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Great North Museum, Newcastle, by Terry Farrell and Partners

Terry Farrell reinvigorates regeneration in Newcastle, says Rory Olcayto. Photography by Andrew Haslam

There’s a lot riding on Terry Farrell and Partners’ recently completed £26 million refurbishment and extension of the Hancock Museum in Newcastle.

Rebranded as the Great North Museum, it brings together collections from the Hancock Museum, Hatton Gallery, the Museum of Antiquities and Shefton Museum, placing natural history and art collections alongside archaeological artefacts and interactive exhibits. The museum hopes to attract 300,000 visitors a year, but its potential as a catalyst for further development is even more compelling. Lying at the heart of a cultural quarter that draws on the charms of Newcastle University’s Gothic quadrangle, it forms one end of a proposed promenade that will link one Farrells masterplan with another.

In 1991, Farrells landed a commission to re-imagine Newcastle’s riverside. The fruits of the firm’s East Quayside masterplan are visible in the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, a grain silo converted by Ellis Williams Architects; Foster + Partners’ Sage Gateshead; and Wilkinson Eyre’s sublime Millennium Bridge. Given that these buildings, and the attendant bars and clubs, saw Newcastle’s image transformed from grim industrial outpost to party-mad culture hub, it must be Britain’s most successful and well-known regeneration project.

Farrells was commissioned again in 2000, this time to re-plan Newcastle University’s campus on the north side of the city, and integrate it with a cultural quarter anchored by the Great North Museum. Building on this strategy, the architect proposed another large-scale plan: a linear route, a promenade fancifully dubbed ‘the Geordie Ramblas’, linking this emerging cultural quarter to the Millennium Bridge, following existing routes for two miles uphill to the museum site (click here to see a large-scale image of the plans). Part of the route works already, using the pedestrianised Northumberland Street, but bringing traffic-choked Pilgrim Street alive again, and finding a route through its busy roundabout and RMJM’s 1960s Swan House above it, will be tough.

Newcastle has never had a coherent, holistic plan. This is where the Great North Museum comes in

Several keynote statements enliven the route. City architect George Kenyon’s 1968 civic centre is among the best of them, and Richard Grainger’s magnificent Grey Street, parallel to Pilgrim Street, is well worth the short detour. But implementing this idea has taken on a new importance. Newcastle is a city whose central point keeps shifting, often leaving desolation in its wake, but Farrells’ Ramblas is built around a route, rather than a centre – and could see this problem overcome.

Newcastle’s centre has moved several times since the 1830s, when Grainger built his commercial quarter fronted by monumental classical facades that Pevsner considered among the best in England. In the 1850s, for example, the quayside was regenerated following a disastrous fire and the city’s focus returned to the river. But later, in 1910, the completion of Tyne Bridge spelled doom for both the quayside, over which it soared, and Pilgrim Street, which was transformed into a polluted arterial route. Looping motorways, the failure of Gateshead and Newcastle’s politicians to coordinate development, and what Farrell himself calls ‘bad stewardship’ have, over the years, destabilised the city’s robust townscape. Newcastle has never had a coherent, holistic plan.

This is where the Great North Museum comes in. The museum’s original Hancock building was designed by John Wardle in 1878, in the style of John Dobson, the city’s most famous Victorian architect. Set north-south within a compact plateau raised above the street and surrounded by mature trees, the Grade II*-listed building is formed of ashlar walls, Doric pilasters and accessed by grand stone steps. Farrells has repaired he stone facades, and windows have been reconditioned and painted a dark grey to express the vertical rhythm that they set up alongside the pilasters. It looks great.

Internally, a reception space leads to three galleries beyond, each with pitched roofs that were once glazed but are now reformed with lead to comply with contemporary curatorial practice. Perimeter corridors occupy the east and west flanks, with stairwells in each corner. Farrells’ new freestanding extension sits beyond the Hancock building, but is accessed directly from it. The new build contains a flexible first-floor gallery, a café, an education suite, a library and meeting rooms.

When I visited, I decided to walk the proposed Ramblas route from the Millennium Bridge to the Great North Museum. Arriving at the museum’s front entrance, I kept on walking – through each gallery, into the new build and out through another door that took me to a new plaza and the university through-route, where people were sipping coffee and kids were playing.

This was the central idea implemented by Farrells design director Russ Hamilton. Previously, each gallery had been self-contained, accessed from the perimeter. Now, large ashlar-clad openings allow passage through and into the new build. The visual link from the reception is partly blocked by exhibits in the first gallery, but the idea fundamentally works. You can see all the way through the building.

The extension, a far stranger beast, is separated visually and physically from the Hancock building by a double-height ‘galleria’. Alongside its circulatory function, the galleria allows the identity and form of the museum buildings to be read clearly against the large-scale university blocks that surround them.

The extension appears odd at first - a barrel-vaulted barn locked into a Tetris-like block

The new build appears odd at first: a barrel-vaulted barn with grey-render walls locked into a coloured concrete, Tetris-like block. Its north facade has a top-floor balcony, ground-floor openings and a large-scale window at first-floor level. Frames and mullions are multi-coloured. Another big window punctures the concrete wall on the west facade. It appears to be doing its own thing and, on closer inspection, is slavishly contextual. Its form, size and elemental composition all stem from existing buildings.

The new roof adheres to the existing roof datum; a sandstone plinth follows through from the Hancock building, as do parapet heights. The coloured frames on the grey-render wall directly address the shocking blue of the university’s Devonshire building (designed by the Dewjoc Partnership) directly opposite. Its pigeon-breast facade threatens to overwhelm Farrells’ extension, but by stepping the barn form down a notch and cutting into the concrete wall, the new build manages to stand its ground. Its entire north elevation, in fact, has a lab-like quality suited to the campus context, enforced by the panellised roof that curves into the balcony.

Sadly, the extension’s barrel vault is boxed out internally, and consequently the top floor, containing the library and meeting rooms, is a disappointment: tight and airless.

The flexible first-floor gallery is large – 480m² and 5m high – and can be subdivided into three parts. It’s pretty raw in appearance, more like a sports hall, and one wall is marred by access doors and signage. I visited when a photography show was on, and the lighting seemed particularly stark.

On the ground floor, the museum’s central route leads through a café and into the plaza, which doubles as a university through-route. Glazed doors at either end of the galleria lead into the landscaped grounds of the plateau. It’s refreshing to be able to enter and exit the museum in so many ways. This solid building is porous; people swarm everywhere.

There is much here to recommend. Farrells’ sensitive refurbishment, clear planning, multiple through-routes and finely calibrated extension suggest an approach to placemaking that could transform the entire city. Thanks to the practice, the proposed Ramblas route now has something tangible and attractive, contextual and modern at its beginning and its end. Now for the middle bit.

Click here to see site plans of the Great North Museum

And here, for floor plans

Architect’s account: Terry Farrell

The essence of the Great North Museum project was the commitment to opening up and connecting places and spaces, and collections and history. Originally built in the Victorian era of Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament and Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture by the Comparative Method, the old Hancock Museum building was like the pages of these Victorian books: an essay in cataloguing and tabulating; in specialised, dedicated rooms.

Rapid social and economic changes have led to Newcastle University expanding ten fold in the time that I have known it. It is now a dominant presence at the uphill northern gateway to the city. The new museum houses the university’s own archaeological collections, and mixes them with the Hancock’s historic collections in spaces that are no longer boxed in and contained. Opening up and connecting views and visitor paths juxtaposes old and new architectural interventions, as well as ethnological, archaeological and natural history displays. The result is a kind of miniature version of several grand London museums, combined in one cohesive place. It is extraordinarily effective as a visual condensation, at a scale, intensity and diversity that is so different in concept to the cataloguing specialisation of its Victorian predecessors.

The primary architectural moves were to clear away and re-landscape the frontage, visually reconnecting the museum to the city centre. A new front has been built at the rear, with a new extension building that consolidates the pedestrian routes of the university masterplan, which has expanded well beyond its original site in the last 50 years. Internally, the axis from the civic centre to the statue of university founder William George Armstrong to the entrance portico is now extended inwards into a long vista path, which runs right through the building to the new extension and pedestrian walkway beyond. Side aisles and first-floor balconies were similarly opened up, so that not just axial but diagonal cross-views give a visual interacting framework that the exhibition design capitalises upon.

What inspired me was orchestrating the relationships between place, history and new city-making, with architecture and interior design continuing in an ever-increasing scale, from the details of display exhibits to internal and external streets to gardens and highways beyond. The design is Victorian and modern, but the concept is culturally post-modern; the museum embraces both complexity and contradiction, and contains much of ‘both and’, and little of ‘either or’.

Start on site date April 2007
Contract duration 26 months 
Gross internal floor area 10,500m²
Form of contract JCT 05 with quantities
Total cost £26 million project value
Cost per m² £1,600 based on £17 million total build cost for existing building, new building and exhibition fit-out
Client Newcastle University/Tyne and Wear Museums
Architect Terry Farrell and Partners
Conservation architect Purves Ash
Structural engineer WSP
Quantity surveyor Ridge
Project manager and planning supervisor Turner and Townsend 
Main contractor Kier Northern
Annual CO2 emissions² Total building estimate 44.7kg/m²; new extension 27.6497kg/m

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