The contested legacy of Brutalism in the North East

Thomas Wrath discusses the divisive architectural style of Brutalism, and considers how planners and architects should approach existing brutalist buildings.

Tom Wrath
7th February 2021
Credit: Maud Webster, edited from Wikipedia

Strolling through Newcastle city centre, it is evident that its rich architectural heritage has been contested by planners and architects alike, contributing to a bustling cityscape with an eclectic bundle of designs.

Historically, individuals seeking to deconstruct Dobson’s gorgeously decadent neo-classicist frontages on Grey Street were at least partly successful, most notably the shamed former leader of the city council (1959-1965), T. Dan Smith, who provides context to the current debate of demolishing Brutalist structures through his own annihilation of the city centre. Under his modernism-driven (and extremely misguided) vision to establish a ‘Brasilia of the North’, a shiny new shopping centre replaced the Grecian inspired Old Eldon Square, the hideously overbearing Swan House (now 55° North) underwent construction, and the Royal Arcade, piece-de-resistance of the Dobson-Grainger era, was slowly dismantled and stored in a potholed car park in Sandyford. Both Commercial Union House and Berwick Court (ironically straddling John Dobson Street) produce similarly visceral reactions and are second only to the now demolished Westgate House. Evidently the architectural vandalism and systematic modernism of Smith’s short leadership irreversibly damaged John Dobson’s legacy, reproducing its own contested one that is now slowly being destroyed.

T. Dan Smith's vision for Newcastle City Centre | Micheal Evans (1964)

Crucially, Brutalism’s poor reputation is also not necessarily always a product of its actual architecture, but rather what it replaced.

Alongside the divisive, there is a plethora of well-loved Brutalist structures in the North East: from the regiment and uniform Newcastle Civic Centre to Hadrian (Newcastle) and Kingsgate (Durham) university bridges, Byker viaduct and the British Gas Centre for Research (Killingworth, North Tyneside). Rather than replacing existing and cherished city centre constructs, these products of suburbia established identity and character in areas of previous architectural lethargy, becoming emblematic of the ‘new age’ post-war and contributing to synergistic and social localities.

Image result for newcastle civic centre
Newcastle Civic Centre | Credit: Wikipedia

Shrouded in typicality and mundanity, the eastern suburb of Dunston previously housed the North East’s most loved piece of Brutalist innovation, Luder’s Derwent Tower, affectionately known as Dunston Rocket. Whilst its caisson foundations and supporting flying buttresses gave the tower its identity, their deterioration contributed to its demolition in 2012 after failing to gain listed status, generating a humorous metaphor for critics to utilise as the rocket seemingly crash landed. Missed as a local identity marker and quirky example of affordable housing, the Rocket highlights why the current generation of planners and architects should advocate for a move away from homogenous housing schemes, and be a bit more Owen Luder.

Image result for Derwent Tower
Credit: Peter McDermott, via Geograph

Perhaps most importantly, the current generation of postmodernists and neo-futurists should exercise caution in overhauling city centres for purposes of sustainability and aesthetic, whilst the imminent threat to buildings such as the structuralist Sunderland Civic Centre and post-industrial Dorman Long tower on Teesside should be managed.

The only way to protect Brutalism against the institutionalised and engrained negative attitude towards it is to understand both its original purpose, and holistic contribution to city centres, for example the huge impact that Sunderland Civic Centre had on employment in a declining area.

In Newcastle, Swan House represents an era of history, as does Grey Street, and the Tyne Bridge, and every piece of construction in the city centre. To remove this is to erase the narrative, the identity and the heritage of an inherently multi-functional and trans-centurion area. That is not to say innovation is not important, and it’s clear that areas of the city centre desperately need renovation, but every decision should be thorough.

In conceding what Dobson and Grainger were to pre-war Newcastle, and Luder and Kenyon to post-war Newcastle; visionaries should understand that allowing destruction of eithers legacy is reducing ourselves to T. Dan Smith’s level of petty deconstructionism; not just demolishing buildings, but hyper-individualistic styles and pieces of art.

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