Terry Farrell has gone back to his Tyneside roots to breathe a new lease of life into Newcastle’s west end district with a project which continues the city’s remarkable regeneration
It is many years since the young Terry Farrell, then a student at the school of architecture in Newcastle upon Tyne, waited for a bus home on the site of what is now the International Centre for Life (ICL).
The ICL is a major regeneration move for Newcastle, a shot in the arm for the city’s run-down west end district and the decayed hinterland of Central Station.
For Farrell, the project has been significant, not only as a return to the city where he spent his childhood and student years but as an opportunity to create not so much a building complex as a city district in miniature.
Long before the site at the end of the Scotswood Road was used as a bus station it housed a cattle market - before that, a hospital. In the 1960s, the era of T Dan Smith, the slums along the Scotswood Road were flattened and the road itself cut off from the city centre - its original line runs across the middle of the ICL’s central square.
Farrell’s reinvolvement with Newcastle began, in fact, a decade ago with his masterplan for the historic, but then dilapidated, Quayside east of the city centre. The prime mover at the Quayside - now a dynamic business and leisure district - was the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation which, in its dying days, launched the ICL project.
The site was established but its future use was initially vague: a concert hall was one possible option. The mix of uses which constitutes the ICL reflected both a desire to secure National Lottery support - the project subsequently secured ‘landmark’ funding from the Millennium Commission - and to build on Newcastle University’s international reputation for research in life sciences and particularly in genetics.
Farrell’s first drawing for the development - in 1996 - shows the three elements which constitute the completed scheme - a genetics research institute for the university, a Bioscience Centre housing commercial research and development, and a public attraction intended to promote interest in genetics - arranged in a curved layout around a central open space. If the shape appears to resemble that of a human embryo, this is far from coincidental - Farrell is not averse to overt symbolism. The L-shaped, 8000m² Bioscience Centre was the first of the buildings to be constructed - commercial in function (and therefore not eligible for National Lottery money), it secured EU backing.
‘We had to get on site within three months to ensure the funding, ’ Farrell recalls. ‘It’s a straightforward concrete-framed building - nothing fancy or costly.’ Faced in sandstone on its piazza elevation and rendered on its street front, this simple but satisfying building was completed in 1998.
The 5400m² Institute of Human Genetics (IHG) (replacing inadequate accommodation on the university’s main campus) has yet to be occupied.
Housing research and teaching facilities, along with a clinic for patients, it is a colourful new addition to the city, its piazza elevation covered in a rich yellow render.
Lettable shop units have been provided at piazza level. The colours used throughout the ICL - green, yellow, blue and red - represent the code of DNA, the discovery of which launched the modern science of genetics.
The new public square (which preserves a listed market keeper’s house designed by John Dobson, one of the creators of nineteenth century Newcastle) is already well-established as a public thoroughfare and should become even more lively when all the buildings are occupied.
An open metal screen which marks the entrance to the square from the city recalls that used by Farrell many years ago at the studios of breakfast television station TV-AM.
The regenerative impact of the ICL is likely to be felt not only in the west end, but also in the ‘railway village’, a landlocked area south of Central Station where industrial buildings with potential for re-use are stranded amid wasteland and redundant railway tracks. This quarter is likely to be the next target for Newcastle’s remarkably successful regeneration programme.
As you approach Central Station from the south, the centrepiece of the ICL, LIFE Interactive World, forms a clear landmark, a symbol, it appears, of urban regeneration.As usual with such projects, there was no collection of artefacts to be displayed - ‘it was a matter of starting from scratch, and we were initially involved with developing the concept of the exhibition’, Farrell reports. LIW consists of two distinct elements - a very straightforward, steel-framed ‘black box’ exhibition hall which wraps around the back of the IHG, and a far more complex Global Garden.
Terry Farrell sees the significance of the ICL as being primarily urbanistic, yet the Global Garden is an expressive piece of architecture in its own right. Externally, it is distinguished by its deliberately organic form and by the bright green of its prepatinated copper cladding. Inside, the structure is revealed as a complex ‘folded leaf ’ of laminated timber beams, propped on steel ‘trees’ but supported on the spine wall which separates the two elements of LIFE Interactive World. (The product of protracted computer modelling, it is, paradoxically, a heavily crafted structure, largely created on site. ) The massing of the Global Garden is part of an overall urban composition, whereby the potential disjunction between the tall slab of the IHG and the far lower visitor building is avoided. The roofline of the IHG sweeps down in a dramatic ‘ski slope’ to the LIFE building, which itself cascades down almost to ground level - against the odds, the little Dobson cottage (which has yet to find a use) holds its own and does not look completely overwhelmed by its new context.
The retained building, says Farrell, performs an urban function in demarcating two distinct zones within the square.
For Farrell, the project has been an inspirational experience, both for what it is (a centre of research and education) and for what it does (regenerate the city).The Global Garden, as Farrell envisaged it, was to be a place which ‘celebrates the amazing diversity of life - from dinosaurs to butterflies’. His idea of ‘an inside-outside expanse flooded with natural light’ has been faithfully realised. Sadly, the building - like some northern clone of the Millennium Dome - has been badly let down by the quality of its contents.What could have been an uplifting space is filled to bursting with a discordant mass of exhibits which extends throughout the building.
Far from celebrating life, LIFE Interactive World celebrates the consumer world of spectacular ‘experiences’, electronic wizardry, instant amusement and shopping. Less than a week after it opened, the place was packed and the children, at least, seemed to be enjoy ing themselves.
Ominously, however, some of the machinery was already out of order, while the diet of chips, cola and ice cream offered in the cafe seemed unlikely to prolong anybody’s life. The shop seemed to be devoid of anything of an educational nature.
None of this can be blamed on Farrell and his team (though the waste of public money involved seems tragic, when regional museums are in danger of closing through under-funding). Will the crowds still be there, a year or two from now?
LIFE Interactive World may not last the course - but, if the worst came to the worst, Farrell’s building would adapt well to use by Habitat or Tesco.
Unlike many other National Lottery-based projects, Newcastle’s ICL is not dependent on visitor numbers and will enrich the city for a long time to come. Its great strength is its mix of uses, an extension of the variety which is the foundation of urban life.Building on history and memories, it makes some reparation for the damage inflicted on the city by a past generation of architects.
For Farrell, a bitter critic of the failings of Modernism, this, I suspect, is no mean consideration.
Costs Out of a total project cost of £56 million, construction costs for the Bioscience Centre and the Institute of Human Genetics/Visitor Attraction were approximately £7 million and £20 million respectively.
The glulam framework for the Global Garden cost approximately £1.5 million.
First phase October 1996
START ON SITE DATE
First phase December 1996
JCT 80 and JCT 98
TOTAL FLOOR AREA
International Centre for Life Trust
Terry Farrell & Partners: Terry Farrell, Emily Armer, Chris Barber, Michael Barry, Paul Bell, Ingo Braun, Derek Brentnall, Angela Brown, Tony Burley, John Campbell, Bobby Desai, Tom Gent, Moz Hussain, Gita Joshi, Alex Lammie, Aidan Potter, Nic Sampson, Roger Simmons, Alexandra Stevens, Mike Stowell, Doug Streeter, Paul Summerlin, Catriona Thompson, Julian Tollast, Chris Wood, Peter Yates, Karen Yiannakou, Gary Young
BDP Project Management
STRUCTURE AND BUILDING SERVICES ENGINEER
Gardiner & Theobald
Gillespies Environmental Design
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS
glazing systems Schuco; acrylic render Scotseal; architectural metalwork Dane Engineering; profiled cladding systems Hoogovens, Gasell Profiles; mesh panels Potter & Soar; precast concrete cladding Trent Concrete; sun fins Merlin; polished blockwork Lignacite; maintenance cradle system Cradle Runways; global garden structure Westbury Tubular (timber & steel); copper subcontractorVarla; copper supplier KME UK; glazing subcontractor Topside Group; glazing supplierSchuco; ETFE rooflightVector Special Projects; standing seam aluminium Corus Kal-Zip; steel deck Plannja; EPDM membrane Carlisle Sure Steel