Saturday, 29 June 2013

Unbuilding Britain

"There's a revolution going on in our cities."

By now, I would expect that you’ve all seen ‘On the Brandwagon’, a programme by Jonathan Meades from 2007. In it, he decries the ‘pseudomodern’ architecture that took over our inner cities in the 00s boom, both on the level of its pandering jollity, and also on the basically more dangerous level of what he described as “the soufflé economy”. The film is curmudgeonly negative about pretty much all the developments in built environment culture over the whole of that decade, which is perhaps why so many of us like it so much.

But I’ve dug out perhaps an even more damning document from the boom, one which is more incriminating because of the obliviousness of some of the protagonists. It’s a television programme called ‘Building Britain’. Also broadcast in 2007 (so presumably made before the first cracks appeared in the subsequently shattered world economy), it is an investigation into the differing fortunes of the neighbouring cities of Leeds and Bradford. At this point in time, Leeds was in the middle of a high rise building frenzy, with luxury flats popping up all over town, while Bradford was only just getting used to the gigantic hole that Westfield had left after demolishing a large patch of the city centre, and before building a new shopping centre for the city.

Building Britain was a vehicle for Linda Barker, herself a Bradfordian, who at that time was best known for her work on the BBC’s long running ‘home makeover’ show Changing Rooms, which did much to open the doors to the flood of ‘property porn’ programmes that would clog up the schedules for most of the 00s. Indeed, Building Britain is at least partially interesting for being a reminder of a certain mood in pre-crash television, with shots of her purposefully striding down streets accompanied by obnoxious shuffle-y 90s trip hop music, which even by that stage hadn’t been properly killed off. Thankfully she’s not asking us to “join me on a journey”, and actually, over the course of the show she comes off rather well in the hindsight stakes, being rather more critical than you might expect from a presenter of fluffy daytime television.

On the Brandwagon concludes with footage of the Paris Banlieu riots of 2005, expressing the belief (partially borne out) that the regeneration industry and its massive investment in inner cities would lead to a similarly disastrous neglect of the peripherique. Building Britain, on the other hand, begins with footage of the 2001 Bradford riots, suggesting that a nadir had already been reached, and that upward was about the only direction it could go. As a further sign of things not being able to get much worse, Barker passes the Westfield site, which, half-way through 2013, is still a gigantic hole in the ground. From here on in, the pathos just gets heavier.

"From a ruin to a regeneration icon"

Barker’s next port of call is Lister Mills, perhaps one of the most significant landmarks in the history of Britain’s 21st century regeneration. It’s the project that made the name of Urban Splash, the ultimate Blairite property developer, rescuers of post-industrial and -in Park Hill’s case- post-social housing structures, reconstructors of relics of bygone social organisations as chic design conscious yuppie flats. Unlike some, I’m not sure you can consider them MORE insidious than so many other property types, but there’s something about their modus operandi, their rise from the 1980s Manchester scene, their gentrifying panache and closeness to ‘cool Britannia’ that just does it for some people. In the shadow of Lister Mills, Barker meets Amjad Pervez, of Asian Trade Link, who, with a shit-eating grin on his face dishes out some choice nuggets of regeneration patter:
“You go to Paris, and you’ve got the Eiffel Tower, you go to Egypt and you’ve got the pyramids, and if you go to London it’s the clock, but in Bradford... it’s Lister Mills!”.
This particular trope was actually quite common back then - it reminds me of being in Dubai before the crash, where we visited the show flat for the Burj Dubai as it was then called, wherein upon a wall we found a sequence of panels depicting the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, then Neil Armstrong on the moon, before a rendered image of the tower. Sheer hubris.

Oh, and by the way, Amjad Pervez is currently opening a Michael Gove endorsed free school in Bradford.

SuperCity | Picture A City: Bradford from Scott Burnham on Vimeo.

"We really do think we got value out of it"

Next stop is the masterplan, the VISION. We’re off to see the wizard, although in this case the invisible wizard is Will Alsop, and all that he’s left for us is a big perspex model and a video made by his son, Ollie. Alsop senior came in for quite a lot of flack for his Bradford masterplan (which we are reliably told cost £500,000 - my GOD how fees have plummeted since 2008), for its flimsiness, its triteness and its general implausibility. It proposed demolishing as much 1960s architecture as possible (a suggestion which hopefully now, thanks to the efforts of various critical voices, looks as clearly odious and obnoxious as it was) and replacing it with parks and new wobbly Alsop-style buildings, all accompanied by music from Icarus, one of the archetypes of mid-00’s folktronica, whose glitched up acoustic futurism is actually going through a bit of a revival. There’s obviously an irony to Alsop’s proposal to dig a giant hole in the middle of the city, but overall however it’s clear that the masterplan was intended as a massive confidence booster, not necessarily to be implemented literally but as a certain kick up the arse of the animal spirits of those who might potentially invest in Bradford.

Barker meets Maude Marshall, head of Bradford Centre Regeneration, a private company taking fees to do a job that should really have been the local authority’s. As the camera pans lovingly over the masterplan model as if it were an M&S oven-ready meal, Marshall does her very best to sound convinced that she has a chance of making it all work, spinning out deliriously naff strands of cant and gibberish: “People think Alsop’s wacky, and sure, some of the images you see are a bit organic, they are a bit mushroomy, but what they’re really saying is ‘think out the box, think what Bradford could be.’” when pushed by Barker, we get the following exquisite dribble: “It’s already going for it [...] urban village, residential market, tipping point, it’s happening.”

Oh, and by the way, Bradford Centre Regeneration was wound up in 2009 and the Alsop masterplan was dropped.

"Does that mean smaller apartments, and more of them?"

Soon, we’re in Leeds, where Barker notes, “controlling development is the problem, not encouraging it.” Barker hangs around underneath City Island, shockingly bad lumps of cynical regeneration tat, and it’s good to see that even before the crash mainstream voices were making alarmed noises about this kind of thing. But even that’s nothing compared to Bridgewater Place, a residential tower around the same height as the Barbican, a shockingly ugly building designed by everyone’s least favourite architectural hacks, Aedas. There’s a great scene though, when Michael Gardner, the project architect, is asked about the increase in units from Aedas’ initial design of 156 residential units to the developer’s in-house layout of 201. Mumbling and obviously uncomfortable at Barker’s implications of penny pinching, Gardner euphemises that “they’re able to deliver a … a more refined product to the market.” This of course was the story about the boom - developers were so unchecked, so cynical, that so many of these inner city developments are spatially far, far worse than the detested social housing of old. Sure, the construction is generally better, they don’t tend to rain on the inside, but let’s just wait till their cladding needs replaced in a few decades and we’ll see how much love people still have for them. In Bridgewater Place’s case, it’s not gone well. Nominated for the carbuncle cup, apparently nicknamed ‘The Dalek’, it also apparently killed someone when high winds at the foot of the tower lifted a lorry up and crushed a pedestrian - an accident for which liability has still not been settled.

The depressing peak of the programme has to be the next scene, a visit to the property developer Kevin Linfoot, whose firm were the ones who managed to shoe-horn 30% more flats into the Bridgewater Place development. In a scene of almost poetic quality, with shades of The Fountainhead, William Golding’s The Spire or perhaps Bigas Lunas’ Goldenballs, we meet Linfoot in a penthouse office, dominated by a 1:100 model of his dream project, The Lumiere, 170m tall, over 50 storeys high, nearly 1000 apartments, but absolutely NOT to be referred to as a ‘tower block’. Agonisingly uncomfortable on the camera, Linfoot comes across as very different to what you think property developers are supposed to be like - dominant, brash, testosterone-sodden minotaurs. He barely speaks in fact, being basically drowned out by Barker, but when he does it’s amazing: “the profit levels on this building are about half of what we usually work on” he admits, before confessing “I just think somebody’s got to do it, I know how difficult these things are to do, and I want to do it [...] I suppose really it’s something that I wanted to do for myself.”

Oh, and by the way, the Lumiere never got built, and Linfoot’s property company went into liquidation in 2009.

"It's gonna make the Gherkin look normal"

After that pathos there’s a brief lull where Barker talks to John Thorpe, literally the last civic architect in the UK, who recently retired. However, we’re nowhere near the bottom yet, as we are about to encounter the full idiocy of Ken Shuttleworth. “If the economy suddenly fails, Leeds will have a LOT of empty flats.” says Barker, before instantly spoiling her insight by adding, “but one way to be recession proof, is to get the best in design.” Barker introduces Shuttleworth as “the top architect in the world”, a statement almost criminally false, when it describes the architect of the ASPIRE sculpture, the Nottingham Jubilee Campus, the forthcoming UBS behemoth at Broadgate, the Cube in Birmingham, and arguably of course the Gherkin. In the years since leaving Foster, Shuttleworth has been doing his best to make even the most boring buildings by his old boss look accomplished, as he sets out to have a firm whose usp is that they can design buildings which are both vacuously commercial and inanely flamboyant at the same time. He’s known for making some utterly ridiculous statements too (recently claiming that the Gherkin required viewing corridors of its own, the silly bollock), and in this programme I think I’ve found the motherlode. Barker interviews him in the company of some unnamed black-clad minion from the MAKE studio, stood on a bridge over the motorway looking over at the Leeds International Pool, which is to be demolished to make way for the - wait for it - ‘Spiracle’. Now, apparently a spiracle is a vestigal gill opening behind the eye of a cartilaginous fish, and admittedly it is a respiratory opening, which is ever so slightly appropriate, considering the development is one of those ones from around that time which had wind turbines stuck on the top as an oh-so-bloody-green sop, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a worse name for a development in my life, and there are a lot of offensively stupid and obnoxious developments out there. Spiracle. Spiracle. SPIRACLE. SPI-RA-CLE. It’s a spire + a miracle. A miraculous spire! ARGH WHAT’S THE POINT?

But I think what’s best here is if we just let Shuttleworth use his own rope to hang himself, for what he gives us is perhaps the worst possible justification for silly architecture that I’ve ever heard:
“The idea is to try and make a building which actually stands out from any other building that’s ever been built, so it’s like a circular building, but all the floor plates are expressed as wavy lines, so you get this series of poppadoms on top of the other. I think now with the Spiracle we can make a new ICONIC architecture, and people then rise to the challenge of that on other buildings - I think that’ll be great. In a way the Gherkin London is a marker that says the next building has to be better than the Gherkin, it puts its mark down, it pushes everybody up to the next level. And hopefully the Spiracle will do the same in Leeds, that’d be the challenge.”
My god, so architecture is basically just an excuse for each architect to wave their dick (or occasionally, tits) around in ever more flamboyant loops and shapes, in the hope that that somehow lifts the tide of all design? When people like that are described as the best architects in the world then no wonder the field is in so much trouble. (it should be noted that Shuttleworth, since the crash, has been keen to suggest that he’s against the whole ‘iconic’ building method, but this little clip is just too damning.)

As if to add insult to idiocy, as Barker waves over at the Pool building, saying “I don’t think I’ll be sorry to see it go, you obviously won’t feel sorry for it.” Shuttleworth laughs: “The sooner the better!”

Oh, and by the way, the Leeds International Pool, an excellent if -shall we say- tainted building, was soon afterwards demolished. The Spiracle never occurred, and the site is now a surface car park.

"I think it's the renaissance of Bradford"

A visit to Irena Bauman is included as an example of a practitioner offering sustainable (in the social sense) development. Not particularly interesting, it at least gives us the following interesting fence-sitting: “I think that it’s largely to do with human vanity, and greed. I don’t really want to knock developers, because they are extraordinary people, they are risk takers, they fuel the economy, they are exciting, they create possibilities, but at the moment nobody is actually looking - I can’t hear the voice of the city.” Bauman’s model is that of a responsible capitalism, which is of course fair enough, it’s a very mittel-european attitude to have, that social democratic sense of ‘diverting’ the processes of the markets and doing your best to feed them back into something like a civic sphere. It’s certainly not a very British idea though.

Commercial firm Carey Jones get a visit too, to discuss their plans for the redevelopment of the Bradford Odeon, a project that many felt was utterly necessary for the regeneration of the city, as a sort of kickstarting project. As commercial architects go, there’s not actually so much to complain about - they’re office specialists, and everything is as boring as you’d expect in that world, but at least it’s not MAKE, if you know what I mean. One choice morsel of bullshit is when partner Gordon Carey shares his spiel with Barker, trying to sell her the replacement scheme, which at that stage looks like your typically generic yawn-worthy bollocks. As far as he’s concerned, “These louvres which will be multicoloured, are reflecting the multicultural nature of Bradford”. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

Carey Jones got hammered in the crash, but are still active, although at a staff level of perhaps just over half what was shown in the project. In 2012 George Galloway managed to take the Bradford West seat in a by-election, with one of his main election pledges to support a local campaign to retain and renovate the Bradford Odeon, which still sits derelict.

"I think we need to ensure you are wowed and surprised."

It’s all rather sad really, this story, at least in terms of how the crash has stretched Bradford’s low point into a plateau of destitution, with really no end in sight. There’s also the temptation to feel a little schadenfreude at the just deserts dished out to the clueless regeneration hack, the property developer brought low, the second-rate architect spinning rubbish about a project that would never happen. But gloating is simply not appropriate when over five years later everything is still getting worse for almost everyone. In fact, since the crash the housing market has become even more desperate than it ever was before, with rental misery increasing, and a swiftly rising drawbridge separating those who can afford/inherit property and those who can’t. Significantly, one theme that runs through the whole programme is a total disdain for the architecture of the 1960s/70s, with everyone remarking how pleased they are to be removing the concrete buildings, and Barker at one point commenting on how new buildings really need to be ‘iconic’ and avoid the ugliness of the post war developments. But actually what everyone seems to be missing is the civic purpose and social aims that fed much of the development at that time, and despite all the failures, what we genuinely need now is a programme of quality mass housing, otherwise this island will continue to strangle itself, will continue to allow the rentier class to dominate, extracting wealth without investing it back in at all. If Britain’s ever going to recover properly it needs to realise that housing does not work as a free market, and never ever will.

At the end of the day, perhaps the most depressing aspect of watching this programme today is the fact that it was obvious even back then that this way of building cities wasn’t working, but 30 years of neoliberalism had removed almost all of the ways to fight back against the ‘property owning democracy’ model, and anyway, it was all too easy to just take the money that was sloshing around and go along with everything. Now what though?

Saturday, 15 June 2013

An afternoon in Newcastle/Gateshead

Work took me north the other day. I'm familiar with passing through Newcastle/Gateshead on the train, the high drama of the landscape, when approaching from the south mainly rolling, suddenly dropping away beneath the train, leaving you with that stunning view of the bridges and landscape beneath. But it's been any number of years since I last got off the train there.

I've said it before, and I'll probably say it again and again, but one of the things that is really striking about London is the lack of elevated positions. Apart from a few hills way out, the inner parts of London are flood-flat, a remnant of its marshy beginnings when much of it was neither land nor river. The normal experience of London, so punctuated by underground travel, is that of being hemmed in, with no terrain but buildings, and a sky with no real boundary to it. But coming from Glasgow, you're used to being able to see the hills that bound the city to either side, of being able to frame your location on a geological level. Newcastle seems to possess another quality entirely, where the buildings and landscape are almost hewn from the very same pale stone.

Where embankments, clifftops, facades and infrastructure fail to delineate themselves, become parts of each other.

Or occupy space in a completely inappropriate way, with the eaves of buildings almost kissing the bridges that thunder over.

I mean, what kind of thuggish futurism is this? Somewhere between the 19th century spatial adventure of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the now so reviled motorway flyover, this Jazz Age behemoth is an utter thrill to encounter.

The swing bridge over the Tyne was a project of William Armstrong, just one man who more or less embodied the 19th century. An engineer, inventor, a rational man of science, a good moral Christian, a millionaire philanthropist who made much of his money as an arms manufacturer, he was the renovator of Bamburgh Castle, a sublime medieval coastal fortress turned into a strikingly complex Victorian residence, and of course the builder of Cragside, that singular, sprawling, gadget-filled mock tudor country house out near Rothbury.

Newcastle is famous for its female population and their, shall we say, frugal attitude to clothing. Coming from Glasgow I'm used to seeing lines of women queuing up outside clubs on wet, windy, just above freezing evenings, each sporting little more than a vest, mini-skirt and possibly a light jacket held over their head to keep their hair dry, but elsewhere it is definitely the Tyneside lasses whose reputation precedes them. I hate to confirm stereotypes, but something was very odd while I was there - not only did the vast majority of the people out on the street seem to be at most 21 years old, but almost all of the women were totally playing up to the cliche, all out in denim hot-pants on what was by no means a warm day, while the boys all had their faded jeans and pastel coloured polo shirts on. They all seemed in good spirits, travelling in large groups, and strangely were all drifting in the same direction.     

I later found out that they were all going to a music festival that was on that day, but it was a very odd experience, like something out of Logan's Run where everyone over thirty is dead and the youth do nothing but frolic.

Lord Foster, Foster and Partners... what is to be done with them? The man and his firm have been so influential, have innovated in so many ways that it's almost a shame to be forced to hate some of their shitty buildings, but there's really no excuse for the Sage Gateshead to look like some kind of digitised maggot.

Overall the banks of the Tyne are one of the most complete examples of post-industrial regeneration, speculative culture, historically aggressive upmarketising. I was heading to the BALTIC centre, originally the flour mill, now of course converted into a large gallery. It doesn't need explanation, this regeneration lark, because by now it feels like we're in a whole new world entirely. It's been more than five years since the economic collapse began, and, you know, depending upon who you talk to this collapse may well be the 'big one', a perfect storm of money and work and food and technology and weather and everything, that'll certainly not eliminate the advances of modernity, but will choke off access to them for all but the tiniest little sliver of the super-elite, with the rest of us fighting for scraps outside the gates. But even the optimists concede that it's the worst economic crisis in a whole century, with still no real sign of anything like normality approaching any time soon. With this in mind, the last decade's optimistic post-industrial reclamations for culture already feel so very far away, a paradigm-shift ago.

A Matter of Life and Death

The millenium was a whole 13 years ago now, for example.

And can you see that blue and white and red thing popping up there on the horizon? That's the tallest building in the Byker development. Designed by Ralf Erskine, it might well be one of the most significant housing developments of the late 20th century, at least in Britain. Beginning construction at the turn of the 1970s, it spent over 20 years on site, with Erskine famously opening a community office for residents to take part in consultations regarding what would get built there. At the time the development was commencing it was totally against the grain for being colourful, brash, decorative and perhaps 'unserious', but its design was still effectively late-modern or brutalist in terms of massing and formal conceptions (deck access and so on). By the time it was complete it was abnormal for not being ironically vernacular, and indeed for being newly built social housing at all.

But twenty years later, after the millenium, the Erskine design language - through the bastardisation of his work at the Millenium Village down in Greenwich - would feed into one of the dominant modes of building housing in the UK. The pseudomodernism, IKEA modernism, CABEism, call it what you want, the apologetic materials and stunted massing, the attempts to pass off Britain's zombified culture of rentierism as European civic living, it was so often dressed up in a cobbled together garb which unfortunately owes much to the experiments begun here.

And for a shocking example of this you need look no further than the devilish blocks built behind the Baltic. Tactless, shoddy, aggressive in their attempt at 'blending in', there's nothing to recommend them.   In their total crassness they act as little symbols of the problems of the British attitude to housing, and to the rudderless funk that British architecture found itself in in the last decade.

But that said, the BALTIC itself was nice enough, with slightly vertiginous external lifts or wide open mirrored stairwells, and with a number of large, perfectly functional gallery spaces. At the very top there is a restaurant, which if I'm going to be thoroughly snobbish, looked to be one of those places which are so unsure, so slightly ashamed of their location that they pander to a strange notion of cosmopolitan classiness that has nothing to do with the place they belong to - overdressed staff, clingy service, a strained-stylishness to the design. Growing up, Glasgow was full of these places, London has none. At the bottom, the cor-ten steel was looking a little more grubby than it usually ought to, and the gift shop wasn't particularly large. It reminded me of Meades' talking about the glut of galleries in his On the Brandwagon, and about how there simply isn't enough good art to go round for every single city to have a massive Tate-style branded art space. But though there is a truth there, it is manifestly unfair - why the hell shouldn't every city have a contemporary art space? Why should you have to get on the train to London for anything at all, let alone to see some post-post-post-Duchampian conceptualist from Croatia? Furthermore, it's manifestly unjust for places like the BALTIC to face a 100% cut in funding, cruelly forced by directive from the callous shire-dwelling scum who 'lead' us now.

Downstairs, in the ground floor cafe, my neighbours were conversing on nihilism and sourdough bread. Perhaps it's the same everywhere after all.

And from one form of obnoxious contextualism... another.

Pictured here are a number of the drifting young people I mentioned above. At this point I was almost pushing against a tide of them as I walked up the hill further into Gateshead.

The arse-end of a Foster blob, skips and all.

The crowds of young men and women were in good spirits definitely, but there was definite evidence of their commitment to the derangement of the senses.

Of course not.

A little up the hill, an example of the 19th century civic architecture that is so notable across the north of England and in Scotland. A limestone or sandstone Edwardian Baroque, robust, confident, unpretentious. This building is now marooned on a traffic island.

Here it looked as though a building had slid into the ground, leaving some kind of metallic trail in the air behind it, almost as if there's a lever that can raise or lower the facade at will.

In my hand is a postcard I bought in the gift shop at the BALTIC. It shows 'Trinity Square', better known as the 'Get Carter Car Park'. I am standing in a position that a few years ago would have shown the image depicted on the card. Behind it is what sits on the site now, a Tesco super-development featuring housing, mega-market, underground car-parking and retail units. I can still recall seeing the car park from the train in past visits, appearing just as a series of horizontal black shadows against the sky, perched at the top of a hill, appearing for all the world like one of the Northumbrian castles that dot the shores nearby - Bamburgh, Lindesfarne, or the dramatic, potent ruins of Dunstanburgh.

The Trinity Square development was designed from 1962-7 by the Owen Luder Partnership, in particular by Rodney Gordon, that debonaire playboy brutalist, one of the real architecture personalities of the era (along with but for different reasons John Poulson). Gordon died recently, but not before he had to suffer the indignity of many of his best works being humiliated and then demolished (including the 'Dunston Rocket', a gloriously barmy tower a few km to the west) . Working at the rough and ready commercial end of the industry, Gordon still managed to design and construct some of the most dramatic and masterful buildings of the post-war era, a true British brutalism comparable, as Meades says, to the insolent braggadocio of Vanbrugh. But by the end of the century the work was popularly loathed and despised, piss-stinking, rain-stained, a hellish artefact from the foolish attempt at social modernity that Britain tried and failed to achieve. Let's not go over this again, the amount of breath wasted and keyboards worn down rehashing the arguments for and against brutalism hasn't really got us anywhere.

And with the Tricorn centre gone, the Dunston Rocket gone, the Milford Towers in Catford awaiting demolition (by Tesco, again), it almost seems like there's a vendetta against Owen Luder buildings. But that's not the case - indeed, the very commercialism of their programme has worked against them. As far as Tesco are concerned, there's no aesthetic or cultural argument being made for demolition in these cases. What has now been built on the site of Trinity Square is at least five or six times bigger in terms of floor area, with units specifically configured for contemporary retail usage. It's a utilitarian, commercial decision that leads to demolition in these cases. But what happens when these plans are made is that architectural experts and aficionados point out the significance of the buildings, their importance to the history of our cities and their high quality in terms of design, and make the case for preservation. To counter these objections, all the councils (who are almost invariably in favour of redevelopment, for obvious reasons) and developers have to do is mobilise the latent public dislike of concrete architecture and turn what is nothing more than a numbers game into a crusade to rid our cities of these symbols of poverty and misery. It's worked before, and it will probably keep working, although the ongoing battle for Preston Bus Station shows that in this world of austerity, the fight for preservation has a stronger hand than it used to.

To this day, the site of the Tricorn Centre is still just a flat car-park. Not so for Trinity Square, where redevelopment appears to be around 80% complete. But just look at how bad this design is, with its silly tinfoil hats, its jolly multicoloured tiles, its half-hearted stone cladding, its Arial Bold signage.

its further examples of crass, tired, pointless contextualism (red brick! limestone! it matches, look see!)

Although across the road, THIS is still there, for some reason. Oh, what happened to the cheap metal-clad, round detailed architecture that tried so hard to cling onto brutalist principle when the tide was turning towards post-modernism and pastiche? It's not an easy kind of building to like, but is interesting for its links to both styles, as well as its affinity with big-sheds, the true architecture of post-containerisation capitalism.

Too many materials? Stupid roofs? Silly colourful cladding? Privatised public space? Quasi-policemen everywhere? Nobody is going to fight for the preservation of these buildings in 40 years time when the guarantees on the materials have all run out and the wafer-thin stone panels have fallen from their sockets.

Some more festival-style shops still exist, perhaps because of their simpler design being more amenable to conversion and internal refurbishment.

And some handsome terraces, perhaps a little to grand for worker's housing, now seemingly home to solicitors and other professional offices.

Think of what's now missing. And when you consider that take-over attempt in Peckham, where a bunch of posh, white, fabulously well-connected young people want to turn a car-park into a permanent arts space, there could have been something much better done with a partial redevelopment of Trinity Square.

It was time to go. Tower blocks across the country nowadays are so often covered in noddy hats and external insulating render, in various different friendly colours, that it can be quite odd to see examples that appear to have retained their original sombre colours. I suspect this one might have been tinted, but it's certainly not had the facade re-worked or over-clad. It stood rather lonely on the sides of the grand slope down to the river, with a verdant pathway approach from the centre. Probably not so nice to walk down at night, especially not with youths hanging around in the park, but I imagine the views from the top are something else.

Elevated concrete walkways. It's a shame how something so placid, such a sensible improvement in management of transit, such a simple concept as the raised walkway, how it became such a seemingly terrifying thing. With those staircases it becomes almost akin to moving around in an abstract sculpture, all dramatic mass and poised line. But of course there is a sense of being trapped, of being vulnerable to whoever comes along from the other end, but that is by no means a given, and we don't go ripping up Edinburgh despite the genuinely dangerous nature of the lanes that slice across the old town.

Here was another estate, largely boarded up. Low rise, stepping down the hill, nestled in the curve of the railway and the busy main road, it -again- occupied that grey area between post-war modernism and  postmodern detail. Massed almost like a boxy De Stijl composition, all cubes seemingly interpenetrating with themselves, it nevertheless had classical porticos tagged onto the outsides.

It's very possible that the doorways are a later addition inspired by the work up at Byker. There was almost nobody around, although there were still houses in occupation.

Who knows if these things are effective, but there's something chilling about their perfunctory design quality and the sheer painful depth of mental state into which they are meant to intervene. Someone connected to me took their life by jumping from a bridge, their empty car was left half way along, and there were witnesses who recounted what happened, but their body wasn't found for quite a long time afterwards. 

And across the bridge. At one point you would have been able to see the Dunston Rocket from here, poking up to the left of the image. Gone.

Di Dodi Die

And from here you would once have seen the Trinity Square Car Park. Gone. Along with no certain amount of civic confidence.

I swear this walkway was an unpleasant experience. About 1200mm wide, with cars passing at 60 miles per hour to one side and a 40m drop to the other, and the bridge being perhaps a mile long, it's the stuff of pursual nightmares.


And with more time I might have gone up to see that tall one on the Newcastle side, which looks quite exciting to me.

And back to Blairism. This concoction is one of those science museums that were built up and down the country in the last decade or so. copper clad, irregular, a mish-mash of shapes, it's got pseudomodernist brandwagon written all over it.

And this kind of bollocks again. This is exactly the kind of rubbish that Erskine was the unfortunate trailblazer for. Many materials, many colours, huge massing pretending to be a collection of smaller buildings, poky windows, a paucity of ambition.

Pictured to the right appears to be Newcastle's gay quarter, all one street of it.


And I should have known they'd have a Charles Jencks DNA sculpture in there. Always interesting, always wrong.

And getting ready to go home, there was a great addition to the genre of 'buildings within buildings', this little British High-Tech pod of shops. Shades of Richard Rogers and his factory designs, with the ringed columns and tension cables, and charming with its filleted corners and sleek shininess. I'm told it's going to be removed, as they're 'upgrading' i.e adding more shops to the station.

And a train went through, laden with coal, probably from the Port of Tyne. Of course, time was that Newcastle was a coal city, but that's pretty much all gone now too, and one can't help but reflect on the way that the decline in civic modernism, and the sense of pride that went with it, was tied in with the decline in industry, the further and perhaps final centring of the British economy in London. Let's go ahead, be vulgar and stress the connections between industry, pride, social democracy, abstraction and modernism, and conversely speculation, rentierism, 'gentlemanly capitalism' and classicism, deference and so on. It makes sense.