Over Christmas we took a trip up to Durham City. The University’s colleges have often been suggested to us as projects for the archive but we’ve found little in the way of published information about them or the architects responsible.
Palace Green Library roofscape
Stop 1 was Palace Green library, with it’s fantastic barbed roof. Our first (and since the room itself was closed for the festive break, our only) view of it was from the top of the Cathedral tower. From here the diagonal grid of lanterns protruding from the roof surface was clearly visible. The library was designed by George Pace, who also designed the William Temple Memorial Church on the outskirts of Manchester. We’ve set up a page to it with some more photos here.
Palace Green Library stone facade
We took a detour via the wonderful Kingsgate Bridge and Dunelm House (we’ve added some new photos of Dunelm House on the project page). We recently came across a short film showing Ove Arup at the privitol moment as the bridge was swung into position in 1966 here.
Dunelm House and Kingsgatge Bridge from DurhamCathedral tower
Trevellyan College halls of residence
Our next stop was the university to the south of the city centre. We visited Trevelyan, St. Aidans and Van Mildert. Pages on the first two on this list are underway, but Van Mildert was a bit of an enigma. It had been suggested by various people as a project for the archive, but we’ve struggled to find much information on it. (The only article in the RIBA library catalogue refers to the replacement of the original windows with U-PVC in the 1990s, which also gives some indication of what we found when we arrived). The landscape and the buildings were designed by Middlesbrough practice, Middleton, Fletcher and Partners, who later became the Silvester Ashton Partnership. They also designed the Oriental Museum across the road from Van Mildert, and Steel House in Redcar, which have both also been recommended to us for inclusion in the archive. Can anyone tell us anything about them? Clearly they have a portfolio of work that falls within the remit of the SCAM archive – and much of which still exists- but there is a dearth of information on the practice.
Back in May 2011, James and Claire from the SC+M team published a short article in praise of ABKs Redcar Library in the excellent modernist magazine under the set theme of ‘brutal’. A term sometimes associated as shorthand for brutalism, the building is neither brutal nor of the architectural movement. Instead it is suggested that the management and ultimate destruction of the building marks a turning point in the regard for the values extolled through by local council whom commission the library and demolished in a relatively short period. If you haven’t yet discovered the work and publications of the Manchester Modernists, check out their excellent site on blog and twitter.
The North East has an unexpected relationship with all things brutal. Its often baron landscapes have inspired everything from Ridley Scotts apocalyptic ‘Blade Runner’, the bleak, grainy photography of Don McCullin or even James Stirling description of the ‘satanic slag heaps’ of its industrial wasteland. But it has been through the architecture of the region that offer something far more positive than distopic futures, bleak immortalised memories or a landscape defined by the remnants of industry. Tucked away from the noise of the arcades and fish and chip shops in the small seaside town of Redcar, stood a rather unassuming library. For a town shaped by a mixture of lemon-top ice creams, seaside tourism and steel manufacture it’s probably difficult for most locals to consider that this rather unassuming building is anything more than another old local authority building.
Set back from Coatham Road, a single storey mass of folded corrugated iron roofs, profiled structure steel columns form the crinkles and creases of Redcar library. The orthogonal roof profiles ripple like a mechanical ocean waves against the shore bringing light into a deep building and providing seclusion within from the amusements. Portal frames that formed the structure and designed in the feature specified by the council for long term flexibility. It was a very public exhibition of local manufacturing and materials and probably as close to a modernist regional vernacular as you might find in the North East. Described by Paul Finch as ‘a hymn to steel’, it couldn’t be more at home in heart of steel manufacturing – Redcar.
Original entrance with canopy (demolished mid 1990s)
The library was laid out as a large, flexible public space, recognisable as a library only by the shelves of books. The traditional library was reconfigured. Redcar led the way for new public buildings moving away from the elitism and civic pomp of previous generations such as the philanthropic Carnegie libraries, instead introducing a coffee shop, exhibition space and children’s play area around the main entrance to the building. The reference library and study areas were pushed to the rear or located on a raised mezzanine so as not to be disturbed by the noise from the café. The buildings programme was underpinned by a socially minded and egalitarian attitude that said education should be for everyone.
“The library should never be considered as a monument or as a cultural retreat; but a source of pleasure, recreation, information and learning; readily available to all”. David Roessler, AJ
In buildings like Redcar Library, the post-war era reflected a profound sense of confidence and civic pride. A desire for betterment and education at the heart. In 2011, Redcar and Cleveland council, led by its first Liberal Democrat MP announced the ‘Redcar Civic And Leisure Quarter’, which planned the demolition the 40 year old library, replacing it with a new civic centre and swimming pool. Given the financial insolvency of local authorities, the demolition and rebuilding library seems an expensive and unnecessary extravagance given that widespread closure of libraries across the UK. A quick consultation was held (no mention of the library), a thermal survey untaken and a ‘botched’ heritage report submitted. From civic focus, to civic disgrace the library was demolished and delegated to the small corner of an anonymous council building to make way for new council edifice.
Redcar library extolled the virtues of civic buildings playing a vital cultural role in public life that reflected on who, what and where Redcar wanted to be in the late 1960s; learning, educating and reflecting on what it meant to live in a small seaside town. Deyan Sudjec suggests that buildings are “shaped by ego and fear of death as well as by political and religious impulses”, the psychology between the relationship the commissioners and users are entirely disconnected from the purpose of the buildings they create. At the end of an era of incalculable excess and public debt, the appetite to squander public money for short term political gain does more to suggest a succinct insecurity rather than self-confidence. The opportunity to rethink and refurbish this flexible structure where all too readily dismissed.
The library embodied not just the values, but physical, cultural and economic landscape of the area. The demolition of buildings is not just an unsustainable waste of a relatively new and flexible structure, but also the erasure of the post-war period from Redcar and Cleveland. In a small industrial town struggling to find itself in a post-industrial world, the demolition has removed this period entirely from existence, leaving only the fresh clouds of steam billowing from the nearby steel plant. Redcar seems like a town unable to move on from its industrial past perhaps pretending that the past 50 years never happened and starting all over once again. The landscapes and climates may be at times harsh, but the desire and will of some to demolish over refurbish remain the most brutal.
Postscript In early 2011, the Twentieth Century Society made a last minute listing application which was rejected by the former heritage minister John Penrose. In late 2011 the library was demolished for a new swimming baths and civic centre. Redcar and Cleveland borough council argued primarily that the building was inefficient to heat and therefore unsustainable. The library had, like many buildings of its era suffered from old construction methods, but certainly nothing that couldn’t be resolved. The building was awarded a category ‘D’ under the government Energy Performance Certificate scheme. If the council applied the same principles to its own current building stock, half of all of Redcar and Cleveland Borough Councils buildings would warrant demolition.
Back in July we held an official launch of the website at Newcastle University School of Architecture and Planning. The exhibtion contained over 40 sample projects from the archives and recent models. Better late than never, but thanks to everyone who attended and the support of Newcastle Architecture department for hosting us. The excellent photography is courtesy of Ryan Edy.
Those who missed out on the sold-out pre-event at the Baltic Gallery back in June 2013 can now watch the presentations and debate featuring Rutter Carroll (SC+M NE), Graham Farmer (Director of Architecture at Newcastle University), Elain Harwood (English Heritage) and Peter Buchan (Senior Partner at Ryder Architecture).
The seminar expands on the concerns explored by the Croatian artist David Maljkovic in his exhibition, Sources in the Air crossing over into the history of modernism in the North East. The event was chaired by BALTIC curator Alessandro Vincentelli.
The archive was quietly launched earlier this week with over 40 projects from across the region. To view the projects, browse the archive either by region – Tyne and Wear, Durham or Teeside or typology. We also have a people section which will feature influencial characters in politics, architecture, engineering and planning. We alredy have material to built the archive to over 100 projects relating to North East region from 1945 onwards featuring built and unbuilt projects from ambitious plans to reshape the entire North East region, to private houses.
Something Concrete and Modern is a permenant archive that will continue to grow and develop. We are alway looking for new subjects to feature and would like to hear from you. You can email us or get in touch via twitter by following @scam_ne.