The curious case of Monsieur Newcastle

To write something about Mr Smith was supposed to be my first task, now on a forgotten to-do list. Well, it’s never too late. You probably haven’t heard about anything else other than football, Geordie accents and a big river called the Tyne when you have a chance to deal with the Toon. Me neither, until I found this thing. It’s a dead end, a ruin under the massive Tyne Bridge waiting for something to come that will never happen. Useless, pointless and timeless… oh and where I’ve met few pigeons and drug dealers. What could have been an isolated and pitiful attempt to play with this concrete piece has turned into a genuine fascination for a guy with guts.

Thomas Daniel Smith. Born near Wallsend behind darkly stained windows of a creepy pub, son of a communist miner, he threw himself into Politics animated by the will of equality and aknowledgement for the North. Smith is definitely our romantic hero of the day. I’ll pass on his early life, but the main thing to get is this guy’s ambition is limitless. If he could have been King of the World, he would have pretended for the role. Aim the Sun, but shoot the Moon, he managed to sit on Newcastle’s council’s chair. And here starts what us, architects, are always talking about without finding the guts to apply, or in the contrary, the reason for stopping us. Let’s build a city, in other words, let’s have a tabula rasa lads !

Enhanced by the precedents of Grainger and Dobson a century before, Smith found his Dobson in the person of William Burns, city planner. Our Fantastic two will turn the ugly scarred face of the industrial Toon in a shinning modernist town where everyone would die to go and do shopping. The brand reborn will be called the Brasilia of the North, no wonder why.

Let’s build a city, let’s have the creme de la creme. Smith offers Le Corbusier to design the master plan, no answer, Picasso to create the piece of arts, no answer, Arne Jacobsen to design the commercial area, answer, but no money to fulfill the plan. Let’s build a city, let’s pour concrete. The idea was to made Newcastle as a giant shopping mall. Just have a go, try to escape from Northumberland Street without being sucked up by Eldon square’s mouth. The only reason you might actually do it, it’s either you are a moneyless student, or a corruption affair stops the out-of-scale comprehensive plan elaborated by Smith and Burns. Indeed the idea was to create a gradation from the driver to the consumer, drive alongside the labyrinthine motorways’ network, cross the Tyne, enter the city, park your car and access the pedestrian realm, and buy.

Smith’s strategy could be summarised in a syllogism :

“The pedestrian is a potential consumer, The consumer is king, Thus the pedestrian is king”

Rather than simply justifying the segregation of the flux in Newcastle by a rational answer to the Buchanan report (where it’s explained how British cities will be more and more congested by traffic jam), Smith and Burns used the platform as a mean to sell goods and enhance Newcastle’s economy. Everything goes well in the best World ever, well, not exactly. The comprehensive plan implies the notion of globality, totality…massivity. The new roads have to pass by somewhere. The new monuments waiting to celebrate the success story of the North need the already occupied strategic locations. The old urban fabric of the Toon can’t fit the expectation of our two men. An era of destruction based on the “pretty or not pretty enough”, let’s build a city, let’s say good bye to plenty of prestigious relics.

The Royal Arcade and Old Eldon Square are the two most famous preservation disasters. Whatever, it’s done. I’m not going to tergiversate on the conservation’s debate in Newcastle upon Tyne, plenty of people had done it far far far better as I could do in few lines, I have John Pendlebury in mind, but I would like to notice that from the really begining of Smith’s plan, detractors have always been present. Changes still scared people, even if those ones are utterly questionable. Smith and Burn’s delirious vision ended in 1970 by a corruption affair, Smith was sent in prison and Burns somewhere-out-of-sight.

Barely one decade after it starts, but the consequence are still visible. Smith might have been conscious of the endless and constant incompatible relationship between political temporalities and architectural ones. He managed to make most of the projects start, and that is the reason why, there is a curious archipelago of concrete bits scattered in Newcastle’s fabric. The dead end is one of them. Archipelago whom Newcastle’s city seems to be ashamed of, quick, let’s wipe the marks left behind. Let’s do exactly the same we’ve reproached to Monsieur Newcastle, let’s take buildings down for the sake of prettiness and shopping. Here you go.

Yes, I love making cheesy gif. Next time, I will add few kitten, promise.


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