Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Master's visit to the North East

Newcastle, awash with fine buildings and dramatic infrastructure, generously extended its indian summer to embrace the Masters’ Weekend, ensuring a memorable stay in the northern city for the members of the Company who accompanied Geoffrey and Anne Purves on a tour of geordie architectural highlights.

Grey Street
Local conservation architect Cyril Winskill kicked the weekend off in great style, leading us around Grainger Town along the magnificent Grey Street - one of the finest enfilades of Georgian frontages in the land - through the terracotta-clad Central Arcade, the 1930s Tyneside Cinema (restored by Fletcher Priest), what’s left of Eldon Square (destroyed in the 1970s by Chapman Taylor’s huge shopping centre) and then into St. Nicolas’ Cathedral where Geoffrey is a lay Canon. Across the street is the RIBA Enterprises building where the institute runs NBS and RIBA Services. CEO Richard Waterhouse told us of his plans to buy and refurbish the whole site in order to accommodate the growing staff, boosted by RIBAE’s global BIM business.

Civic Centre - with sea horses
Then on to one of the highlights of the tour - the Civic Centre designed by City Architect George Kenyon and opened in 1967. The Grade ii* building is beautifully maintained and popular to work in. It is the sort of building that restores one’s faith in the values of sound detailing, quality materials and self-effacing design with moments of exuberance (most of them involving sea horses, inspired by the city’s coat of arms). The Lord Mayor generously hosted us in the City’s Silver Gallery, despite having spent the previous night trying to get to sleep, unsuccessfully, in the Knights Park football ground in aid of the homeless.

Dinner followed with David Faulkner, an old friend of Geoffrey’s and Anne’s and a former leader of the City Council. David gave us the benefit of his political experience with an informed analysis of planning and regeneration in the city, particularly the refusal of Newcastle to house the North Music Centre, a new arts centre or share a bridge with their neighbours to the south. 

As a result Gateshead now benefits from the Baltic, the Sage and the Millennium Bridge - our ports of call the next morning.

Jaki Howes and Daniel Buren glazing  
We were guided through the Baltic by director Godfrey Worsdale and enjoyed a tour of the colourful work of French artist Daniel Buren. Godfrey discussed the impact of the centre on the cultural life of the city and praised the designs by Ellis Williams - represented in our group by Rosemary Curry. We then moved on to Foster and Partners’ Sage centre next door, which delivers a splendid public space beneath its blobby shell as well as three very different performance areas - an intimate in-the-round theatre, a rehearsal space and an elegant shoe box concert hall.

Seaton Delaval
Nostalgia loomed as we toured the University Campus - the alma mater of Geoffrey and Deputy Master Mervyn Miller. Mervyn was particularly delighted to find that a hefty stone capital which he and other students had placed outside the department of architecture many years earlier was still in it’s place. The campus is a bit of a zoo of buildings by the likes of Basil Spence, William Whitfield and Sheppard Robson held together by more recent public space improvements by local-boy-made-good Terry Farrell. Farrell also had a hand in the refurbishment of the Great North Museum, a project carried out in conjunction with Purves Ash as conservation architects.

After a half hour bus journey out of Newcastle through rather bland countryside, Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval comes as a shock. Its brooding façade stands sentinel over a commanding vista that sweeps down to the estuary of the River Blyth and the North Sea. One of the Seaton architect’s finest houses, it is currently being stabilised by the National Trust having stood as an empty ruin since the interior was destroyed by fire in 1822. 

The chiaroscuro of Vanbrugh’s deep set stonework was enhanced by the autumnal sun and by the patchwork of dark staining that none of us could identity - was it pollution, the effects of the fire or was it lichen? Not even the conservation architects amongst us could provide the answer.

Byker Wall
Before repairing chez Purves for dinner we visited Alnwick Garden created by the Duchess of Northumberland and Jacques and Peter Wirtz. Although there were many nice details, the overall strategy of Disneyfication of landscape and the overblown design of the central cascade feature seems out of context with the looming context of Alnwick Castle itself, in spite of elegant interventions by Hopkins Architects and water sculptor Bill Pye.

On Sunday I took the opportunity to revisit Ralph Erskine’s Byker Wall. While looking a little worse for wear, the estate - built between 1969 and 1982 - illustrates the importance of placemaking in creating amenable living environment. It was an appropriate end to a most enjoyable and informative weekend.

Peter Murray - Upper Warden


  1. Thank you Peter for this blog - you beat me to it. Geoffrey has told me all about your wonderful weekend in the North East. So pleased the weather was kind so you were all able to appreciate the beauty that the North East and Northumberland has to offer.

    Kind regards

    PA to Geoffrey Purves

  2. Thanks Sharon! We are lucky to have Peter M to be our very own 'media person'. Try and get Geoffrey to write a post too - hold his hand, as he is already an 'author' to the blog (as is Peter M). We are trying to get all the masters, ex-masters and proto-masters to learn that blogging can be fun as well as useful. All the best...
    The WCCA webmaster.