New study passes verdicts on changing face of Tyneside over the last 25 years

Book singles out ups and downs of Newcastle and Gateshead's redevelopment

Millennium Bridge
Millennium Bridge

Buildings reckons architecture professor Paul Jones, are more than just structures.

“People develop an emotional bond with buildings. They are the backdrop to their lives and often the source of memories,” says the Northumbria University academic.

Which might explain why, eight years ago, a weighty £25 book called Newcastle & Gateshead Architecture and Heritage, was a sell-out.

Paul was a joint author along with architectural historian Tom Faulkner and Peter Beacock, then director of architecture in the school of the built environment at Northumbria University.

The book ranged across buildings and locations from the medieval age to the present in what is a many layered historic city and its cross-river neighbour.

But the surge in development since 2006, especially on the two quaysides, persuaded the authors to take readers on the same journey, but this time a revised version with more information on buildings, additions of worthy candidates which had been omitted from the first volume, and the best of the new bunch from the last eight years.

The new book, with the same title and price from Tyne Bridge Publishing, is launched today at Newcastle City Library, which of course features in its pages.

The book is also in memory of Tom Faulkner, who died in July and was working on the volume until the very end.

He was a senior lecturer at Northumbria University from 1974-2004 and then a Visiting Fellow in the school of historical studies at Newcastle University, where he also taught in the school of architecture, planning and landscape.

“It was tragic that he never saw the new book published. He had an astonishing knowledge and the book it is a tribute to his career,” says Paul Jones.

As well as the buildings from Newcastle and Gateshead’s historic past, the authors examine how the face of the two neighbours has changed since the 1960s- sometimes for the better, at other times not.

Take the early 1960s when Newcastle City Council planner Wilfred Burns and council leader T Dan Smith were drawing up their redevelopment schemes.

The authors describe the demolition of architect John Dobson’s 1831-32 Royal Arcade and most of Old Eldon Square as “misguided.”

They go on: “The situation was made worse by the over-eager demolition of Georgian and Victorian buildings” and the alignment of the Central Motorway East too close to the city centre.

Then there was the “harsh” juxtaposition of overbearing new buildings next to the historic, such as Westgate House in Newcastle and the block facing St Nicholas Cathedral, which replaced the demolished Victorian town hall.

“Perhaps the saddest legacy of this period is the northbound relief road which required the destruction of the Victorian public library next to the Laing Art Gallery.

“With supreme inappropriateness, this bleak thoroughfare was named John Dobson Street.”

The late 1960s Swan House not only cut off the northern exit of the Tyne Bridge from its original outlet of Pilgrim Street but also dwarfed nearby historic buildings and meant the end for the Royal Arcade.

A facsimile of the arcade’s original eight bay glass domed interior was incorporated into Swan House.

“This absurd replica was constructed like a film set out of moulded fibre glass - a forlorn folly,” say the authors.

“Many saw Swan House, standing above the motorway, as a monument to the destruction of Newcastle’s heritage.”

Several 1960s buildings were eventually demolished themselves, such as Gateshead’s Get Carter car park, the Dunston Rocket, Felling swimming pool and the Bank of England facing Swan House.

Eldon Square shopping centre in Newcastle , started in 1969, had a major impact.

“Now the structure is generally regarded as rather faceless,” says the book.

“Some fine historic buildings had to be demolished to make way for it, including two ranges of old Eldon Square.

“The complex obliterated a number of attractive vistas. In addition the development turned its back on the city. It was an introverted, almost fortress-like centre.”

From 1980 there was major urban renewal in Newcastle and Gateshead, especially along the riverside.

“The quaysides were in desperate need of attention and investment, particularly the Gateshead side.

“What Gateshead managed to achieve is little short of remarkable.”

More than a billion pounds was committed to the redevelopment of Gateshead and its riverside,

Along came the Baltic, Sage and the Millennium Bridge, and on the Newcastle side the Law Courts and the Sir Terry Farrell masterplan for the East Quayside.

One of the keys to the success of the quaysides was the quality of their public open spaces.

“The redevelopment of the quaysides on both sides of the river has brilliantly exploited the natural advantages of the site and introduced a European dimension into the urban experience of Newcastle and Gateshead.”

The Grainger Town Project of 1997 saved Newcastle’s historic centre.

“But a number of decidedly inappropriate developments still managed to gain planning permission,” say the authors.

In their opinion, one was The Gate leisure complex in Newcastle.

“It not only compromises the adjacent former Co-op department store but also heavily overshadows the nearby Blackfriars precinct and its associated medieval streets.”

While the riverside is considered an overall success, “since 2000 the region’s architectural heritage has been compromised by the construction of many poor quality buildings.

“Once the flagship projects associated with the Millennium were completed, a period of low ambition in terms of design and quality followed.

“New schools were particularly uninspiring. A number of architecturally impressive schools from the Victorian and inter-war periods were unfortunately demolished, only to be replaced with formulaic substitutes with little of the design quality inherent in their predecessors.”

Positives were the conversion of older buildings, especially warehouses, into apartments and cultural and arts bases.

The authors say a considerable number of “highly worthwhile” buildings and developments have been completed in Newcastle and Gateshead since 1980.

They rate the best since 2006, when the last book was published, as:

The Lifestyle Academy of Newcastle College; Cardinal Hume Catholic School, Old Durham Road, Gateshead; Northumbria University City Campus East; 101 Ouseburn Road, Newcastle, built by architects Steve and Jane Miller for themselves; Newcastle City Library; the conversion of the 1897 Cooper’s building in Westgate Road and the Sleeperz Hotel opposite; Millfield House visitor centre, Jesmond Dene; Toffee Factory conversion at the Ouseburn; at the Freeman Hospital, the Institute of Transplantation and also Maggie’s Newcastle Cancer Care Centre; INTO building at Newcastle University.

City should celebrate its past and future

With their new book now in the shops, Paul Jones and Peter Beacock weigh up what has happened in the urban landscape of Newcastle and Gateshead.

Paul, professor of architecture at Northumbria University, welcomes the rebirth of the Tyne quaysides which has brought a European flavour.

“The quaysides were bleak, and projects like the Baltic were a fantastic re-use of a building,” he says.

A key to success has been the Millennium Bridge, which with the Swing Bridge allows people to walk a cross-river circuit.

But, says Paul, with tight budgets and the speed of development since 2000 there have been some “terrible buildings put up in prominent locations. Some housing developments have been of very poor quality.”

Peter Beacock, now retired, was head of the department of architecture at Northumbria University.

He says of the quaysides: “There are some very good individual buildings and some not so good. Some of the housing could have been better and some of the office buildings are a bit mundane.”

But overall the riverside has been transformed.

“There are few better train rides than that which takes in the views of Durham Cathedral and the bridges over the Tyne,” says Peter.

Then there is St James’ Boulevard in Newcastle. During its planning stages there was talk of the Ramblas in Barcelona.

Paul says: “The Ramblas is where people meet and walk but St James’ Boulevard is about the movement of traffic. There is little to make people want to stop. In fact, people belt across the road to dodge the traffic.

“The contrast is Grey Street, one of the finest streets in Europe, which is very much about people, and the way people gather around the Monument.”

Peter says: “St James’ Boulevard was a lost opportunity.”

He would like to see more pedestrianisation of Grey Street, extending to Dean Street and down to the Quayside.

“There is major traffic flow along Mosley Street and Collingwood Street but these could be closed to vehicles in the evening.”

The movement of people through the city is blocked by Eldon Square shopping centre, says Paul.

“It doesn’t have any connection to people on a human scale. It is a monolithic structure.

“Newcastle had built up an urban grain over hundreds of years - the streets and buildings and the way people move through them – which has been destroyed in that part of the city by the shopping centre.”

Peter says: “Eldon Square shopping centre is a very large development which is closed at night and stops movement through the city. It is a large, internalised area which has not helped the city.”

He will be watching how Newcastle’s Science City and the Stephenson Quarter develops, hoping that the latter recognises that the Stephensons’ locomotive workshop was a cradle of the railways.

Peter also has concerns for the future of the listed 1924-28 Carliol House in Pilgrim Street, built in Portland stone as the impressive headquarters of the North East Electricity Supply Company and described in the book as “one of Newcastle’s finest inter-war buildings.”

The same goes for its neighbour, the 1931-33 Central Police Station, magistrates’ courts and fire station, also in Portland stone and praised as an “excellent complex” but now facing an uncertain future.

But Peter says: “Newcastle continues to be a wonderful city and something we should celebrate, although it is comparatively unknown outside the region.

“When students arrive in the city, many have no idea it has Roman origins, a 12th Century castle and major stretches of medieval walls.”

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