Pursuits of the Millennium - the divine side of Tyneside

Face-to-face across the river Tyne, two towns sunk in dark

post-industrial decline - sans shipping, sans mines, sans industry, sans everything. The state of Newcastle and Gateshead was sad to behold. Then comes the renaissance, already well advanced. If you are in search of exciting architectural renewal, says Nonie Niesewand, look north east

The North East of Britain is jumping. If you're at all interested in art and architecture, let alone town planning in the 21st century, Gateshead and Newcastle, the two towns which face each other across the Tyne, are becoming just about the most exciting places in Britain.. For decades they were impoverished, beleaguered and decaying. But their successful effort to seize lottery money and Arts Council funding has transformed redundant factories and warehouses into housing, hotels and art galleries.

Rivals in their need to give their citizens a future in the next century, Newcastle has brought back heart to the inner city, with transport and housing and two universities, while Gateshead has gone for culture. When arts funding was cut in the early Eighties, Gateshead kept their arts programme, using the Gateshead Garden Festival to promote contemporary sculpture, and started their own art collection.

The rise from the ashes of post-industrial collapse has been dramatic. New business came to the industrial parks opened with EU grants - Samsung, Siemens, IBM and Nissan. Newcastle is now the fifth biggest retail centre in Britain. As the fortunes of the cities started to turn round, so did the Council. It was time to put back money into the community, to create a mile-long sculpture walk along the river, an arts centre and a regional centre for music, designed by Norman Foster, primarily for the Northern Sinfonia. The Gateshead Council architect John Devlin is clear about the ground plans: " We don't want the South Bank of London happening here. With its mish-mash of buildings,windswept squares and parcelled-up land all competing with each other in inharmonious styles."

A beautiful bridge by Chris Wilkinson Architects is proposed, to link Newcastle Quayside to the international arts complex planned in the old Baltic Flour Mills on the other side of the Tyne in Gateshead. The bridge has to be able to rise when ships pass. Architects Chris Wilkinson and Jim Eyre found inspiration in motor cycle helmets - and in particular the pivots that swing the visor upwards.

These springing points, like the helmet visor points, allow two arches to pivot. One pulls down and locks in place across the water to form the deck. The other, a 45 metre high steel parabola of thin suspension rods, supports it and echoes the graceful curves of Stephenson's 1845 High Level Bridge and the 1929 Mott Hay and Anderson Tyne Bridge.

The Millennium Commission are meeting this month to discuss its funding, along with Norman Foster's Millennium Bridge from St Pauls to Bankside across the Thames. They have pounds 250 million of lottery money to give away in this third phase, but projects bidding for over pounds 380 million.

Gateshead Council are still seeking a lot of sponsorship. They needed pounds 46m for the Baltic Flour Mills conversion, for which the Millennium Commission granted pounds 33.4m; pounds 45-pounds 55 million for the music centre next door for which they have had just pounds 1.5 million Arts Council funding to develop the project and pounds 7.5 million for the bridge.

But they are building on their encounter with an angel, Anthony Gormley's steel angel sculpture, as tall as four double decker buses, weighing 200 tons with a wing span nearly as big as a jumbo jet. It will be erected in sections between now and Christmas at the point where the A1 road meets Gateshead.

"If it hadn't been for the angel," says Peter Stark of Gateshead Council, "none of this funding for the arts would have come our way. The council proved we could deliver the angel on time, to budget, in the face of opposition." First, the Gateshead rate payers didn't want the angel because they didn't like it. Then they didn't want it because they thought Millennium money would be better spent on hospitals and schools, even though lottery money is specifically targeted for arts programmes. The council pointed out that if they didn't apply they would lose out to another region.

Anyway, Gormley grew on them. When he showed "The Field", 40,000 tiny terracotta sculptures arranged for the Visual Arts of the North programme last year, 25,000 people came to see it. Perhaps Gateshead is learning to be proud of Gormley, though they are not quite at one. There was a proposal to name the Angel of the North "Princess Diana". No, said Gormley. Anyway, it's an androgynous angel.

Newcastle's housing policy is to transmute the decaying factories, shops and warehouses into reasonably priced, high quality housing with urban regeneration grants from the Government agency, English Partnership. Its main shopping street has resembled a building site for nine months as the city council embarked upon a project to turn it into the most attractive pedestrian precinct and to convert abandoned buildings in shops with apartments.

The Granger Estate, a 75 mile inner city area, gets a pounds 40 million investment. Nobody ever envisaged the Gillette razor factory being on the cutting edge of new housing but, cleaned up, given a new roof and light wells all along the loading bay, it had 300 applications for 63 apartments. Now the style-conscious, cosmopolitan Malmaison hotel opens in the old Co-op on the Quayside. The biggest millennium project planned as a crowd puller by Newcastle who have been relatively restrained in making millennium monuments, is the International Centre for Life. At this genetics institute in Terry Farrell's new building you can say hello to Dolly, the cloned sheep and other curiosities.

As Jim Daly, the RIBA architect who showed me around says: "Newcastle's time has come at last. We saw it happening to Liverpool and Manchester and now it's our turn." The neon-lit sculpture by Richard Wilson on the facades of the Baltic Mill conversion, called "This Place is Jumping", says it all.

If David Howell, or Lord Howell of Guildford, is to be believed, one day the ships will return as well. Baltic Flour Mills refers to the shipping trade from Baltic ports east to west. Now that the Russians have opened up trade, he sees Newcastle as being strategically placed to benefit all over again. If the big. ships ever do come back here, the Millennium bridge will be there to open for them.

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