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Have you ever stepped inside?

If you have what did you think?

I remember when I first crossed the boundary of the famous Byker Wall and entered the world that is the Byker Wall Estate I was taken aback. You transition from the roaring noise of the traffic into what feels like a suburban oasis. The cars become just a faint memory, replaced by the beautiful sound of birds singing. My initial reaction was ‘this area feels safe’. However, as I walked further in there was an almost unsettling feeling. The colours of the houses suggested a playfulness, yet it was all deadly still.

Admittedly I was visiting in the middle of the day when people tend to be at work, but that doesn’t mean everyone is. Would you not expect to see retired people or new mothers with their prams enjoying the good weather? But no. Instead those people I did encounter tended to be young adults milling about in intimidating groups, seemingly bored with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

 

To an outsider this place felt anything but welcoming, yet it was declared the UK’s best neighbourhood in 2018. So, what is it that people love about this place?

Its architectural importance certainly plays a roll. It is the only late 20th century collection of buildings to be awarded grade II* listing status making it “a Mecca for touring architects.” [1] Known for its colourful buildings and, in particular, the Byker Wall, “Byker was taken to represent a dramatic break with the aesthetic and ethic that had dominated the social housing of the sixties”[2] and stands with great historical importance as a result.

Architect Mark Massey from IDPartnership presented an interesting lecture on ‘Place Making in the Garden Village Tradition’ asking, “How can we make places healthy and rewarding to live in?”[3] He used the Byker Wall Estate as a local example, stating that “it is a place we can learn a lot from and that it should be the blueprint for how we design now”[4].

Yet, known for being the home of ‘Ratboy’ in the 1990s and the setting for the TV series ‘Byker Grove’; Byker is often not met with a positive view. Usually associated with anti-social behaviour and child poverty, reports such as “the living conditions are horrible”[5] and “the Byker wall wants pulling down” [6] are not uncommon.

So, what exactly should we be carrying forward in our designs today?

I believe the social approach is the key.

Unusual to most slum-clearances of the time there was a “strong wish to preserve the social character of the area.”[7] Consequently Ralph Erskine, the architect, pledged in 1968 that “the main concern will be those who are already resident in Byker, and the need to re-house them without breaking family ties and other value associations or patterns of life”[8].

Much like for Ebenezer Howard, who’s Garden City concept was “based on sociological considerations and a concern for public health”[9], the people were at the heart of Erskine’s design. Refusing to just follow the tower block trend of the time, Erskine strongly believed that one should engage with the people and hear what works from their perspective. To aid this, he actually moved into the estate, setting up his office in an old shop and lived above it. This meant that not only did he start to get a real feel of the place himself, but residents could approach him with ease.  Essentially, the estate was designed for the people, by the people, to keep their community together. It is, therefore, unsurprising that many residents developed a deep routed love and sense of care for the estate.

The involvement of the residents in both the design and running-of the estate is undoubtedly what makes it stand out and should be commended.

However, as time has passed, the community has changed resulting in the sense of care and community decreasing.  The Byker estate suffered greatly from unemployment, with levels reaching 30% at its peak. “Unsurprisingly, levels of deprivation and complaints of antisocial behaviour rose accordingly.”[10] On talking to a resident of the estate he said that “It feels unsafe and dirty with rubbish being left everywhere.”[11] So, when you combine the all of that with the fact that estate is still in need of refurbishment it becomes less surprising to hear it being described as ‘a hole’ or ‘a right dump’.

Whether a resident or an outsider, people have an opinion about it. Either way, much like with marmite, I believe that those strong beliefs are testimony to its success as it remains in conversation and does not stand forgotten.

So, I’ll end by asking you, which side of the ‘wall’ do you sit on – do you love it or hate it?


References:

[1] Glynn, S. 2015, ‘Good Homes: lessons in public housing from Byker’, viewed 26th November 2019, <https://sarahglynnblog.files.wordpress.com/2017/10/good-homes-text-only.pdf>

[2]Municipal Dreams, 2013, ‘The Byker Estate Newcastle’, viewed 26th November 2019, <https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/the-byker-estate-newcastle/>

[3] Massey, M. 2019, Lecture 6: Place Making in the Garden Village Tradition’, Principles and Practice of Urban Design TCP8090, Newcastle University, delivered 14th November 2019

[4] Massey, M. 2019, Lecture 6: Place Making in the Garden Village Tradition’, Principles and Practice of Urban Design TCP8090, Newcastle University, delivered 14th November 2019

[5] BBC, 2007, ‘The Byker Redevelopment: The Byker Wall is an impressive structure but have you seen what lies behind it…?’, Viewed 29th November 2019 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/tyne/content/articles/2007/01/06/byker_redevelopment_feature.shtml>

[6] BBC, 2007, ‘The Byker Redevelopment: The Byker Wall is an impressive structure but have you seen what lies behind it…?’, Viewed 29th November 2019 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/tyne/content/articles/2007/01/06/byker_redevelopment_feature.shtml>

[7] Pendlebury, J., Townsend, T. & Gilroy, R. 2005, ‘Social Housing as Cultural Landscape: A Case Study of Byker, Newcastle Upon Tyne’,UNESCO University and Heritage 10th International Seminar: ‘Cultural Landscapes in the 21st Century’.  Newcastle University 11-16 April. Newcastle University, pp. 4

[8] Erskine, R (1968), Memorandum

[9] Krier,R. 1979, ‘Urban Space’, Academy Editions: London, pp64

[10] Municipal Dreams, 2013, ‘The Byker Estate Newcastle’, viewed 26th November 2019, <https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/the-byker-estate-newcastle/>

[11] Anonymous, 2018, ‘Interview’, Interviewed by Charlotte O’Dea for ‘Tools for Thinking’, 10th October.

 

Image References:

[1] O’Dea,C. (2018), Byker Wall

[2] O’Dea,C. (2018), Byker Wall

[3] O’Dea,C. (2018), Inside the Byker Wall Estate

[4] ‘Aerial view with Byker Wall at top’,Google Earth, Accessed 26th November:<https://municipaldreams.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/google-earth.jpg>

[5] O’Dea,C. (2018), Inside the Byker Wall Estate

[6]  Konttinen, S. (1971) ‘Clydesdale Road’, Amber, Accessed 2nd December: <https://www.amber-online.com/collection/byker/>

[7] O’Dea,C. (2018), Inside the Byker Wall Estate

 

School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne and Wear, NE1 7RU

Tel: 0191 208 6509

Email: nicola.rutherford@ncl.ac.uk


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