Monday, July 30, 2012

Cruddas Park photographs

A slideshow of a selection of photographs taken recently of the Cruddas Park demolition and re-vamped tower blocks. The weather was in keeping with our lost summer.

Friday, July 27, 2012

New for new old: Cruddas Park redux

Visiting an apartment in one of deified architect Le Corbusier's most famous schemes, art critic Robert Hughes was amused to find the interior at odds with the severe Modernist principles of the building that contained it. The sharp angularities and 'truth to materials' (concrete) were not for the occupant. Frills, tassels and decorative patterning – kitsch and tat in other words – were everywhere on view. The principles began and ended on the drawing board.

This mismatched zeal – evangelicalism one might call it – was at the heart of the problems that beset the re-development of Cruddas Park in Newcastle's West End in the late sixties. It has resulted in confusion, disruption and finally, an expensive failure. Today the new Cruddas Park is coming down; or, most of it.

I recall well being shown Cruddas Park from afar as I waited on the platform at Newcastle Central Station to catch a train south at the end of my first visit. "No architect would live there" was my verdict. I had seen similar high rise complexes in and across south London and heard of the dislocation, alienation and health problems that afflicted occupants. Crime too.

Cruddas Park is sited in what was once the wealthiest suburbs of Newcastle, High Elswick. Today this area's past is best appreciated in what remains. A few old buildings and evidence of vanished ones in railings and stone walls left behind. But to get the real measure of the district's past perhaps the best place to look are its cemeteries. Huge ornate and Victorian tombs mark the passing of the rich elite whose vast houses dotted Rye Hill and High Elswick. Below, alongside the River Tyne, were the factories and industrial strength that supplied the wealth to pay for the grand homes.

Two long wars and industrial decline put paid to that. By the end of the Second World War the decline was absolute. There would be no coming back.

At the Second World War's end in Britain a brave new world based on more egalitarian thinking replaced privilege. The Welfare State ushered in not just a health service and improved schooling but opportunities in govenance for a generation that had been marginalised and ignored beforehand, women and men of modest backgrounds who found the doors to the Town Hall were open and they had the keys in their hands. Among them was T. Dan Smith.

I have written elsewhere about Smith so will not go over the ground again. He is still a controversial figure; for many, a villain who had a deserved and mighty fall into disgrace, to others a failed leader of brilliance, mostly misunderstood. The new Cruddas Park scheme of the sixties had been one of Smith's ways to re-imagine Newcastle. His chosen tool was Modernist architecture. He sought to re-invent the city, to wrest Victorian and Georgian Newcastle into the 20th century and, as I see it, away from its visible past, draped in memories of class superiority, of birth and status. Many others had the same dream at that time.

The problem was that Modernism's founders were no less intent on privilege than those they replaced, albeit somewhat differently focused – the "life of the mind" – rather that plutocracy. These leading figures of the European avant garde were, in reality, as distanced from the lives of 'ordinary men and women' as the Victorian magnates whose empty and vandalised houses were pulled down to make way for the building of high rise flats (with all 'mod-cons') such as Cruddas Park. The people from the Victorian terraces that combed the steep sides of Scotswood in row upon row were decanted into 'homes in the sky' for their eventual and assured 'improvement'. What happened was the destruction of one community and the creation of a dysfunctional one. Within a few years the problems steadily mounted, exhibiting themselves in numerous ways; private and social. Finally, all these added up to one big problem. Initially, planners blamed the people. Increasingly the people blamed the planners.

Across Britain these social problems were tackled in numerous ways. Specialist teams – youth workers, community artists, health care centres and social clubs tried to knit people together and tackle the chronic sense of neglect and marginalisation. Structural issues – condensation was a continuing problem for many schemes – were 'dealt with', again and again. But finally, decades after the dawn of this new age, the dispensation of fitted kitchens and inside toilets was found not to have produced the one thing the whole enterprise had set out to achieve: A settled and happy community.

Acknowledging that fact required a new generation and the realisation that there is not a bottomless pit of money to throw at chronic housing problems. Now Cruddas Park has been re-developed once again. In the process, many of the blocks are being demolished. Apparently, money to re-furbish all the blocks was not to be had. Whether entirely by circumstance or design I wonder. The benefit will be to have another chance to build Jerusalem.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Uses of Culture

An article on the B.B.C. website tries to summarise the impact of investments in arts venues on towns as diverse as Middlesbrough, Margate and of course, Gateshead. Was the money well spent and has it had an impact? The questions come as the first of these regional mega-schemes, the Baltic contemporary arts centre, marks its tenth anniversary this month. Read the full article here.

The correspondent seems convinced that for an ex-industrial town such as Gateshead (who made the effort that Newcastle has been happy to embrace across the Tyne following its own calamitous efforts in the public art arena) the investment has produced real benefits. Visually, I think there can be no question that this "Bilbao" effect has succeeded in changing, at least in part, the face of what is simply a brutally ugly 60s road scheme with a run down town centre. The message the article conveys about a similar attempt to 're-brand' Middlesbrough is less clear cut. Middlesbrough's MIMA has shown some very high quality work, but is hampered by its position. In contrast, on my visits to the Baltic, I've noticed how the often stunning views over the Tyne Gorge and river far below entrance visitors to the upper floors more than what's in the galleries. The nesting Kittiwakes on the building's narrow ledges at eye level and their tiny downy young were the focus of much interest on my last visit.

In truth, the arts were useful to developers. Attempts to lure commercial enterprises to take the place of jobs lost in heavy industry, engineering and the like were largely unsuccessful due to profound economic realities. Culture was a useful tool to help "transform perceptions", but only if the agencies were sincere and 'in it' for the right reasons. I believe this to be true of Gateshead; there is a consistent pattern to the investment focus. Others have seen the arts boom of the late 20th century as merely useful.

I found out for myself how shallow this could be when I spoke to the former head of the recently defunct government quango, One North East, Mr Jonathan Blackie. At a public forum Mr Blackie made it clear to myself and others present that he regarded the arts as an undesirable distraction from his true calling – retail. He may have been a promoted above his abilities estate agent – unkind as that is to consider – but the ambition to turn Newcastle into High Street U.K., a chic consumer-borrowing driver of economic prosperity, failed; some of the empty shops are now being let at 'peppercorn' rents to arts organisations and collectives rather than stand forlorn and empty shells ... Happily, Mr Blackie has gone off to higher things, hopefully where his enthusiasm for shopping will find its outlet.

Meanwhile ...

The Ouseburn Festival is coming.  21st & 22nd July. I hope the weather behaves itself.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Rain, rain, go away ...

Fed up by being forced indoors day in and day out by rain and grey clouds, I walked down to the Lower Ouseburn on an errand; I didn't take my camera. The new build at Portland Road was noisily continuing; a great high metal box in which to house more students. La Gabbia, an Italian restaurant hidden away on the side road to Stepney Bank has closed down. The students who have moved into the surrounding halls of residence are mostly Chinese. That fact and the recession might explain why. A new antiques and 'vintage' place has opened next to the car repair workshop. Further on, I looked at the railway bridge for any sign that the work is coming to an end. None. Work on restoring the bridge has been going on for over a year now. A workman sauntering across the road did not seem the 'approachable type' so I didn't stop to ask when. It has been so long now I have almost forgotten what the bridge looks like.

The East Coast Mainline Byker Bridge 
before being shrouded (2011)

Many walls of buildings on the Lower Ouseburn road covered with black curlicue graffiti. "California [something]" was a favourite motif judging by the number of times it had been applied to walls and doors. The restored house, a lone survivor from the heyday of this industrialised valley in the 19th century, standing alone and as yet unoccupied on its corner spot, has been graffitied as well; one or two of the 'art' kind applied to a shutted doorway and a window. A pair of Bullfinches flew over the road. A mother gave up encouraging her toddler son to follow and carried him to her car.

A new (to me) building has gone up next to the Ouseburn facing the city road bridge. In keeping with trends, this one has a bespoke name – The Toffee Factory. Was there ever one such here? By the lead works? Factory is somehow oddly inappropriate. Not oddly enough? To my eye this building isn't exactly offensive. There are somethings I like, principally the brickwork, which uses a modern (expensive) rusticated brick type that suits the situation. But large flat  coloured panels in baby sick green have been applied on the upper parts facing the main road. About as restful as a poke in the eye. Below, on the Ouseburn level, fronting the building is one of those car parks and 'hard garden' areas with stainless steel tubes for traffic bollards and slippery-at-all-times 'marble' steps, finished off with handrails and Scandinavian wood and tubular stainless steel benches arranged with views over the narrow and still stubbornly muddy Ouseburn. It has super safe 'corporate culture' written all over it. The skyline to the west, the city horizon punctuated still by spires, that too reflects the consolidation of corporate architecture; even distant Gateshead College across the Tyne peeping out from behind the soulless Jury's Inn hotel, looks like a business centre; maybe that's what it is.

Yet, by walking a few yards back into the Valley comes a welcome view of dereliction: A fragment of a standing brick wall encasing a piece of old pipe, left behind for some forgotten reason; a sprawling patchwork of cement of different ages forming a hard standing, invaded now by buddleia and ruderals. A bird chirped from the rank stream side vegetation beyond the undeveloped wasteland that was the reason for the over budget Lower Ouseburn barrage and for a moment I though of Reed Buntings; impossible here. The Lower Ouseburn remains then, for while longer, a mixture of wreck and opportunism.

I walked up the steep hill to Byker past the scrap yard gates, a marvel of neglect, past the battlements of the Byker Wall, that, contrariwise, as it deteriorates further, unlike most things, is actually less and less interesting. Glimpsed inside the infamous fish-paste and chocolate camouflage pattern walls. What an dismal place, a failed 'people's project' indeed. Shambolic, it ought to come down as once the Council bravely proposed. It is, of course, Listed and lauded to the skies by distant architectural authorities. I suppose the test of any such building is, would its supporter's live there? Well, would they?