One of the most impressive instances of Georgian town planning and architecture is the John Bath townscape created by John Wood in the 18th century. But how does this compare to the classically-informed streets found in the central parts of Newcastle upon Tyne? Most people will argue that those streets offer less elegance and a gripping experience than the 800ft-long Newcastle Central Station train shed and the Grainger Street towards John Dobson’s curving. Is Newcastle architecturally unfashionable? If yes, what is responsible for the absence of modern architectural touch?
We are on course to witness an entirely new and refreshing master plan for the university quarter, including the urban connective tissue surrounding it, as designed by Sir Terry Farrell. However, what seems to be more popular are the Winking Eye bridge designed by the award-winning architect Wilkinson Eyre, the Baltic art gallery in Gateshead, and, more recently, the Sage Music Centre designed by Lord Foster. But all of these highlight their individual beauties and nothing of Gateshead.
Most outlanders see Gateshead as a town-sized hare and popular representative of the modern architecture capital of the North. This is not unconnected to the many press releases and high-resolution images of Gateshead available. What about Newcastle? Well, it is commonly described as a big-city tortoise comprising sublime early 19th-century buildings and the big but bland architectural moves that eclipsed the Sixties and Seventies.
Architects in Newcastle upon Tyne and architecture in the Toon have always been a big deal for people in the North East. There are two pointers to that fact. The first is the Performing Arts Centre at Newcastle college, which was the work of RMJM practice – a special Scottish architectural outfit. The second is the Baring wing of Northumbria University’s former poky art gallery. Interestingly, none of these two can be referred to as architectural icons. Do not be surprised if you fail to find either on hip postcards advertising the architectural beauty of Newcastle to the outside world. But we can agree that the RMJM’s building is an excellent example of bolt-on architecture.
Newcastle has adopted the same developmental route for the last four decades, i.e., the bolt-ons. The remarkable masonry, elegantly curvaceous vistas, and the Georgian core have managed to survive the scarifying north-easterlies over the last two centuries and ultimately became the big ideas that transformed parts of Newcastle into what we can call an architectural bunkerdom. We may finally see, although gradually, the modern architecture in the Toon with the new performance centre and gallery. These will be a refreshing break from the usual pyrotechnics or cultural engineering. Cultural engineering is trendy in Newcastle—in fact, there is hardly any other city centre in Britain that has been more decisive about its socio-architectural makeover and urban change after the war.
Let’s mention the good works of T Dan Smith, the leader of Newcastle City Council for about four years, and John Poulson, another architect in Newcastle. For Smith, the Toon is as good as a new Milan, a new Manhattan, or a Brasilia of the north. He was known to have managed the city using an American-style city boss while cruising around in its Jaguar with a license plate: DAN 68. He took major decisions singlehandedly and drove the urban change that led to “a city free and beautiful.” He pushed for the provision of 90m pounds—an astronomical sum as of then—to make things happen and quickly.
Smith was also the head of the regional development corporation. He later found himself in the middle of a corruption scandal involving Poulson. Another party in the scandal was Andrew Cunningham, a former leader of Durham County Council. As a result, Smith was jailed for six years in 1974. He later released an autobiography in which he described Newcastle, but in the images and imaginations of Rome, Florence, and Athens. In his words, Smith hoped to “see the creation of a 20th-century equivalent of Dobson’s masterpiece. We’ve got to talk in terms of new cities. Just as in the Industrial Revolution, we (Newcastle) were ahead of our time, and in the age of leisure, we ourselves will also be leading the way.”
Although that tumultuous period has come and gone, the legacy remains to date. You will still find the inner-city trunk roads, the overhead walkways, the metro, Cruddas Park, the Swan House development, the Byker Wall Council Housing, and the central Eldon shopping precinct. All of these, as ugly and overcast as they may be, were part of the new brutalism that hit the architectural and arts scene in the previous centuries. Most people will label this period as intellectually and aesthetically fractious. The heroes then were visibly against Ludwig Wittgenstein’s renowned philosophical proposal, which states that "it is clear that, however different from the real world an imagined one may be, it must have something - a form - in common with the real world."
Newcastle’s interests in risky civic forms have always been there, even before Smith. However, the blue touchpaper remains the Civic Centre, designed in the 50s by George Kenyon, a city architect. The structure introduces the Scandinavian-style structure into the heart of Newcastle. In 1968, Smith funded a 4.8m pounds project to create another milestone in the architectural timeline of the Toon: a 12-storey administration tower, the council chamber sitting on a cast-iron pilot, a copper-capped lantern raised 250ft above the ground, and an ample-spaced courtyard. In terms of architecture, we can say that Newcastle’s clock has struck 13 (according to Orwell’s opening sentence in 1984). The northern-renaissance versions of Winston Smith’s anonymous Victory Mansions championed by T Dan Smith became more prominent in the city, both in glass and concrete.
How is the new Newcastle faring?
Are we about to witness a repeat of the T Dan Smith era? Well, Terry Farrell might be a different person, but a part of him must see reasons for Smith’s interest in improving the city. Facelifting the central university quarter will be Farrell’s first significant recasting of the Newcastle urban space since the 70s. The project is expected to span several years. While that is ongoing, the Toon will build more and dream more. Down near the Tyne, right in the west end of the city, we may see ground-breaking architectural moves. This will change the popular “written-off” tag the Scotswood district is known for, despite Richard Roger’s master plan. The RMJM’s performance academy at the Rye Hill Campus of Newcastle College kickstarted the 45m redevelopment plan to unite all the departments onto the site and create a new school of beauty, tourism, and sports.
The 21m pounds performance academy is expected to be home to a wide range of technical, recording, and performance spaces. There will be a second segment that will cover the core structure, creating a large, covered plaza. The goal here is simplicity mixed with effectiveness. RMJM, who were also associate architects on the new Scottish Parliament project, have created a tension that makes the simplicity dramatic. For example, when you get close to the steps up into the academy, you will have the admin block right over you. While this is a massive structure, the architects Newcastle adopted a translucent polycarbonate sheath and intense detailing to eliminate most of the structural grunt and weight. This also takes your focus away from the monolithic main block. Applicants now have one more reason to apply to this place, thanks to its hi-tech architectural appearance and a seamless fusion of the latest performance software and hardware.
The simplicity extends to the new Baring wing of Northumbria University’s art gallery. Architects Newcastle have made this a relatively quiet structure, with only a partially-glazed box fused onto one of the university’s main buildings. If we are talking dramatic, we might as well mention Nicolaus Widerberg’s unique elongated bronze figure and river facing St Mary’s Place.
Even more striking and unusual is Carey Jones’s gallery, which is attached to a library wing designed in 1969 when Smith was still in charge. It is still pleasing despite being unusual. You may have your reservations, but the volume of the Baring wing is outstanding because the architectural wheel has taken the site to where it is today.
All of these may not accurately reflect the publicised face of Gateshead. However, these Toon projects, sponsored by Northern Architecture and Newcastle City Council, tell a different and opposite story to Gateshead’s architectural medicine shows. The outcomes of clearly minor projects will be the most accurate way to assess the urban evolution in the streets on either side of the Tyne.
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