of the Lower Ouseburn Valley.

On the day of my lunch appointment the sun was shining bright. I was expecting to be critical of this "hand over fist" development. Yet I wasn't; could not be. The buildings individually it must be allowed, are not great. Most are down right mediocre. Yet ... Somehow, even a conglomeration like this can be greater than its parts. High up on the side of one of the new tenements for undergraduates a sign proclaimed 'Studentcastle'. It seemed right.

View of the new halls of residence for Northumbria University on New Bridge Street; buildings so trivial they are not even banal. Local services for residents comprise of bus stops. The street is busy with through traffic and essentially without the a sense of street life for which one one might hope. It's just a set of large dormitories, replacing early Victorian era villas of some architectural merit, constructed sometime between 1820s and 30s. A few remain further up the street, languishing under business premises signs and or layers of garish masonry paint.

Famous for 'posh nosh', Sainsbury's have at least moved in on the business opportunity presented by the captive audience on the doorstep. It represents the only retail food outlet locally, and one of the first developments of its kind in this district since the last century.

More thoughts and reflections in due course. Meanwhile a slideshow taken from my web site's Flickr feed.

Studentcastle: Sheildfield

Studentcastle: Newbridge Street.

Studentcastle: Manors to Melbourne Street.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

If Money Is Your God ...

News today that 'green space', urban green space and all, is good for health and wealth. Fancy that!

A new report to government has arrived that states there is an economic aspect to green spaces. Moreover, people who have access to green space have better health prospects. Quite how anyone works out how much going for a walk is worth I do not know.

Professor Bob Watson, chief scientific adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is quoted as saying –
"Urban green space, for example, is unbelievably important - if affects the value of houses, it affects our mental wellbeing.
"This report is saying 'this has got incredible value, so before you start converting green space into building, think through what the economic value is of maintaining that green space' - or the blue space, the ponds and the rivers."

More details are here on the B.B.C.'s web site: Link