What is the North East's best building? Our panel of experts try and find out the answer

We turn our gaze onto what is the best building in the North East and ask experts for their opinions

Iconic buildings in the North East
Iconic buildings in the North East

Last year J2 set out to finally answer the pub argument: what is the best song ever to come from the North East?

Starting out by garnering the favourite 10 songs from a panel of experts from the music industry, we got the slightly unexpected answer that the best song ever from the North East is Big River by Jimmy Nail. Then we opened the poll to our readers and, hundreds of votes later, we found that the public’s favourite song from the North East was also Big River by Jimmy Nail.

Ho hum.

Now we are turning our gaze to the world around us and trying to establish the best building in the North East. Again we are starting with a panel of experts. Over the last few weeks, 16 architects, academics, writers and one TV presenter have supplied us with their favourite 10 buildings.

They suggested 99 separate buildings which ranged from tiny to massive, ancient to modern and stretched from Berwick in the north to Teesside in the south. Six churches, three pubs, four bridges, two castles and a treehouse were among the buildings suggested, and comments supplied by our experts showed how much they love some of the buildings that we see around us every day.

After totting up the votes, two buildings came out as clear favourites. Newcastle’s Civic Centre and Durham Cathedral were both named by eight of our expert panel.

The Majestic Durham Cathedral

Among those to profess their devotion to Newcastle’s 1960s town hall was Andrew Law, lecturer in town planning at Newcastle University.

He said: “As well as its remarkable exteriors, sculptures – including the sea horses which adorn the tower at the top of the centre – the interiors of the building are themselves beautifully kitsch. One can walk into luxuriously kitsch rooms of mustard coloured carpets, curtains and wood panelling.

“Other rooms sport red and mauve doors and double-door entrances which are reminiscent of Pinewood Studio sets for the James Bond films. Some of the double door rooms make you feel that you are about to walk into the offices of MI6 where M will be waiting for you in hurried anticipation.

“In other places some of the rooms contain ‘60s kitsch meeting tables which could host a meeting for a Cold War Cabinet or perhaps even Spectre. But to top it all off, the banqueting chamber in the Civic Centre is perhaps the most remarkable space of all.

“In this open hall one finds a series of pyramid-like alcoves which make you feel that you are on the set of Battlestar Galactica or some such 1980s space opera.

The Kielder Observatory in Northumberland
The Kielder Observatory in Northumberland

“Whilst I am making references to the kitsch aspects of the building, I do not mean this to be pejorative. It is the kitsch qualities of this remarkable building that make it so unique and a reminder of a time and an aesthetic gone by. As a child growing up watching the Bond movies at Christmas, a walk around the Civic Centre can take you to another time of politics, culture and perhaps even a period of optimism.”

Durham Cathedral, a good 900 years older than the civic centre, and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was also on eight lists, the favourite of TV presenter and architect George Clarke, and also Professor Paul Jones, chair of learning and teaching in architecture at Northumbria University.

Prof Jones said: “My favourite building – and without doubt the best piece of architecture in the North East – is Durham Cathedral. It is quite simply magnificent and in my opinion it is the finest Cathedral in Christendom. I have visited it many times, and continue to be overwhelmed by its physical and spiritual presence.”

The clash between ancient and modern was seen elsewhere in our list, though newer buildings tended to do better with our architecture experts.

Coming third in our overall list was the British Gas Research Station at Killingworth, a favourite of architect Cyril Winskell.

Mark Pinder George Clarke at the Treehouse in Kielder, Northumberland
George Clarke at the Treehouse in Kielder, Northumberland

“This modern building completed in 1967 is now a historic listed building Grade II* and is a masterpiece by the late Gordon Ryder and Peter Yates, both Newcastle architects,” he said.

“Peter Yates spoke of the approach to it as: ‘The earth rises and breathes, like a human breast, demonstrating the two great problems of architecture: how to bring a building up out of the ground and how to finish it on top.’”

Modernity was represented too by a number of buildings that have been added to the North East skyline in recent years – the Millennium Bridge, the Treehouse at The Alnwick Garden, Mima at Middlesbrough – plus structures controversial when first built that have since come to be much loved, by some at least (the Byker Wall and the Apollo Pavilion at Peterlee).

Also in our top 20 was All Saints’ Church in Newcastle, the Sage Gateshead and the Cummins Engines factory in Darlington, described by Tim Bailey from xsite architecture as “efficient and elegant in equal measure,” it has a quiet strength that inspires confidence and pride in place and was the first building in Britain to use Cor-ten and neoprene glazing gaskets at large scale”.

There were votes too for some more established buildings that show the depth of architectural wonders in the North East, from Bamburgh Castle and Penshaw Monument to Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society and the nearby Central Station.

The Sage on its tenth birthday
The Sage on its tenth birthday

Outside of the top 20 were some more idisyncratic choices.

Many of our architects chose projects they had been involved in and felt a personal connection with, while George Clarke singled out Thrum Mill near Rothbury – the subject of an episode of his programme Restoration Man – plus “my mam’s house, Washington” which was always only likely to get one vote.

Two Metro stations (Jesmond and Tynemouth) made it into our list but were among the many buildings to only get a single vote, a list that also included Billingham Forum, Emerson’s Chambers in Newcastle and the Warkworth Hermitage.

Now it’s your turn: have our expert panel hit the nail on the head or are they complete fools?

To vote for your favourite building CLICK HERE, and we will carry the public’s verdict on North East architecture next week.

The Top 20

1. Newcastle Civic Centre

2. Durham Cathedral

3. Gas Research Centre, Killingworth

4. Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

5. Cragside

6. Byker Wall

7. Central Station

8. Millennium Bridge

9. Cummins Engines, Darlington

10. Treehouse

11. Bamburgh Castle

12. All Saints Church

13. Literary and Philosphical Society

14. High Level Bridge

15. Apollo Pavillion

16. Kielder Observatory

17. Penshaw Monument

18. Sage Gateshead

19. Jesmond Library

20. Mima

To vote for your favourite building CLICK HERE

George Clarke's Top 10

1. Durham Cathedral

2. St Andrew’s Church, Roker

3. Thrum Mill, Rothbury

4. Central Station, Newcastle

5. Stadium of Light, Sunderland

6. Department of Architecture, Newcastle University

7. Cragside House, Morpeth

8. Penshaw Monument

9. Hadrian’s Wall

10. My Mam’s House, Washington

To vote for your favourite building CLICK HERE


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer