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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?


[1] Glynn, S. 2015, ‘Good Homes: lessons in public housing from Byker’, viewed 26th November 2019, <>

[2]Municipal Dreams, 2013, ‘The Byker Estate Newcastle’, viewed 26th November 2019, <>

[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 <>

[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 <>

[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, <>

[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:<>

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

[6]  Konttinen, S. (1971) ‘Clydesdale Road’, Amber, Accessed 2nd December: <>

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


3 responses to “Byker Wall Estate – Should we love it or hate it?”

  1. Hi Charlotte, thanks for such a great and insightful paper. This reading is close to me, growing up in Newcastle, the Byker Estate is nonetheless iconic, this estate is a big part of the identity of Newcastle. Therefore, answering your question, I would have to say I love Byker Wall, something I may not have thought I would say, but yes to an extent.

    You briefly mentioned the social approach being the key in the design and I could not agree more, and I have to say this was a big part to the success of this estate, why I ‘love’ the estate. Minton (2015) covers the background before the heritage estate being built during the 19th Century. People living together in high density, poor sanitation and conditioned small terraced housing rented by private landlords, all living class that worked on the quayside.

    On one hand, overcrowding in the area may seem to be bad but this was holding them together in Byker. Pallasmaa (1994) writes, the dwelling is just the shell or container. Home is an expression of one’s personality and family, the way and pattern of life. That type of lifestyle and concept of home may not be what mine or yours are, but thinking with their shoes on, the main idea of home for them was to be with so and so down the street, more than a modernistic house designed by a world-famous architect. Pallasmaa continues to write that “the emotional impact is related to an act, not an object or a visual or figural element. The phenomenology of architecture is founded on verbs rather than nouns.” The people in Byker were not wealthy, they valued their relationship between space, and that was through living together, social capital was key and is key in design. Furthermore, Erskine so integrated with the community helped tenfold, and what he achieved was helping the dweller to move in a new type of settlement but also bringing the family together and that is what they felt like home. This type of design is why I love Byker Wall but the negatives that follow do make me question my choice.

    As previously mentioned, I am from Newcastle, knowing and hearing the negative comments towards this estate. I agree that the sense of community may have been lost, and you do feel unsafe being in the area, this may not help with the levels of crime and unemployment rate within Byker. However, Glynn (2015) writes, this estate is now taking a new life and refurbishments have been made, in addition, Dunton (2019) writes about the £4m upgrade set for the estate. I hope this can kickstart the rebirth of Byker Wall, without a doubt there are still a lot of work to be done, to bring back the sense of community this place once had, but with refurbishment and funding, I think Byker Wall can become improved with quality and sense of community.

    Dunton, J. (2020). Erskine’s Byker Wall estate set for £4m upgrade. Building Design. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Jan. 2020].

    Glynn, S. 2015, ‘Good Homes: lessons in public housing from Byker’, viewed 26th November 2019, Available at:

    Minton, A. (2015). Byker Wall: Newcastle’s noble failure of an estate – a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 41. The Guardian. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Jan. 2020].

    Pallasmaa, J. (1994). Identity, Intimacy and Domicile.

  2. Thank you, Charlotte, your comments on the positive and negative points of Byker wall are all very interesting. Being from the north east of England, and having visited the Byker/ Byker wall region a lot in my life, I feel I can further contribute to the discussion. For example when navigating around the area, there can definitely be areas where you don’t feel as safe, however, there are ways that you can see you have many option when walking around the estate if you are unfamiliar with it, for example, Gordon Cullen’s serial vision, incorporated by Erskine[1], helps to guide you through the space as, if you were to “… walk from one end of the plan to another, at a uniform pace, will provide a sequence of revelations…”[2] . This helps with feeling easier as you can see what is coming your way and if there is something ominous, whether it is a group of a person or something else, you can easily take another route and still be able to see where you are going and what’s there. Therefore people can move through the area safely reducing the chance of something happening. This also helps Byker’s sense of community as people who live by one another can easily see each other in the streets or around Byker wall. Although saying this in the past there has been criticism since Erskine first designed Byker wall;

    “Whatever the quality of Erskine’s Byker, it is difficult to justify the violent disruption of redevelopment. Besides effecting a significant break-up of the existing community, the demolitions were the cause of years of gross discomfort and worry for a great many people.”[3] There are definitely the remains of the intended use of some areas at Byker wall, with the closed down shops and closed YMCA, are reminiscent of good intensions not maintained. However, there are still efforts in to keep the community spirit alive as the completion of the refurbishments of 628 flate and maisonnettes has just recently been completed[3], which helps keep the community spirit alive as when it comes to human beings we have particular reactions to what we perceive as beautiful environments;
    “We find buildings that incorporate certain aesthetically pleasing patterns or rhythm to be more beautiful because our brains are conditioned by evolution to associate those patterns with safety, security, well-being and survival.”[5]

    So although there are definitely positives and negatives within Byker and Byker wall I feel the way things are going is that there definitely seems to be an increasingly more amount of positives. I think this is because of the increased involvement within the community as well as the recent upkeep and maintenance of the estate. Although in the past the development has been disruptive to the community and not everyone was able to contribute to the design development of Byker Wall, who lived in the area, the current residents seem happier now that the refurbishments are done, which physchologically in turn will hopefully help them be put into a better mood and hopefully increase the safeness of the area.

    [1] Massey M. 2019, Place Making in the Garden Village Tradition, Principles and Practice of Urban Design TCP8090, Newcastle University, 14/ 11/2019
    [2] Cullen, G. (1968). Townscape. New York: Reinhold Book Corp, p17
    [3] Glynn, S. 2015, ‘Good Homes: lessons in public housing from Byker’, viewed 13th Jan 2020, <>
    [4], viewed 13th Jan 2020
    [5] Ricci, N. 2018, The Psychological Impact of Architectural Design, p12 <>

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