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NEWCASTLE: Something Concrete and Modern

4 Jul 2015 | Chris Kiernan

Day 1: Saturday, July 4

DOCOMOMO-UK's tours are always interesting and welcoming events that frequently involve incidents of spontaneity and mystery, attributes that can really only be fully appreciated for those who attend. This year's tour to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne was no exception. From hidden gems to chance encounters, the tour was full of surprises, made all the more enjoyable by the erudite dialogues of our splendid guide, the architect and academic Rutter Carroll, who is a native of Newcastle and the surrounding area.


Historically one of the great powerhouses of Victorian Britain, Newcastle is a city that reveals itself through its people, buildings and landscapes. From very early on it became apparent that it is impossible to view the modern buildings of this vibrant city without understanding and appreciating their physical and historical context.


Placing us firmly in Victorian Britain, Rutter began the tour at Grey's Monument, a Roman Doric 135ft high pedestal to acclaim Earl Charles Grey, former Prime Minister and political reformer of parliament. Designed by Benjamin Green in 1838, it is located within the heart of Newcastle on probably its most famous street, Grey Street, completed 1834-37. Planned and built by Richard Grainger (1797-1861) this was to form the backbone of the first commercial centre of Newcastle. With the help of a gifted school of Newcastle architects, chief of which was John Dobson, and with the backing of Town Clerk John Clayton, Grainger proposed a grid of new streets linking with other parts of the old town. Street fronts were ashlar faced and made typically of three bay properties with a central shop door and a side door for the house above. It is arguably one of Newcastle's finest Streets. Other buildings the tour took in here were Central Arcade, 1838 (originally Central Exchange Buildings) built by John Wardle and George Walker and Grainger Street and Grainger Market by John Dobson (1835) the commercial hub of the new town centre.


At the highest point of the curve of Grey Street is the Theatre Royal by John and Benjamin Green opened in 1837 and now listed Grade I. Designed in the monumental classical tradition the façade consists of a Corinthian portico supported by six columns with the outer two paired on heavy plinths. The interior is by Frank Matcham following a fire in 1899 and restored by RHWL in 1987 and Napper in 2006.


High Bridge, Old George Yard, and Cloth Market illustrate some of the city's earlier beginnings in marked contrast to Grainger's planned new town. Nestling in this area is the beautiful Cathedral Church of Saint Nicholas with its magnificent fifteenth-century octagonal spire sitting aloft a lantern mounted on top of a crown. Of note nearby is the Thomlinson Library (1736) by James Gibbs in the Palladian style and the first building in Newcastle to be built by a national architect. Collingwood Street represents the centre of commerce with many fine banking buildings of the mid to late nineteenth by noted firms such as Oliver and Leeson, Cacket and Burns Dick and Austin Johnston and Hicks.

Towards late morning we had reached the first of several bridges that cross the Tyne, the famous High Level Bridge. The first double decker bridge, it represents a superb example of the use of appropriate materials, timber piles, stone piers, cast iron ribs and wrought iron hangers. Built between 1845-49 by Robert Stephenson with Thomas Harrison it linked the railway from Darlington and Gateshead with Newcastle and combined road and rail as well as providing 120ft (36.5m) clearance above low water.  The rail deck is supported by cast iron box columns and road deck suspended from the rail deck by hangers. It was restored between 2001 and 2008 and painted in its original colour.


The location of the Swing Bridge 1868-76 by WG Armstrong & Co represents a river crossing that goes as far back as 122AD. Its rotation enabled ships to move from Mitchell's Shipyard to his armament works at Elswick. Newcastle's modern day symbol, the New Tyne Bridge, built 1925-28 by Mott Hay and Anderson, is probably the bridge most people associate with the city. A reduced version of that most famous of all bridges the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it was designed after but completed before the Sydney version. The bridge spans the Tyne between two formidable Cornish granite faced pylons designed by the architect Robert Burns Dick to house warehouses and lifts now sadly derelict for many years.


The latest crossing, Millenium Bridge, 2001, by Wilkinson Eyre architects and Gifford & Partners engineers is unique in that it was built solely for leisure purposes, a symbol of Newcastle's transformation from its industrial past that is reinforced by the formidable Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art on the north side of the river.


Not  far north of the New Tyne Bridge is Ryder and Yates Men's Social Services Centre for the Salvation Army, completed in 1974. It replaced a 'Men's Palace' or itinerants' hostel that had been demolished for an office development. A curved linear building in blue brindle brick, the building sits in a commanding position adjoining the C17 Keelman's Hospital in City Road. No longer a hostel for the Salvation Army its use as we discovered is currently cheap accommodation for a select few residents who keep the building secure from squatters. We were fortunate to strike up a conversation with one resident, a student who kindly showed us around the building including access to the first-floor dining room and its picture window facing the Tyne. The carefully arranged fenestration allows for maximum flexibility internally, whilst its asymmetry plays down the building's institutional aspect.  Most striking of course is the central entrance, whose curved access ramp is echoed by a boomerang-shaped canopy on spindly columns. It is concerning that the status of this building appears vague and we would hope that its modest yet unique qualities and characteristics are recognised in whatever the future holds for it.


After a well earned lunch the afternoon tour began at Eldon Square, the heart of the shopping and commercial district. Designed by John Dobson in 1825-31 the east side is all that remains of the original square.  The north and west side form the face of Eldon Square Shopping Centre by Chapman Taylor & Partners 1969-76  with Blackett Street completing the square to the south. Other buildings nearby built around this period include the former Swallow Hotel a slab and podium building by Bernard Engle and Partners in 1969 and Percy House another podium and tower building by local architects L J Couves in around 1964.


Newcastle University whose central campus covers a sizeable area just outside the city centre has a diverse range of buildings including the Herschel (Physics) Building by Sir Basil Spence of 1962, a seven storey reinforced concrete slab block with a feature lecture theatre and a sculpture by Geofrrey Clarke. Other noted architects include WB Edwards for his Agricultural Building in 1964 and William Whitfield for his Student Union building also of the same year.


Moving on much time was spent admiring George Kenyon's Civic Centre, a large building complex covering a ten-acre site and completed in 1968. This well-preserved post-war building still retains much of its original civic pride. Its monastic plan form creating an open green space at its heart overlooked by offices on three sides and public rooms on the fourth. A colonnade forming a link across a ceremonial way to St Thomas' Green joins the eleven and three storey administration blocks. The brick vaulted ceiling flanked by a beautifully detailed wrought iron screen here is worth the visit alone. The Council Chamber is situated at the end of the high block with the ceremonial entrance underneath and to the north is the Banqueting Hall. Portland stone, with handmade bricks to the lower courtyard elevations clad the building typifying the high quality materials used throughout the development. Work by artist Victor Pasmore covers the two flanking walls of the Rates Hall in the form of glazed murals, while other works of art are found in the Marriage Room, the lift doorways and the Ceremonial Staircase.


A highlight of the latter half of the afternoon was a visit to the Hatton Gallery of around1913, which includes Kurt Schwitters' Metz Barn wall. Other delights included the City Library of 2009 by Ryder that skillfully links split levels across a steeply sloping site, a feature also successfully achieved at Vermont Hotel, formerly Northumberland County Hall 1910 by JA Bain.


Day 2: Sunday, July 5

The tour's second and final day began at that most famous of post-war housing estates, Byker, 1968-82 by Ralph Erskine in partnership with Vernon Gracie. Emerging from Byker Metro Station the estate's iconic perimeter wall on the opposite side of the motor clearly identifies itself to visitors.  To the uninitiated the wall belies the domesticity that lies beyond. At over half a mile in length and up to eight storeys high in places it has an imposing size, which from the inside never appears out of scale. The inside of the wall is patterned with colourful balconies and access decks, deliberately narrow in depth to increase the sense of privacy. All accommodation for families was to touch the ground, and is arranged in houses and maisonettes that step down in height away from the wall. Praised for the inventiveness and intimacy of the architecture and its success in rebuilding a tight-knit urban community, the Byker redevelopment is an exemplar in social housing and remains one of the most influential housing schemes of the twentieth century.


Walking back towards the city centre we stop for coffee where the Ouseburn meets the Tyne. This is a historic riverside area that like many other similar districts is now being regenerated. Ash Sakula's East Bank Ouseburn development dominates the river front with other pocket developments in the area. The steeply banked terrain here makes for interesting junctions as well as views south towards the Tyne and beyond.


Moving on we arrive at Brandling Village situated north of the city. Clearly defined by motorways and the Metro line, it contains some of the best examples of later Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian  domestic architecture in the city. The tour began at Jesmond Metro Station. A worthy contributor to 1980s architecture and design, the station was designed by FaulknerBrown, Hendy Watkinson and Stonor & LJ Couves. Part of the first phase of the Tyneside Rapid Transit System its contribution to the arts includes a garden sculpture by Raf Fulcher and murals by Simon Butler. Nestled amongst within this well-to-do neighbourhood are a number of fine schools including the Royal Grammar School 1905-7 by Sir Edwin Cooper with additions by Faulkner-Brown. Meandering through the streets we ended our tour at Jesmond Library by Harry Faulkner-Brown. Situated on the corner of St George's Terrace and Sunbury Avenue this exquisite circular faceted building defies the rigidity of its earlier surrounding buildings inviting you to enter, read and relax.


First published in Docomomo.UK Newsletter 30

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