Saturday, 15 June 2013

An afternoon in Newcastle/Gateshead

Work took me north the other day. I'm familiar with passing through Newcastle/Gateshead on the train, the high drama of the landscape, when approaching from the south mainly rolling, suddenly dropping away beneath the train, leaving you with that stunning view of the bridges and landscape beneath. But it's been any number of years since I last got off the train there.

I've said it before, and I'll probably say it again and again, but one of the things that is really striking about London is the lack of elevated positions. Apart from a few hills way out, the inner parts of London are flood-flat, a remnant of its marshy beginnings when much of it was neither land nor river. The normal experience of London, so punctuated by underground travel, is that of being hemmed in, with no terrain but buildings, and a sky with no real boundary to it. But coming from Glasgow, you're used to being able to see the hills that bound the city to either side, of being able to frame your location on a geological level. Newcastle seems to possess another quality entirely, where the buildings and landscape are almost hewn from the very same pale stone.

Where embankments, clifftops, facades and infrastructure fail to delineate themselves, become parts of each other.

Or occupy space in a completely inappropriate way, with the eaves of buildings almost kissing the bridges that thunder over.

I mean, what kind of thuggish futurism is this? Somewhere between the 19th century spatial adventure of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the now so reviled motorway flyover, this Jazz Age behemoth is an utter thrill to encounter.

The swing bridge over the Tyne was a project of William Armstrong, just one man who more or less embodied the 19th century. An engineer, inventor, a rational man of science, a good moral Christian, a millionaire philanthropist who made much of his money as an arms manufacturer, he was the renovator of Bamburgh Castle, a sublime medieval coastal fortress turned into a strikingly complex Victorian residence, and of course the builder of Cragside, that singular, sprawling, gadget-filled mock tudor country house out near Rothbury.

Newcastle is famous for its female population and their, shall we say, frugal attitude to clothing. Coming from Glasgow I'm used to seeing lines of women queuing up outside clubs on wet, windy, just above freezing evenings, each sporting little more than a vest, mini-skirt and possibly a light jacket held over their head to keep their hair dry, but elsewhere it is definitely the Tyneside lasses whose reputation precedes them. I hate to confirm stereotypes, but something was very odd while I was there - not only did the vast majority of the people out on the street seem to be at most 21 years old, but almost all of the women were totally playing up to the cliche, all out in denim hot-pants on what was by no means a warm day, while the boys all had their faded jeans and pastel coloured polo shirts on. They all seemed in good spirits, travelling in large groups, and strangely were all drifting in the same direction.     

I later found out that they were all going to a music festival that was on that day, but it was a very odd experience, like something out of Logan's Run where everyone over thirty is dead and the youth do nothing but frolic.

Lord Foster, Foster and Partners... what is to be done with them? The man and his firm have been so influential, have innovated in so many ways that it's almost a shame to be forced to hate some of their shitty buildings, but there's really no excuse for the Sage Gateshead to look like some kind of digitised maggot.

Overall the banks of the Tyne are one of the most complete examples of post-industrial regeneration, speculative culture, historically aggressive upmarketising. I was heading to the BALTIC centre, originally the flour mill, now of course converted into a large gallery. It doesn't need explanation, this regeneration lark, because by now it feels like we're in a whole new world entirely. It's been more than five years since the economic collapse began, and, you know, depending upon who you talk to this collapse may well be the 'big one', a perfect storm of money and work and food and technology and weather and everything, that'll certainly not eliminate the advances of modernity, but will choke off access to them for all but the tiniest little sliver of the super-elite, with the rest of us fighting for scraps outside the gates. But even the optimists concede that it's the worst economic crisis in a whole century, with still no real sign of anything like normality approaching any time soon. With this in mind, the last decade's optimistic post-industrial reclamations for culture already feel so very far away, a paradigm-shift ago.

A Matter of Life and Death

The millenium was a whole 13 years ago now, for example.

And can you see that blue and white and red thing popping up there on the horizon? That's the tallest building in the Byker development. Designed by Ralf Erskine, it might well be one of the most significant housing developments of the late 20th century, at least in Britain. Beginning construction at the turn of the 1970s, it spent over 20 years on site, with Erskine famously opening a community office for residents to take part in consultations regarding what would get built there. At the time the development was commencing it was totally against the grain for being colourful, brash, decorative and perhaps 'unserious', but its design was still effectively late-modern or brutalist in terms of massing and formal conceptions (deck access and so on). By the time it was complete it was abnormal for not being ironically vernacular, and indeed for being newly built social housing at all.

But twenty years later, after the millenium, the Erskine design language - through the bastardisation of his work at the Millenium Village down in Greenwich - would feed into one of the dominant modes of building housing in the UK. The pseudomodernism, IKEA modernism, CABEism, call it what you want, the apologetic materials and stunted massing, the attempts to pass off Britain's zombified culture of rentierism as European civic living, it was so often dressed up in a cobbled together garb which unfortunately owes much to the experiments begun here.

And for a shocking example of this you need look no further than the devilish blocks built behind the Baltic. Tactless, shoddy, aggressive in their attempt at 'blending in', there's nothing to recommend them.   In their total crassness they act as little symbols of the problems of the British attitude to housing, and to the rudderless funk that British architecture found itself in in the last decade.

But that said, the BALTIC itself was nice enough, with slightly vertiginous external lifts or wide open mirrored stairwells, and with a number of large, perfectly functional gallery spaces. At the very top there is a restaurant, which if I'm going to be thoroughly snobbish, looked to be one of those places which are so unsure, so slightly ashamed of their location that they pander to a strange notion of cosmopolitan classiness that has nothing to do with the place they belong to - overdressed staff, clingy service, a strained-stylishness to the design. Growing up, Glasgow was full of these places, London has none. At the bottom, the cor-ten steel was looking a little more grubby than it usually ought to, and the gift shop wasn't particularly large. It reminded me of Meades' talking about the glut of galleries in his On the Brandwagon, and about how there simply isn't enough good art to go round for every single city to have a massive Tate-style branded art space. But though there is a truth there, it is manifestly unfair - why the hell shouldn't every city have a contemporary art space? Why should you have to get on the train to London for anything at all, let alone to see some post-post-post-Duchampian conceptualist from Croatia? Furthermore, it's manifestly unjust for places like the BALTIC to face a 100% cut in funding, cruelly forced by directive from the callous shire-dwelling scum who 'lead' us now.

Downstairs, in the ground floor cafe, my neighbours were conversing on nihilism and sourdough bread. Perhaps it's the same everywhere after all.

And from one form of obnoxious contextualism... another.

Pictured here are a number of the drifting young people I mentioned above. At this point I was almost pushing against a tide of them as I walked up the hill further into Gateshead.

The arse-end of a Foster blob, skips and all.

The crowds of young men and women were in good spirits definitely, but there was definite evidence of their commitment to the derangement of the senses.

Of course not.

A little up the hill, an example of the 19th century civic architecture that is so notable across the north of England and in Scotland. A limestone or sandstone Edwardian Baroque, robust, confident, unpretentious. This building is now marooned on a traffic island.

Here it looked as though a building had slid into the ground, leaving some kind of metallic trail in the air behind it, almost as if there's a lever that can raise or lower the facade at will.

In my hand is a postcard I bought in the gift shop at the BALTIC. It shows 'Trinity Square', better known as the 'Get Carter Car Park'. I am standing in a position that a few years ago would have shown the image depicted on the card. Behind it is what sits on the site now, a Tesco super-development featuring housing, mega-market, underground car-parking and retail units. I can still recall seeing the car park from the train in past visits, appearing just as a series of horizontal black shadows against the sky, perched at the top of a hill, appearing for all the world like one of the Northumbrian castles that dot the shores nearby - Bamburgh, Lindesfarne, or the dramatic, potent ruins of Dunstanburgh.

The Trinity Square development was designed from 1962-7 by the Owen Luder Partnership, in particular by Rodney Gordon, that debonaire playboy brutalist, one of the real architecture personalities of the era (along with but for different reasons John Poulson). Gordon died recently, but not before he had to suffer the indignity of many of his best works being humiliated and then demolished (including the 'Dunston Rocket', a gloriously barmy tower a few km to the west) . Working at the rough and ready commercial end of the industry, Gordon still managed to design and construct some of the most dramatic and masterful buildings of the post-war era, a true British brutalism comparable, as Meades says, to the insolent braggadocio of Vanbrugh. But by the end of the century the work was popularly loathed and despised, piss-stinking, rain-stained, a hellish artefact from the foolish attempt at social modernity that Britain tried and failed to achieve. Let's not go over this again, the amount of breath wasted and keyboards worn down rehashing the arguments for and against brutalism hasn't really got us anywhere.

And with the Tricorn centre gone, the Dunston Rocket gone, the Milford Towers in Catford awaiting demolition (by Tesco, again), it almost seems like there's a vendetta against Owen Luder buildings. But that's not the case - indeed, the very commercialism of their programme has worked against them. As far as Tesco are concerned, there's no aesthetic or cultural argument being made for demolition in these cases. What has now been built on the site of Trinity Square is at least five or six times bigger in terms of floor area, with units specifically configured for contemporary retail usage. It's a utilitarian, commercial decision that leads to demolition in these cases. But what happens when these plans are made is that architectural experts and aficionados point out the significance of the buildings, their importance to the history of our cities and their high quality in terms of design, and make the case for preservation. To counter these objections, all the councils (who are almost invariably in favour of redevelopment, for obvious reasons) and developers have to do is mobilise the latent public dislike of concrete architecture and turn what is nothing more than a numbers game into a crusade to rid our cities of these symbols of poverty and misery. It's worked before, and it will probably keep working, although the ongoing battle for Preston Bus Station shows that in this world of austerity, the fight for preservation has a stronger hand than it used to.

To this day, the site of the Tricorn Centre is still just a flat car-park. Not so for Trinity Square, where redevelopment appears to be around 80% complete. But just look at how bad this design is, with its silly tinfoil hats, its jolly multicoloured tiles, its half-hearted stone cladding, its Arial Bold signage.

its further examples of crass, tired, pointless contextualism (red brick! limestone! it matches, look see!)

Although across the road, THIS is still there, for some reason. Oh, what happened to the cheap metal-clad, round detailed architecture that tried so hard to cling onto brutalist principle when the tide was turning towards post-modernism and pastiche? It's not an easy kind of building to like, but is interesting for its links to both styles, as well as its affinity with big-sheds, the true architecture of post-containerisation capitalism.

Too many materials? Stupid roofs? Silly colourful cladding? Privatised public space? Quasi-policemen everywhere? Nobody is going to fight for the preservation of these buildings in 40 years time when the guarantees on the materials have all run out and the wafer-thin stone panels have fallen from their sockets.

Some more festival-style shops still exist, perhaps because of their simpler design being more amenable to conversion and internal refurbishment.

And some handsome terraces, perhaps a little to grand for worker's housing, now seemingly home to solicitors and other professional offices.

Think of what's now missing. And when you consider that take-over attempt in Peckham, where a bunch of posh, white, fabulously well-connected young people want to turn a car-park into a permanent arts space, there could have been something much better done with a partial redevelopment of Trinity Square.

It was time to go. Tower blocks across the country nowadays are so often covered in noddy hats and external insulating render, in various different friendly colours, that it can be quite odd to see examples that appear to have retained their original sombre colours. I suspect this one might have been tinted, but it's certainly not had the facade re-worked or over-clad. It stood rather lonely on the sides of the grand slope down to the river, with a verdant pathway approach from the centre. Probably not so nice to walk down at night, especially not with youths hanging around in the park, but I imagine the views from the top are something else.

Elevated concrete walkways. It's a shame how something so placid, such a sensible improvement in management of transit, such a simple concept as the raised walkway, how it became such a seemingly terrifying thing. With those staircases it becomes almost akin to moving around in an abstract sculpture, all dramatic mass and poised line. But of course there is a sense of being trapped, of being vulnerable to whoever comes along from the other end, but that is by no means a given, and we don't go ripping up Edinburgh despite the genuinely dangerous nature of the lanes that slice across the old town.

Here was another estate, largely boarded up. Low rise, stepping down the hill, nestled in the curve of the railway and the busy main road, it -again- occupied that grey area between post-war modernism and  postmodern detail. Massed almost like a boxy De Stijl composition, all cubes seemingly interpenetrating with themselves, it nevertheless had classical porticos tagged onto the outsides.

It's very possible that the doorways are a later addition inspired by the work up at Byker. There was almost nobody around, although there were still houses in occupation.

Who knows if these things are effective, but there's something chilling about their perfunctory design quality and the sheer painful depth of mental state into which they are meant to intervene. Someone connected to me took their life by jumping from a bridge, their empty car was left half way along, and there were witnesses who recounted what happened, but their body wasn't found for quite a long time afterwards. 

And across the bridge. At one point you would have been able to see the Dunston Rocket from here, poking up to the left of the image. Gone.

Di Dodi Die

And from here you would once have seen the Trinity Square Car Park. Gone. Along with no certain amount of civic confidence.

I swear this walkway was an unpleasant experience. About 1200mm wide, with cars passing at 60 miles per hour to one side and a 40m drop to the other, and the bridge being perhaps a mile long, it's the stuff of pursual nightmares.


And with more time I might have gone up to see that tall one on the Newcastle side, which looks quite exciting to me.

And back to Blairism. This concoction is one of those science museums that were built up and down the country in the last decade or so. copper clad, irregular, a mish-mash of shapes, it's got pseudomodernist brandwagon written all over it.

And this kind of bollocks again. This is exactly the kind of rubbish that Erskine was the unfortunate trailblazer for. Many materials, many colours, huge massing pretending to be a collection of smaller buildings, poky windows, a paucity of ambition.

Pictured to the right appears to be Newcastle's gay quarter, all one street of it.


And I should have known they'd have a Charles Jencks DNA sculpture in there. Always interesting, always wrong.

And getting ready to go home, there was a great addition to the genre of 'buildings within buildings', this little British High-Tech pod of shops. Shades of Richard Rogers and his factory designs, with the ringed columns and tension cables, and charming with its filleted corners and sleek shininess. I'm told it's going to be removed, as they're 'upgrading' i.e adding more shops to the station.

And a train went through, laden with coal, probably from the Port of Tyne. Of course, time was that Newcastle was a coal city, but that's pretty much all gone now too, and one can't help but reflect on the way that the decline in civic modernism, and the sense of pride that went with it, was tied in with the decline in industry, the further and perhaps final centring of the British economy in London. Let's go ahead, be vulgar and stress the connections between industry, pride, social democracy, abstraction and modernism, and conversely speculation, rentierism, 'gentlemanly capitalism' and classicism, deference and so on. It makes sense. 


Gareth Colwell said...

A very interesting article. As a Portsmouth resident the comments about the Tricorn ring true, and the resulting "regeneration" down the road in Gunwharf Quays, where the public gallery space I work in is marooned and increasingly suffocated in a gated community.

Icy Sedgwick said...

It's interesting to see your photos of the Central Station - that central pod has indeed been replaced by a glass confection, and most of the station has been decked out with that godawful metal benching so beloved of train station concourses, glass partitioning, and wayfinding that ultimately makes no sense. Such a shame, considering what a beautiful Victorian station it would have once been.