Architect rows over Chester-le-Street Civic Centre demolition

Architect hits out as demolition due to start of award-winning Chester-le-Street Civic Centre

Chester-le-Street civic centre
Chester-le-Street civic centre

An architect who designed a multi-award winning civic centre in the North East which attracted worldwide attention has hit out at its impending demolition.

Neil Taylor is senior partner at Newcastle architects FaulknerBrowns and was a visiting professor of architecture at Newcastle University for 15 years.

He designed the civic centre for the then Chester-le-Street District Council in County Durham, which opened in 1982.

It won a series of awards for its pioneering approach in terms of building materials and how the design changed the way that the public interacted with councillors and council officials.

But work is due to start next week on the demolition of the town centre building.

“This is a landmark building which people came from across the world to see,” said Mr Taylor, who lives in Ponteland in Northumberland.

“It was an incredibly modern building in its time and I am very sad and disappointed that it is to come down.”

He said that the civic centre pioneered a system of building with metallic aluminium cladding and the widespread use of glazing, with a contemporary clock which faced the town centre.

It also featured a ‘mall’ corridor through the building, with a cafe, which allowed the public to mingle with councillors and officials, who worked in open plan, glazed areas and had to cross the corridor to reach different parts of the building.

“It was a different approach to how council members and officers related to the public, and the access which people had to them,” said Mr Taylor.

“Durham County Council at that time were very concerned to create a feeling of open government.”

Mr Taylor said that the design tackled the way in which the public often felt intimidated by the usual, more formal town halls and civic centres.

He was one of 40 “rising star” architects under the age of 40 who were invited to exhibit their work at the Royal Academy in London, and he chose the Chester-le-Street project.

It won RIBA, Civic Trust, Europa Nostra, British Steel and Financial Times awards and featured in the New Statesman, The Economist, Domus, Architectural Review, Architect’s Journal and Sunday Times as well as receiving television coverage. 

“It won as much at it could win and I was immensely proud of it. It was a step change in office design and was an immensely well-known building ,” said Mr Taylor.

The centre led to FaulknerBrowns winning work across Europe.

“There is a lot of debate about how to revitalize town centres and I think the decision to demolish the building has been too hasty,” said Mr Taylor.

“It is a flexible building with quite a lot of life left in it and could have been used for a variety of other purposes including offices for small and start up businesses, or educational, recreational, performance and community uses.”

Mr Taylor said that he had been “very surprised” to find out about the Durham County Council demolition plans and that a failed bid by the 20th Century Society to have the building listed had had to be prepared in a rush.

The centre closed at the end of 2013 when Durham County Council services were transferred to other buildings, including a new town centre customer access point located with Cestria Housing in Front Street.

Demolition workers will arrive on site on Monday with the job expected to take 10 weeks.

The county council said that, following extensive consultation with local residents as part of the County Durham Plan - the economic blueprint for the county up to 2030 - the land was allocated for housing following the clearance of the site.

The council said that, despite receiving several architectural awards in the 1980s, the design of the building has not been as successful as originally intended, in particular around meeting modern accessibility standards. It has also incurred unexpected and significant maintenance costs.

Stuart Timmiss, council head of planning and assets, said: “Following confirmation that English Heritage does not feel that the building merits listing and considering the significant ongoing maintenance costs of a building that is no longer fit for purpose, work on the demolition of the civic centre will begin on Monday.”

English Heritage said: “We acknowledge that Chester-le-Street Civic Centre possesses some innovative aspects and a degree of aesthetic and constructional interest, but mindful of the requirement for rigorous selection of post-war town halls and that architectural interest is paramount in that selection, we are unconvinced that Chester-le-Street Civic Centre achieves the high level of architectural interest required.”

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