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Chester-le-Street Civic Centre architect 'sad and disappointed' over demolition

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The architect who designed the award-winning Chester-le-Street Civic Centre has said its proposed demoliton is ‘too hasty’

The bulldozers will move into flatten the 1982 building, which was designed by Faulkner-Brown Hendy Watkinson Stonor, this week. The aluminium-clad town centre landmark, which the local council said was too costly to maintain and has since moved its services out to other buildings, will be replaced by houses.

Speaking to Newcastle based title The Journal, Neil Taylor, senior partner at FaulknerBrowns, said: ‘It was an incredibly modern building in its time and I am very sad and disappointed that it is to come down.’

In a letter to the Twentiethh Century Society earlier this year Taylor said: ’ The significance of the design was that it established a totally new relationship between elected members, Council officers and the public.  It not only allowed simple and easy access, but also made the people who worked in the building visually accountable.’ 

The building was described as a ‘skilful attempt to reflect the importance of local government’ in the Architects’ Journals when the building was completed (see below).

A failed bid to save the building, led by the Twentiethh Century Society, was launched last August. Although the society recommended a grade II listing for the building ‘to prevent the loss of this important heritage asset’, the application was rejected.

 

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Building study (AJ 04.08.82): Chester-le-Street Civic Offices

Community architecture in our culture is self-effacing. Official architecture on the whole is pompous or complacent. Chester-le-street district offices is an attempt by the Tyneside firm of Faulkner-Brown Hendy Watkinson Stonor (FBHWS) to create an official architecture which is also community architecture. An architecture that is neither wholly self-effacing nor complacent enough to assume that the symbolic architectural gesture we have seen over the years, from South Shields and Liverpool to Kensington and Bletchley, is still relevant to contemporary local government.

Chester-le-Street is a skillful attempt to reflect the importance of local government, the accessibility of its procedures and its relationship to the community. In itself this would be sufficient reason to review this building. But there are other reasons which combine to make Chester-le-Street important.

First, it may be seen by some local government critics as a virtuoso final act of a building programme effectively stopped by central government stringency. It is, on the other hand, probably the only civic building in recent times where the level of expenditure achieves an effective balance between an appropriate amount of internal ceremonial image for this particular local government and a commitment to the importance of a pleasing and useful working environment (the ratepayers can enjoy it too) as a means to delivering more efficient services to the community. Second, the architect got very close to the client (a group led by an architect), even being consulted about crockery and cutlery, and has kept the client’s confidence throughout; and third, the general arrangement of the design is sensitive to most users’ needs, not only individually to the officers, the councillors, and the public, but, most importantly, it is sensitive to the contact between all three. Fourth and finally, the right building was delivered on time, with quality and within budget without sacrificing design control to a package deal.

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Systems considered

In 1979, when the architect was appointed to conduct a feasibility study, the council carried out its ‘work from four buildings in the town, 1. They were not close enough to be a coherent whole, they did not offer sufficient accommodation and the fabric was deteriorating rapidly. The conditions led both, to - the isolation of local government from: the community and, inevitably, oper~ting inefficiencies. You cannot do your job it the roof leaks and your clients are tetchy from queuei.ng on the stairs or in the rain.

The council had been considering a package deal system for some time and commissioned FBHWS to:

  • review the performance attributes of this system and process
  • write a brief for a new building based on its experience
  • recommend a development policy to the council

The system consists of a braced structural steel frame on a 7 - 2 m grid. Precast concrete panels and plank floors are used. While these essential system characteristics by themselves did not prohibit its use for Chester-leStreet, they did impose certain planning and design constraints. What was more serious, though, was the divorce of the commissioning user from the end design. Management of the construction cost and the construction process depended on the package dealer being able to vary the product to keep within budget. However, it did offer certain advantages: a dry envelope, a fast start on site and subcontractor management experience.

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The choice of contract

The architect prepared two proposals for the council using the same budget. The first was an accelerated conventional contract, and the second was to use a management contractor approach.

In association with Gleeds, quantity surveyors, FBHWS already had two similar projects under way which were going well and it felt confident in recommending this course of action. It also, as will be seen in a complementary article (see next week’s AJ), has an office structure responsive to the various contractual ways design can be realised.

The council accepted that with a management contract it could achieve all the cost and programme advantages offered by the package dealer, as well as having a customdesigned building. One factor in the council’s decision to go for the management contracting rather than the conventional option was the fast start on site. Had it chosen the conventional route, the project might have been jeopardised by Heseltine’s clampdown.

Faulkner-Brown Hendy Watkinson Stonor Was commissioned after a decisive visit by the client to its own offices. Design began in October 1979, the management contractor was appointed in March 1980 and move-in was in April 1982. Only the landscaping, which is needed to soften the hard edge style, remains to be completed.

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Who is the user?

In the late ’60s FBHWS was commissioned to undertake the working drawing programme for the new town hall at Darlington. The design had been set and was based on the same ‘campus’ model as used at Newcastle. Newcastle was completed by the city architect’s department in the early ’60s. Dripping with applied art and high quality materials, it was quoted in the Press as an example for all.

The reality was that this architectural landmark and municipal monument, and its offspring at Darlington, were full of bad lessons which soon became clear to FBHWS. Designing separate buildings of differing qualities for councillors and officers, and even for each department, betrayed a staggeringly shallow underst&nding of local government operational requirements, and pandered to the pomposity of councillors. The coffee pot growth on the front of the Newcastle building, 16, a council chamber, can equally be seen today as: a celebration and an affront to local democracy.

Another lesson drawn which fip.ds its place in Chester-le-Street is that multiple entrances to a building as at Newcastle, and also found in employment exchanges of the time, are a bureaucratic, not a user, convenience. They confuse rather than clarify the contact between government and people.

Landmark or monument?

The Chester-le-Street building is set back the magistrates’ court and a health centre, 2. Its dramatic silver form, 3, sits astride an existing pedestrian route to the Market Place. It has been skilfully and cleverly sited so that it is a landmark in the Victorian tradition of town halls as objects of civic pride, while at the same time complying with contemporary demands to make the internal working of the town hall irrefutably accessible to all-at least visually.

Eschewing the vernacular imagery of Hillingdon, 17, and South Norfolk (also studied by the client, see AJs 18.5.77 and 31.10.79) which FBHWS perceived as being a throwback, signifying an identity crisis on the part of local government and its architects, these civic offices have given local government in Chester-le-Street an image and an identity which are confidently anchored in the ’80s by the form and detailing of the building, as well as the way design is used to support a political idea.

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Contact

Exploiting the gentle slope on the site to provide three zones of different types of space, the design is pulled together and given a backbone by the malL The mall (or conservatory) unites all spaces in the building, crossing the three zones of space, the councillors’ rooms, function and support spaces, the amenity and public contact spaces and the open-plan offices.

Traditionally a mall was a transitional space between the outside and inside, orchestrating the contact between public and private, and has its origin in street markets and shopping arcades. It is a concept found almost universally in retail complexes, but is being found more frequently in office buildings. Selby town hall is one example (AJ 17.10.79).

Interestingly enough, Selby was a package deal project visited by the Chester-le-Street client and design team. Bedminster Down, a seminal ’70s office building (AJ 15.8.79), also exploits the organising qualities of formal routes. However, neither Selby nor Bedminster Down has the advantages of Chester-le-Street in that the mall is a route which is part of another system-it actually goes somewhere. At Chester-le-Street the mall is more than an organising device or processional way mediating between public and private. It is a light airy place redolent of ships and conservatories with its top-lit barrel vault and white painted airhandling ducts. It is a generous setting for contact between the public and officialdom.

This space is controlled by a reception point at the intersection of the mall and the amenity zone marked by the wall of glass to the restaurant, p46. At this central point visitors are directed by a receptionist to where they want to go. Contact with council officers in their two open office areas, on each side of the mall, is regulated by enquiry counters. This arrangement is formal, perhaps more suitable for buying a railway ticket than friendly local government. Reading civic offices (AJ 29.3.78) used a vertical mall to control the contact between public :and private, but once past the ground floor reception and having negotiated the complex colour-coded lift system, the visitor at least entered the same space as the officers. South Norfolk district offices (a project visited by FBHWS) has a similar system to Chester-le-Street of two checkpoints, but it made the meeting place between officers and the public the focal point of the plan, the central principle of the building’s organisation. Having chosen the public mall as the guiding concept of the Chester-le-Street plan, it was almost inevitable that entry to the officers’ realm would have to be more formally controlled. Contact with local government is therefore primarily translated in terms of walking through the corridors of power rather than having easy access to the power itself.

Sustained or confidential contact between the public and council officers is provided by a small suite of meeting rooms located behind the main reception desk, which subsidy system prevents the town hall clients from using the restaurant. It would be a real breakthrough, doing much to diffuse the mysteries of historically faceless bureaucracy, if the restaurant could be shared. Perhaps they should start with coffee - I am sure the public would not revolt if they knew how much their civil servants paid for a subsidised lunch.

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Flexibility related to space

Many aspects of the design at Chester-leStreet are based directly on FBHWS experience. They highlight some pertinent questions for the theory of office design to tackle and leave FBHWS to deal with a major issue in its future office projects, namely to determine what it is that really constitutes adaptable space for organisations of more than 40 or 50 people.

At the height of the burolandschaft boom, and before the energy crisis, the practice designed its own new offices at Killingworth, just outside Newcastle (AJs 23.4.69 and 5.2.75); The result was straightforward, 19, a happy solution to its operational needs, and is as good in 1982 as it was in 1972. Based on lessons learnt about access, egalitarianism and project team working, it mainly consisted of a large single space, clearly delineated by the core from other support spaces. In this space, on which the authority structure is indelibly stamped, work the partners and the project teams in an ideal functional relationship. This layout has hardly changed in a decade, a fact which gave the client confidence in FBHWS and gave FBHWS the confidence to transfer its notions of space size and social and operational groupings to Chester-le-Street.

For the moment this transfer is successful. However, the two main office areas at Chester-le-Street are divorced from each other by the mall, and this could be why the idea might break down in future. Arguably such an arrangement of discrete spaces does not wholly respond to change and growth. If the structure and size of departments is deformed by information technology or simply reorganised, as is likely, it may not be possible to redistribute the spaces effectively.

So how big then should the space be to be flexible? Is flexibility related to size, or is it more likely, as we have learnt from the early burolandschaft hangars, that a big clear space is inflexible by virtue of being too difficult to manage? Rather, flexibility is related to continuous space and strong architecture, as it is at Centraal Beheer. Tentative future plans for growth involve building further pavilions to the east of the mall. It may be more logical and more useful to extend the existing office space to the north to preserve spatial contiguity.

Another idea in Killingworth that was not transferred to Chester-le-Street was the full blooded burolandschaft notion of no enclosed rooms. The Labour-led group of councillors were rightly suspicious of, and the chief executive downright hostile to, this dogma.

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Who fights gradual deterioration?

Open office space is particularly vulnerable to environmental deterioration through the ad hoc erection of partitions and low-grade building management. One solution to this, developed by FBHWS through several office projects in the ’70s for a shipowner, a stockbroker, two quantity surveyors and the Newcastle Stock Exchange, was to limit the places in which enclosed offices can be located. Types of office space are zoned and physically delineated in similar projects of the period-IBM at Cosham, Havant and Warwick (AJ 18.11.81 p985) for example. At Chester-le-Street the enclosed offices for the senior officers have been zoned and designed very cleverly. On two levels with a subtle twin aspect and with each zone connected by slender, well detailed catwalks the design achieves a very rich series of visual contacts between officers, councillors, the public, the reception and the staff in their own departments.

The detailing and slope of the main ceiling will not easily accept a partition head. This further reinforces the policy that enclosed offices will not be tolerated in the open areas. As in many other office projects, the personal gain of an enclosed office is counteracted by not allowing that person to occupy the perimeter. However, at Chester-le-Street there is no sense of real sacrifice being made. The double-height enclosure in a single volume, the detailing of the catwalks, the unifying qualities of the magnificent sloping ceiling and the consistent materials and colours must make Chester-le-Street one of the most successful and innovative resolutions of the enclosed or open debate. Only those members of staff who occupy the as yet unenclosed parts of the ground floor zones may feel disadvantaged. They do not share the same qualities of light and space as the rest of their colleagues and, with their typewriters surrounded by three hard surfaces, the quality of work environment may not be the most desirable. They do, of course, have what some would claim to be the advantage of a more discretely defined territory, compared with their colleagues in the open areas.

What really is an office?

Offices are an elusive building type. Many offices are linked to other activities, for example, manufacturin, laboratories or extensive data processing. In several recent buildings the actual office space occupied by office workers is less than 30 per cent of the whole, the ballance being taken up by support and ancillary spaces. ‘Factory’ is often a derogatory term in connection with offices, but many offices, Chester-le-Street included, are becoming indistinguishable from factories both inside and out. Likewise industrial space is used for cleaner activities than those found in offices. The use-type definitions are breaking down. Chester-leStreet is part of this pattern: a quick check shows that only 28 per cent of the gross area is used for recognisable office activities, the rest is used to support the business of local government or support the staff, like the delightful two-level restaurant.

The architects have been quick to recognise this movement and, driven as much by adaptability as egalitarianism, they have detailed all the building spaces in the same way. The partitions used for the enclosed offices recur in the council chamber and the kitchens. The council chamber is a room like any other, p38, but it is the scenery and the furniture which make it a chamber. The floor finishes run through, the glazing patterns and lighting levels all combine to make future change easy and quick.

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Summing up

The architects and client for Chester-leStreet have clearly seized a central issue of town hall design, namely how to achieve a quality of image and level of contact between the parties ,involved that are appropriate to the political purpose of their institution. But there is a rrore profound and subtle level at which conrad has not been achieved. To be really successful, any building has to make a clear contact between the designer’s culture and that of the local community.

The UK is littered with buildings that are totally incompatible with the culture for which they were intended; instances where clients have clearly met the wrong architect.

Certain influential parts of the profession consider the quality of a practice to be judged by the consistently recognisable styling of the end product. It is considered a weakness to be chameleon-like-adapting one’s style to each particular client. Added to this is the fear of allowing building projects to become a ‘camel being a horse designed by a committee’. The architectural response is to justify what the public may see as the arrogant imposition of inappropriate design solutions. Of course in the present period of Portman-style marketing of the profession, recognising a building by its architect is very prevalent, for it is easier to market the end product than the process.

All this is not to decry the need for clarity of purpose and the tenacity to single-handedly achieve that purpose. It is simply to ask for an equal amount of humility and sensitivity to a local culture’s expectations and traditions (which is not to say that these are fixed for all time).

Faulkner-Brown Hendy Watkinson Stonor has always been based in the North-East. It is steeped in its traditions. Its work on the Newcastle Metro, 20, demonstrates its ability to tread the delicate line between a quality environment of which the public can be proud (it also works efficiently) and yet not allow it to be profligate in its use of the community’s resources. Its architecture has always had a great deal of common sense. For the small proportion of ratepayers in the Chester-le-Street community who will actually use the internal workings of the town hall, FBHWS has achieved that same delicate balance. For the rest of the ratepayers in Chester-le-Street, however, the local town hall is just a place where the services they expect to receive should be administered efficiently.

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For the majority of ratepayers who do not go into their town hall, their sole experience of it is the outside envelope as they drive or walk past it. Are the clock and the flag-pole really enough to meet their expectations of town hall imagery? Is it a factory they see, or is it really a town hall?

A tradition of town hall external imagery has been broken. Interestingly enough the Chester-le-Street project is a minor break in tradition for FBHWS. The project’s design has been hotly debated in the office. Breaking with tradition is not always bad, and in FBHWS’s case, in my view, it has gained enormously by adding a vibrant internal quality, spatially and in detail, to its otherwise common-sense architectural traditions. But what has happened on a general level, I would suggest, is that part of a designer’s culture has been imposed insensitively on the culture of the locality. FBHWS belongs very definitely to that tradition of designing from the inside out. The strength and simplicity of the wedge shape, with its concurrent sensible concern for energy consumption, and clear internal organisation, have left the designers with a dilemma. They have achieved their clients’,and their own objectives internally, but surely the envelope requires more appropriate imagery than they have given it.

It is bound to gain a certain notoriety in the region

The designers have clearly not compromised any of the central qualities they stand for, and it ought to be said that it is a practice which is recognised for its expert handling of the process to achieve an appropriate end product, but designing from the inside out belongs to a designer’s philosophy and culture, not a layman’s. Although the future may prove me wrong, in that the building may be gradually accepted into the community’s culture, I would suggest there could be a rather brutal transition period. Contact has not been made completely. Chester-le-Street will be a major point of reference in the future for office and town hall designers. It is bound to gain a certain notoriety in the region, which can only be good news for an institution which must always be outgoing if it is to survive.

It is an architectural project that will stand well internationally. It is more significant, I would suggest, for FBHWS than its own offices or the long running Newcastle Metro project, because it has added another very important dimension to its work.

  • 3 Comments

Readers' comments (3)

  • 32 years old and said to be too costly to maintain; are major elements of the fabric life expired, is it just that the exterior envelope needs upgraded, or has it suffered from 'deferred maintenance' (otherwise known as gross neglect)?

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  • Really sad news. A humane and inspirational building

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  • The truth is that South Norfolk District Council in Long Stratton (referred to above) is the one that really needs demolition - remote, unapproachable, out of place and ugly.

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