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Ryder white Swan

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An old office complex situated right in the centre of the busiest roundabout in Newcastle is being refurbished by Ryder

The Swan House roundabout is getting a makeover and will now be known as 55 North.

Anyone who has driven over the Tyne Bridge will have been caught in congestion around the outside of the collection of buildings that populate the site, although, due to the clutter and the grimy condition of the repetitive concrete elevation, might not have given the actual building a second thought.

Historically, for the pedestrian, the only reason ever to have gone there has been for work; to register with the DHSS which once occupied a large area of the site; or to pass through the bleakest pedestrian underpasses in the city to get to some sorry nightclubs on the other side of town.Now, however, with the development of the Quayside well under way, and a new commercial dynamic materialising, developers have realised the potential ransom value of this fulcrum site as a sensible, and short, route from town to the Millennium Bridge and the Baltic. The only other way to get from the town centre to the new parts of the Quayside is to walk down the hill at the Tyne Bridge and walk along the river frontage.

Swan House, the concrete-panelled office system building designed by RMJM and Arup, was constructed in the 1960s. The town council had intended to demolish the original buildings on the site - the Royal Arcade by John Dobson - while it built the motorway through the city centre, and then rebuild it nearby after the roadworks had been completed. The demolition contractor, so the story goes, dutifully demolished the building, setting aside all the stoneblocks which had been carefully labelled to assist re-erection.

Unfortunately, it had labelled the stonework with chalk, which washed off. The resulting jigsaw was too complicated to piece back together again and was never rebuilt; the stone found its way into several municipal projects around the city.

The famous decorated arcade, however, which was the primary reason for wanting Dobson's original building preserved, was recreated on the Swan House site. Not many people know that the beautifully painted arcade is a fake - recreated in timber and plaster. So delightful is the arcade that Ryder has not only salvaged it for incorporation into its refurbishment scheme but is making a principal feature of it.

By demolishing the extraneous outbuildings that littered the site, and by taking off as much of the roof structure over the underpasses as possible, Ryder has cleared the land and enabled drivers a glorious view into the arcade, which is set exactly along the Moseley Street axis. The architect proposes building a glass box in which to preserve the arcade.

Overground, underground

So how is it possible to make access to the roundabout more pleasurable and bearable?

The A167 underpass skirts the site and comes within metres of the south-east corner of the building, meaning that it would be prohibitively expensive for the architect to provide better pedestrian access under the road.Mains cables run across the site on the south side, preventing any excavations; and other hazards have materialised in consultation with the local authority highways engineers. The pedestrian routes will therefore transfer to above ground where possible. Much to the chagrin of drivers, a pedestrian crossing into the site across the roundabout will be provided, but given that the roundabout is controlled by traffic lights, it should not cause too many problems, says the architect.

The concrete has been cleaned and patch repaired, although architectural director Ian Kennedy says the Sica protective treatment to the original Swan House has worked very convincingly and hardly any concrete repairs have been needed. This is a triumph given the building's age, the clichéd quality of the '60s concrete and the decades of traffic pollutants.

Currently - with extraneous site buildings demolished so that the building can be seen in all its glory, and the concrete cleaned and repainted - it is looking strikingly good.

The podium block floorplate comprises a 90m-long, open-plan space with stairwells and little else. The section shows that the higher level floors of the podium block oversail the ground floor and lower three storeys. The upper-storey external walls are in fact loadbearing and so the triangulated cantilever under the overhang is designed to transmit the loads to the ground floor structure. Two lines of columns running down the centre of the plan provide the internal structural support for concrete beams which rest on the columns and span to the external wall.

With such a blank internal canvas, the opportunities for conversion were limitless (notwithstanding the fact that service puncture points through the floor were limited due to the coffer slab structure spanning between beams), and indeed Ryder did produce many variations on a theme. The objective was to ensure that the flats took full advantage of the external walls. These, because of the nature of the concrete panel system, comprise about 60 per cent glazing and offer tremendous daylighting benefit. The views are pretty impressive too - across Gateshead and the Tyne way back to St James' Park.

The design and build scheme now comprises a total of 165 starter flats, family apartments and duplexes (the duplexes have been provided with terraces at either side). The fact that the previous owner had left some automatic car stacking lifts has come as a bonus, and the lower ground floor 'underground' car park can now store 110 cars.

Roundabout way of doing things

Ryder identified the challenge to perceptions as the most important objective to making this scheme viable - convincing people that this could be a pleasant urban environment and challenging the idea that it was a bleak no-go area. To lead passers-by across the site, for example, a 'helpful pulsing blue light beam' will be set into the paving which will point in the direction of the new crossings; leading people from north-west to southeast. This simple device is intended to make the route 'more inviting'.

For Ryder, the scheme hinges on this ability to rebrand a city locale. The introduction of water, timber decking, intricate lighting, mature trees, aluminium, glass and the curved magenta feature wall, all add to the transfiguration of this, the most despondent area of the city centre. Whether people decide to pass through, only time will tell.


CLIENT Crown Dilmun



CONTRACT VALUE £12.8 million

FLOOR AREA 25,547m 2

ARCHITECT Ryder (Architecture Design & Management)





CONTRACTOR Shepherd Construction

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