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Byker, Ralph and me: BDP's Tony McGuirk on Ralph Erskine's Byker Wall

A new photographic study on the residents of Tyneside’s Byker prompts BDP chairman Tony McGuirk to reflect on his time working on Ralph Erskine’s historic housing scheme

Byker, September 1983, Jonathan Cape; Byker Revisited, £30, September 2009, Northumbria Press, www.northumbria.ac.uk; both by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

Byker is most commonly known by architects for the so-called ‘Byker Wall’. For me, and I expect all the members of Ralph Erskine’s team who designed Byker (a scheme which rehoused 12,000 people), it will always be known for its places and its people.

In my first visit to Byker, I was shocked at the relentlessness of the streets that ran directly up the steep slopes with gradients of around one in six. I’d grown up in industrial Merseyside and witnessed the same in areas like Liverpool’s Scotland Road, but here the scale of the slope made the difference. The Victorian engineer had designed with the slope to link houses to it like beads on giant repetitive urban abacus. This made the streets an easy walk down and a tough walk up. This developed a people with strong limbs, but those that weakened through age or illness suffered the engineer’s curse.

The only interruption in this plan was the institutions and commercial establishments. Shops and pubs happened at street corners, and as a giant string along Raby Street, the major north-south route at the flattening of the slope. This street turned the abacus into a giant urban fishbone. Churches and mission halls, (the Byker people were believers) were to be found built into streets or punctuating the grain or standing in church yards like St Michael’s. The other element was the dwelling type, the Tyneside flat – two side-by-side doors in the street accessing two stacked flats. This, I believe, was unique to Newcastle, if not to Byker.

The people you met in the old Byker (I, like many members of the team lived in the old streets for a time), were strong physically and quick-witted. They were shipbuilders – tradesmen and craftsmen, many of whom made good boxers and footballers. They were people who liked to talk about themselves and were curious about strangers from afar, but had little interest in those from other parts of Newcastle. In turn, people from the surrounding areas of the city regarded Byker residents as separate and distinct, almost closed. It was with these residents that the Ralph Erskine team worked to reshape the physical character of their place.

Erskine had been brought in by a Conservative council to find a solution to the re-housing of the people who had blocked attempts by previous Labour administrations to move them out of the area. The people had stonewalled the politicians and hence the move to find an architect planner from afar that had a socialist, humanist, ‘persuasivist’ approach to resolve the impasse. The initial meetings with the people were brokered by the clergy from the local churches and politicians were barred. Erskine advocated the peoples’ wish for new houses with ‘mod’ facilities and gardens.

Rather than springing from sewer lines and repetition, the new plan looked to create warm microclimates aided by the southerly slope. And, in counterpoint to the long unrelenting street blocks of old, the new plan used the contours as pedestrian routes, permeating each area with multiple links and shortcuts up and down. The edge of the plan was delineated by a serpentine microclimatic ‘wrap’ building, nicknamed the ‘Byker Wall’.

This wondrous, giant brick mural on the north side and sunnyside of inhabited and planted communal verandahs, was all about the idea of placing people in the light and sun, and offering them some of the most spectacular views in urban Britain – the Tyne, its bridges and cityscape.

Much has been said of the influence of the planned and un-built motorway whose noise the form was intended to keep out. The road was not the sole reason for the form. Climate is king in Erskine’s work (and mine too) and noise is a part of this; the railway line and metro also run along the north side, and the biting north easterlies whistle in from the North Sea. When Erskine arrived on the scene, a swathe of old Byker had been bulldozed for the urban motorway. Given his resolution to re-house people in the place where they belonged, it provided a ready-made opportunity for early settlement in this protective wrap. The Wall distinguished the Byker people and they liked it. It also allowed for an intensified edge to facilitate a primarily low-rise, two-storey community with shared gardens, small greens and parks.

The rolling programme of demolition and re-housing saw family groupings reset in to the Wall as a cornerstone to communal continuity. I remember five family relations being housed next to each other on a single verandahed deck in the wall. What a shift this felt for architecture and housing at the time, after the post-war trend of British working communities being split asunder and sent to new towns and ‘overspills’.

The Wall, with its narrow-plan, ‘one-and-a-half’ aspect dwellings, was designed with deck or verandah access to a communal group of dwellings, maximum seven, I recall. This Erskine approach of creating small interactive communal groupings was a key part of his design philosophy that all his team and students believed in. My team in BDP followed this in our Den Bosch housing in Holland with apartments accessed from ‘wintergardens’(you’ve got to give it a name these days) to five doorsteps. No corridors – just people with immediacy to their front door, the ability to share daylight with their neighbours, feel the temperature and see if their plants need watering.     

The streets were re-invented as housing groups running along the contours, enjoying the sunlight and views and related to existing landmarks and identity points. Colour was felt by Byker people to be an important ingredient of the new after the dour, harsh environment they had come from.

I left Byker at the end of 1979, as my wife and I planned to work our way around the world. By then, the new/old Byker community appeared happily housed and with a continuity of character and life in its new modern context. Earlier that year, a new Prime Minister had entered Downing Street, quoting the words of St Francis of Assisi – a Saint and city I like a great deal. Many of us had wondered if we would finish the work at Byker because the latter phases were abandoned following spending cuts.

None of us were prepared for Thatcherism. The shipyards were closed and the people of Byker sent into a dysfunctional freefall that affected so much of working Britain. It is ironic that around 10 years later I returned to the north-east, winning a new university project for the then Sunderland Polytechnic with BDP.

The poly, now a university, became a great success story and the main employer for the city. This micro-climatic masterplan was designed in the spirit of all that I had been taught, and followed the same approach of working with users. It was showered with awards for architecture and urban regeneration – whereas Byker never won an RIBA Award. During the 1990s Byker fell further into social and economic trauma, unsupported by any regenerative force.

During the 10 year period of working in Sunderland, I took many of my design team to Byker to see and discuss the approach of designing with microclimate and working with users. I am sure they understood, but I couldn’t help feeling they were more pre-occupied by the shapes, form and chromatic character – after all, there’s nothing quite like it.

Earlier this month, I arrived in Byker on a morning of brilliant sunshine and a Scandinavian blue sky after a night of -5°C. As I walked from the Metro through the cold side of the wall, the microclimatic effect felt like the sunny side of an alpine slope. The many schools that were built into this pedestrian place rang out with the sound of children testifying to a new Byker generation. The areas that have suffered are those on the south side, lower slope. Here we planned the last phases of the project. This incomplete edge could not hold back poor behaviour as the areas closer to the wall had.

Despite areas that have been physically stressed by the politics and social outfall over two decades, the place still has a wonderful integrity. Byker now has a new community. People of all races have joined original residents, adding to the polychromatic architecture.

Although it has suffered, in many ways this is how Byker should be, as it was designed: democratic housing for people who really need it. Had this area been located in Bloomsbury or west London it would have been overrun many years ago by middle-class professionals wanting to live in a modernist icon. This was always a concern in the design team as many of us lived for a time in the new Byker and knew how good it could be as a place to live in the city.

Byker was not an experiment, but a real scheme in real time and it worked. It was exhausting for those who worked on it, and of course the people who waited patiently to be re-housed, suffering great difficulties in a continuous demolition and building site. Having the architects share their day-to-day communal mayhem created a bond. Simple things like forward allocation of new houses allowed the residents to plan, anticipate and watch the building of their new homes day by day. It all sounds a bit romantic in retrospect but like most great things it was just hard work and dedication from designers, community, and local services.
Tony McGuirk is chairman of BDP

Byker Revisited by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

In the late 1960s Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, a founder member of Amber, the Newcastle-based film and photography collective, came to live in the community, which the Erskine development endeavoured, but mostly failed, to transplant, writes Graeme Rigby, a fellow collective member. She documented Byker and its people until the end of the 1970s, when her house was pulled down.

She returned in 2003, finding a mobile, multi-cultural estate, as well as a community ready to instill the Byker Wall with their own sense of identity. Over the following six years, Konttinen invited the residents to imagine their lives in ‘just one picture’. The resulting book, Byker Revisited, captures a period of extraordinary change, documenting the complex nature of urban lives and the architecture that surrounds them. Through her portraits and the residents’ testimonies, Konttinen draws together singular lives into a virtual community, continuing a dialogue once lost in the name of progress.

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