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.

No comments: