Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tyneside Addenda

Me on Newcastle, Gateshead and Killingworth in BD. There are two very good things about this area which are not shared by many English cities. The first is, as mentioned, the planned centre - odd to have something this good named after a property developer, or to imagine that all this dark classicism was part of a speculative development - and Grainger was apparently not a very efficient speculator, running up massive debts and risks. Regardless, the end result is that, like Glasgow, Newcastle looks like a city that actually had an Enlightenment as well as industrial capitalism, something that certainly can't be said about Manchester or (pre-1953, post-1987) Sheffield. Squaring this with the city I have read about in Viz for the last 20 years is difficult, at least until you see the remarkable women with their minuscule skirts, enormous heels and imperviousness to cold, and their lunk-headed, shirt & chinos male charges, emerge at around 9pm. Nonetheless, even some awful Malls and Farrell's egregious 'Centre for Life' can't spoil the centre of Newcastle, and the best post-war parts of it - the Civic Centre, MEA House and its walkways - seem to fit into it neatly. Even the accidents have a certain serendipity. Viz:

The other great thing about the conurbation is the Metro, and it's amazing that it is this city - smaller than Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds - that has this basic urban amenity denied from all other British cities save Glasgow and the capital. It has more than a passing resemblance to the U-Bahn, with spacious, tile-clad subterranean stations at the centre and outright weirdness further out where it consumes earlier rail lines, such as the alternately painted and picturesquely rusting ironwork of Tynemouth. There might, perhaps, be some rebuilding of the UK's many closed rail lines soon, and we can only hope the Metro's curious combination of antique and futuristic serves as a model - not only because its one of the few still-unprivatised parts of our transport network, although that's not for want of trying. The Metro has lots of public art of varying quality. One station had this sign inside:

If it were only for this, and the succession of increasingly more powerful, more dizzyingly Constructivist bridges along the Tyne, culminating in the Tyne Bridge and the High Level Bridge, both of them better than any bridge over the Thames, the area would be worth visiting, and there's something insufferably patronising about the idea that a city like this needed to be made more like Bilbao/Barcelona/London (delete as appropriate). Our initial plan was to search for the city of T Dan Smith, and - although out of his immediate jurisdiction - this brought us to the New Town of Killingworth. This really is a deeply strange place, where the remnants of a suburban Modernism coexist with the familiar limbo of spec homes and malls - all of which replaced a series of linked towers Pevsner (or whoever was standing in on the Northumbria guide) likened to Metropolis, an office block on stilts and a modernist shopping centre - its current, timelessly boring incarnation had to efface something more interesting first. In the middle of the 'township' is the obligatory artificial lake, with on one side some small, incredibly narrowly planned houses by Ralph Erskine, with paths that could get you lost even in this small space, and on the other side the faded slickness of Ryder and Yates' Norgas House, below. The more famous building they did here is this place, which was across the road from a bus stop so we could contemplate it for some time. The fencing around it was taking no chances whatsoever.

The more interesting Erskine thing is obviously Byker Wall and environs, which in a cut line I described as the midpoint between Park Hill and FAT - as this is a Modernist monument based on montage and consultation rather than masterplanning's imperiousness, with odd leftover details from the slums it replaced forming the area's only really postmodernist element, but reatining a sweep, a confidence, modernity and interest in sublime scale combined with small-scale intimacy that housing from the '80s onwards would completely abandon. It's especially weird that it gets bracketed with the terminally dull housing association architecture of the 70s and 80s - this couldn't be further from the aesthetic cowardice of Coin Street and its ilk. And much as it would have been difficult by the 70s to see the utopian aspirations of Butskellist architecture, it's now hard to see the originality of Byker, as the formal language has been borrowed by all manner of horrors. But what was especially interesting about the area was the way the estate abuts what looks like the remnants of a canal, now landscaped into a pedestrian path towards the Tyne, inexplicably punctuated by these sheds (pigeon coops? Allotments?)

...which either borrowed the colours and styles used by Erskine or were borrowed by him. When you get out at the other end you're at this school, which was apparently designed as a gesture to the Japanese businessmen who regularly visited this allegedly provincial city in the late 19th century.

In Gateshead we went looking for the barely-clinging-on buildings by Owen Luder, largely designed by Rodney Gordon (I believe that's the appropriate circumlocution), such as the carpark, which looked incredible in the (torrential) rain, and the almost as staggering Dunston Rocket, which resembles no other tower I've seen. When we were looking for the tower's entrance we were stopped by a middle aged couple in their front garden, in the maisonettes which surround the tower. They asked if we wanted to take a pic of their front door, and we did. They were the at the last part of the estate to be cleared, and were not best pleased about being forced to move from where they'd lived for 26 years, and spoke well of the flats' space and how much they were liked after they were built. They said they'd been told they would have priority for being moved to the 'townhouses' that were being planned. Whether any council should be trusted on such a commitment is unlikely...Then we walked to the Wayne Hemingway-sponsored spec houses of 'Staiths South Bank', where luxury and individuality are enclosed by a gasworks, lots of industrial sheds and the ornamental ex-industry of the Dunston Staiths. If this bridge

was open we would have walked there directly, but not only was it fenced off, the area had a certain hint of dubiousness about it. Working Men's Clubs with extremely expensive looking cars parked outside. Of all the cities we've been to, this was the first where we got funny looks for taking photographs. Not hostile, but more 'not seen you in the Dun Cow'. We were intent on visiting the Metro Centre, largest mall in the EU, which we found almost charmingly dated - I went here at the age of 10ish and, even though I have no specific memories of it, I felt I'd been there a thousand times. It is marked by a wonderfully contradictory tension between two models of non-place. On the one hand, the theme park approach most popular in the 1980s, with the central 'Village' even featuring a Parish Chapel, the 'building' here with the green sign.

The land on which the Metro Centre is built is owned by the church, strongly supporting The Pop Group's claim that 'department stores are our new Cathedrals'. This ridiculousness has seemingly absolutely nothing in common with the Metro Centre's new bus station by Jefferson Sheard, a Northern firm who did some fantastic Brutalist things in '60s Sheffield.

This really did feel Cathedral-like in the sense of vast enclosure, while the Metro Centre itself, for all its hugeness, always feels poky and claustrophobic, always resists making the pedestrian aware of its scale. In that it's like the 'community architecture' with which Byker is inexplicably lumped, refusing to do any of the things with space and scale that you can do with the form, instead basically creating a series of rooms where you can shop and eat (we had a Tex-Mex buffet, incidentally). It's afraid of itself, of its own enormity. By comparison the bus station is a Fosterian canopy seemingly designed for the personal edification of Marc Auge, which was playing Elgar, loudly, and almost certainly as a means of dissuading youth from loitering there. The Metro Centre is not connected to the Metro transport system, and it's telling that, both built in the '80s, these two Metros describe the consumerist tedium we've inflicted on ourselves, and a possible way out.


Blogger Murphy said...

has an undeniably Proustian effect

What? It turns you into a delicate soul, crippled by asthma, jealousy and sexual cowardice?

Also, the edification of Auge... I agree, but as I've been going on about for ages now, don't spaces like this have a negative-sublime about them? A clean, shiny, over-sized dispiriting capitalist gloom?

12:37 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ha ha! Thanks for the picture of my flat!

3:07 pm  
Anonymous Lang Rabbie said...

Whilst not being quite as cynical as Murphy, I'm intrigued by what Proustian souvenir involontaire response was evoked by a visit to the Metrocentre?

What was the smell?

Was a certain Sotonian mall invoked?

And was the memory warmly nostalgic {in the classic dipping of a petite madeleine into your tea variety, or deeply repulsive?

11:54 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Memories of going round shopping malls were what was flooding, of course - and being a Sotonian that makes up around 80% of my childhood memories. The smell was of fibre glass, coke floats and ice cream factories. I wish it could have been something more neurasthenic. The tex-mex buffet also reminded me of the dinner where I was introduced to my Dad's soon-to-be second wife. Will that do...?

1:25 am  
Blogger Murphy said...

cynical, moi?

10:56 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Metro Centre is amazing!

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Blogger artista povera said...

The punctuation of the Byker Wall is by a former railway line running down to the once industrial river. The track also served passenger trains to and from Heaton. All was removed around the 1950s and the land lay idle for a few decades before the cycle lane/pathway was landscaped there. The sheds are mostly pigeon crees but also include a vegetable plot (allotment).

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House, below. The more famous building they did here is this place, which was across the road from a bus stop so we could contemplate it for some time. The fencing around it was taking no chances whatsoever.

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