Byker Wall in short list for the title of Britain’s Greatest 20th Century building

Newcastle homes landmark on short list for best 20th Century building

A small section of the Byker Wall in February 1974
A small section of the Byker Wall in February 1974

A Tyneside landmark housing complex is on the short list for the title of Britain’s Greatest 20th Century building.

The Royal Academy of Arts is staging a debate in London tonight (Friday) which will decide the issue.

It is being held in conjunction with the academy’s current exhibition, titled 100 Buildings 100 Years, and an accompanying book.

Six experts have been asked to put forward their choice for best building of the last century and will each present their case at the debate.

The Byker Wall estate in Newcastle is being championed by Elain Harwood, senior architectural investigator at English Heritage.

The estate was grade II-star listed in 2007 to put it in the top five per cent of the country’s buildings.

When it was listed, English Heritage praised its “groundbreaking design...influential across Europe” and added that it was a “pioneering model of public participation.”

At the time, Culture Minister David Lammy, said: “The Byker estate is an extraordinary and outstanding piece of architecture. Its influence, both on design and the way we involve communities in the planning process, has been profound.”

All of the other five candidates are in the South of England, with four being in London, one in Welwyn Garden City and the other in Southampton.

The Byker Wall estate was designed by architect Ralph Erskine, whose vision was accepted by the city council in 1968.

Work on the 200-acre estate continued through the 1970s and was completed in 1982.

The Byker Wall housing Estate, circa 2005
The Byker Wall housing Estate, circa 2005

Ms Harwood said: “ I think Byker is the most exciting public housing anywhere in the world from the 1970s. It is exceptional and beautiful.

“Ralph Erskine was a fantastically important architect and I think that Byker was his best work.

“I love the variety of the different housing types, shapes, sizes and layouts and colour.”

Another plus point is the retention of key older buildings which were important to the community from the terraced streets which once covered the site.

“You don’t get anywhere else like it. Ralph Erskine also set up his office in the area and kept an open door for people and he listened to what they said.

“It showed what could be done and offered an example or later schemes,” said Ms Harwood.

“Anyone from Tyneside would recognise a bit of Byker in the Millennium Village development in London.”

The one and a half mile Wall feature of the estate provides a barrier to road noise and flats rise and fall from three to 12 storeys, using coloured frontages of brick, wood and plastic, with balconies and planters.

The rest of the estate features of low level housing with a mix of small private gardens and larger communal spaces.

The estate has won many international awards, including a Civic Trust Award and the Veronica Rudge Green Prize for urban design from Harvard University.

The Architects’ Journal in 1976 described the development as “possibly the most brilliant solution to the problem of modern urban mass housing” and the New Statesman magazine in 1977 described it as “the most spectacular housing development of recent times.”

In April this year, housing minister Kris Hopkins cut the ribbon to mark a £26m refurbishment project, which is being carried out by the Byker Community Trust (BCT).


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