Architecture: The talk of the Toon

Scandal in the Seventies put the kibosh on plans to turn Newcastle into the Brasilia of the North. Now Jay Merrick discovers a new sense of adventure on the unfashionable bank of the Tyne
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
John Wood's 18th-century Bath townscape is a superb example of Georgian town-planning and architecture. But is it more riveting than the classically informed streets in the heart of Newcastle upon Tyne? Why does a stroll down Grainger Street towards John Dobson's curving, 800ft-long Newcastle Central Station train-shed, with the sun shining on its elegant facades, seem a bigger, more gripping experience than those streets? Why is Newcastle so architecturally unfashionable? And why does its modern architecture seem invisible, too?

Sir Terry Farrell is currently finalising a new master-plan for the university quarter and the urban connective tissue around it - his fondly named Geordie Ramblas. But we hear only of Gateshead: the Baltic art gallery, Wilkinson Eyre's award-winning Winking Eye bridge and, a few weeks ago, Lord Foster's bulbous Sage music centre; icons that have become brand-marks for Gateshead. Yet they tell us only about themselves, and nothing of Gateshead.

We - if we are outlanders - perceive Gateshead as the town-sized hare, the modern "statement" architecture capital of the North, leaving a blizzard of jazzy press releases and high-resolution images in its wake. And Newcastle? Why, it can only be the big-city tortoise on the north side of the Tyne, hunkered down in a collage of sublime early-19th-century buildings and the stark architectural hammer-blows that buckled its fabric in the Sixties and Seventies.

But now two brand-new buildings in the city remind us that architecture in Newcastle has always been a big issue: the Performing Arts Centre at Newcastle College, designed by Scotland's heavyweight RMJM practice, and the Baring wing of Northumbria University's once poky art gallery. Neither is an architectural icon. Neither will appear on hip postcards advertising the sybaritic-cum-cryogenic delights of the Toon to the warmer world at large. Nevertheless, RMJM's building - opened by Sting - gives the city Europe's best-equipped "fame academy"; and the gallery, be it ever so self-effacing, is a thoughtful example of bolt-on architecture.

Bolt-ons have been Newcastle's developmental way for 40 years. The Georgian core, the wonderfully curvaceous vistas, and the elegantly profiled masonry have not only survived the effects of scarifying north-easterlies for the best part of two centuries, but also the effects of Big Ideas that turned parts of the city into an something akin to architectural bunkerdom.

The city's new performance centre and gallery are ushering in a modernity whose architecture is about gradualism, rather than pyrotechnics or cultural engineering. Newcastle knows quite enough about the latter. Indeed, there may be no other city centre in the whole of Britain whose socio-architectural makeover in the white heat of post-war urban change was more decisively achieved.

Cue memories of T Dan Smith, the leader of Newcastle City Council for four years, and the architect John Poulson. Smith saw the city as a Brasilia of the north, or as a new Milan or even Manhattan. He motored around the city in his Jaguar (licence plate: DAN 68) and ran the place in the manner of an American-style city boss. Key decisions were taken unilaterally, and urban change - to create "a city free and beautiful" - was rammed home. Desks were banged; the then-astronomical sum of pounds 90m was committed, and things happened fast

Too fast. Smith, who also headed the regional development corporation, became embroiled in a corruption scandal that involved Poulson and a former leader of Durham County Council, Andrew Cunningham, and he was jailed for six years in 1974. In his subsequent autobiography, he still mused of a Newcastle in the image of Athens, Florence and Rome, and said he "wanted to see the creation of a 20th-century equivalent of Dobson's masterpiece. We've got to talk in terms of new cities. Just as in the Industrial Revolution, we [Newcastle] were ahead of our time, and in the age of leisure we ourselves will also be leading the way."

The legacy of that architecturally explosive period is still apparent: inner-city trunk roads, the metro, overhead walkways, the central Eldon shopping precinct hard up against Georgian elegance, the Cruddas Park and Byker Wall council housing, the Swan House development; all rather ugly and leaden, part of the new brutalism that was then sweeping through architecture and the arts. It was an aesthetically and intellectually fractious time whose heroes clearly took issue with Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous philosophical proposal that "it is clear that, however different from the real world an imagined one may be, it must have something - a form - in common with the real world."

Even pre-Smith, Newcastle had shown a craving for risky civic forms; but the blue touchpaper was the now-still-remarkable Civic Centre. Designed by the city architect George Kenyon in the Fifties, it brought Scandinavian- style architecture into the heart of the city. At the huge cost in 1968 of pounds 4.8m - Smith waved the cash through - it was a beam-me-down-Scottie architectural moment: a 12-storey administration tower, the elliptical drum of the council chamber raised on cast-iron piloti, a copper-capped lantern 250ft above the ground, and a courtyard. Architecturally, the clock - to recall the opening sentence in Orwell's 1984 - had struck 13 in Newcastle. T Dan Smith's northern-renaissance versions of Winston Smith's starkly anonymous Victory Mansions were rising across the city in concrete and glass.

So is the clock striking 13 again in Newcastle? Terry Farrell is neither T Dan Smith nor John Poulson, though part of him must sympathise with Smith's desire to improve the city. Farrell's makeover of the central university quarter will be the first major recasting of urban space in Newcastle since the Seventies, and will take years to complete. In the meantime, there are buildings to be built and dreams to be dreamed. And down near the Tyne, in the west end of the city, where the Scotswood district was once written off as unviable despite a Richard Rogers master-plan, there are songs and soliloquies and guitar solos to be belted out. RMJM's performance academy at Newcastle College's Rye Hill campus is the first building in a pounds 45m redevelopment that will bring all departments onto the site by 2006, and deliver a new school of beauty, sport and tourism. We can look forward with keen, but properly calm, anticipation, to a thesis that will at last tease out the academic antecedents of the Pinter-esque enquiry so favoured by vapid tonsorialists: "Been anywhere nice on your holidays, then?"

The pounds 21m performance academy is container architecture: an oblong, no- frills mega-block that contains a warren of technical, recording and performance spaces; and a second segment oversailing the core structure to create a big, covered plaza. Very simple, rather effective.

RMJM, who acted as associate architects on the new Scottish Parliament, have made this simplicity seem dramatic. They've done it by creating a tension between the massing of the two elements. As you approach the steps up into the academy, the jutting admin block looms over you. It is massive, but the translucent polycarbonate sheathing and seamless detailing erase most of its sense of weight or structural grunt - and also divert attention from the monolithic main block. There's plainly going to be a stampede of applicants to this place: the architecture has a cool, hi-tech look, and it's an Aladdin's cave of the very latest performance hardware and software.

The new Baring wing of Northumbria University's art gallery is simple, too. This is quiet architecture, not much more than a partially-glazed box fused onto one of the university's core buildings. The only dramatic moment concerns the striking, elongated bronze figure and symbolic river, created by Nicolaus Widerberg, which faces St Mary's Place.

The architects, Carey Jones, might have tried something rather more striking. That they didn't demonstrates sanity. The gallery is attached to a library wing that was designed in 1969, during Smith's era, and is surprisingly pleasing in its restraint. No need to pick an architectural fight here. The simple volume of the Baring wing stands out because the architectural wheel has steered, rather than wheelied, the site into the present.

What a far cry these are from the publicised face of Gateshead. Yet these Toon projects, promoted by Northern Architecture and Newcastle City Council, are a telling flip-side to Gateshead's architectural medicine shows. It will be the outcomes of apparently minor projects that will measure urban evolution in the streets on both sides of the Tyne, where the Jag with the DAN 68 plates was once an uplifting, or profoundly infuriating, sight.