Farrell Centre

Farrell Centre

World Architecture Festival

If any city in England deserves a centre for interpreting its architecture and urbanism, that city is Newcastle. Thanks to one of the university’s most distinguished architect alumni, Sir Terry Farrell, it now has such a centre, based within the university quarter, that opened this month (April), writes Jeremy Melvin.

Under the directorship of Owen Hopkins (a former colleague who took a significant role while at the Soane Museum in establishing our drawing prize), it has made a promising start. More of that later but first we need to outline why Newcastle is so deserving of such a centre.

Entrance to the Farrell Centre from Eldon Place, the People’s Plinth in the right hand window © Jill Tate

The city’s urban form displays the generic relationship between topography, politics and economics that shapes almost all cities, but in an extreme form. This starts with the deep gorge of the River Tyne, whose sloping banks made it ideal for ship building. Access to water and the North Sea made it an important port from an early date, but especially during the period, around 1000 years ago, when the Baltic and Scandinavia dominated northern Europe. The discovery of coal and the potential for extracting salt meant its importance in trade would only grow as the political axis shifted southwards.

The Romans had already made it the eastern end of their great dividing border between the Empire and the barbarians, Hadrian’s Wall, which peters out in the city’s suburbs. Through the early middle ages its position close to the Scottish border meant that successful barons could acquire enormous power and prestige: the greatest of all these families, the Percys, still inhabit their historic fortress at Alnwick, between Newcastle and the border.

But it was the industrial revolution that transformed the city’s fabric from the habitation of a deep gorge to a modern metropolis. Its abundant coal reserves were well known (and the mines spawned many attempts to devise steam powered drainage systems), but the emergence of Middlesborough, slightly to the south along the coast, as a steel centre allowed Newcastle to take off as a centre for innovative industrialisation.

Through the 19th century Newcastle was well served by a cohort of largely self-made innovators. First up were the great railway builders, father George and son Robert Stephenson whose railways connected Newcastle to other large conurbations. Then there was a local architect, John Dobson (1787-1865) on hand to give a regional twist to the great late Georgian architecture that created some of the UK’s finest urban environments. His work made skilful use of a local reddish stone that also contributes to its uniqueness.

One of his greatest achievements was the Grainger Town quarter, as magnificent as any in the UK with one of Europe’s finest neo-classical streets, Grey Street, which slopes down the river bank from the Grey Monument to the Prime Minister who finally engineered the passage of the Great Reform Act through Parliament in 1832 (and also had an illegitimate child with a character played on screen by Keira Knightley), to the river.

Perhaps though the most important point about Dobson is that he came late enough, and lived long enough, to design the city’s central train station (1850). On the edge of Grainger Town, its architecture is of a piece with it, so unlike almost every other city where the railway disrupts the Georgian character (think of St Pancras and King’s Cross in London), in Newcastle there is no disjunction. It helps too, that in another unusual characteristic, the railway comes in at high level as it crosses the river and so ends up close to the city centre rather than, as is more usual, on its edge.

Meanwhile an even greater figure was reshaping the urban fabric and to an even more dramatic extent, its economy. This was the engineer William Armstrong (1810-1900). Son of a successful corn merchant who became mayor of the city and had a hand in Grainger Town, William’s first great innovation was in hydraulic power. He introduced cranes to the port on this principal, which made loading and unloading ships, easier, quicker and less prone to accidental breakage of cargo. The far larger dock at Liverpool commissioned him to install a similar system there.

Peeved by the inefficiency of artillery during the Crimean War, Armstrong developed more accurate, lighter, and so easier to move, field guns. The army thought this was not quite the done thing (think of Lords Lucan, Cardigan and Raglan as played by Trevor Howard, Harry Andrews and John Gielgud in the Crimean War classic film Charge of the Light Brigade), but the navy saw their potential. Adding ship building to his portfolio of activities in his vast Elswick works on the Tyne, over the last decades of the 19th century he in effect created the dreadnought, a warship with devastatingly powerful and accurate guns mounted on a rotating turret. Some of Armstrong’s fortune (estimated at £5m on his death) went into the creation of Cragside with the architect Norman Shaw, where he experimented with hydraulic lifts and electric light. More of it went to benefit the population of Newcastle.

Newcastle suffered from the decline of heavy industry for much of the 20th century. It suffered too from municipal mismanagement which saw its council leader jailed and its centre ripped apart by urban motorways, of which Ralph Erskine’s legendary Byker Wall is only partial compensation, though the fact that the urban motorways are used and the contemporaneous metro system makes getting about the city relatively easy offer more.

In the decades since Newcastle has staged a dramatic revival. This started with sporting success and found its way into built form with the elegant, opening bridge over the Tyne at low level by WAF Building of the Year winners Wilkinson Eyre. That continued through the conversion of the Baltic Flower Mills into a contemporary art centre, and the Sage Music Centre, with auditoria of differing size and character; its largest is the home of the highly regarded modern classical music specialists the Northern Symphonia and has the best acoustics of any large concert venue on the UK.

The Farrell Centre occupies most of the former Claremont buildings, whose design makes use of two local stones © Jill Tate

So the Farrell Centre joins a roster of diverse cultural venues in the city. The Northern Stage theatre is a near neighbour. But unlike these, the Farrell Centre explicitly tries to interpret the city, to engender a relationship between it and its citizens. The centre addresses this on several levels and with some imagination. Its home is much of a late 19th century industrial and retail building, which housed the unlikely combination of a tannery – well known as one of the most noxious trades – and showrooms. Perhaps for that reason it went through a variety of uses, in recent decades related to the university. Terry Farrell remembers working on his final year thesis there in the early 1960s.

The ground floor entrance acts as a foyer, with the staircase leading to the galleries and a small dug out seating area © Jill Tate

The staircase leads past original fireplaces, ‘marooned’ on the stripped wall © Jill Tate

Its architecture is attractive but less than ideal for conventional cultural activities: its large windows preclude exhibitions of fragile works and it covers several floors. But its architecture also speaks of the city – it uses two types of local stone, while its elevated site offers views through the large windows over the city. On the evidence of the first iteration, an exhibition called More with Less and a first installation of the Urban Rooms programme, a trio devoted to planning, building and participation, Hopkins and his team with Space Architects and Elliott Architects have worked effectively to play to the building’s strengths and offset its weaknesses, a strategy which itself offers interpretations of architecture.

Terry Farrell’s model of central Newcastle takes centre stage in the room on planning. The second room on building visible through doorway © Jill Tate

This room introduces the complexities of the construction process. The installation of modern electrical equipment alongside traditional detail, on the far wall © Jill Tate

The Participate room invites reflection and interaction. Another iteration of the urban plinth in front of the fireplace © Jill Tate

Two obvious examples are the ‘urban plinth’, a stand made from scaffolding in a prominent ground floor window, and two storey staircase rising from the entrance to the second floor. The first is intended to be curated through crowd sourcing, with members of the public suggesting and donating items that have some significance for their personal relationship to the city – children’s football shirts were on display, while the latter turns a functional necessity into a journey of discovery through the building, passing stripped brick walls with original fireplaces set within them. Below the staircase is a small, dug out area of stepped seating for informal talks and gatherings.

The Living Room, by the Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment: literally grown in place by mycelium spores © Jill Tate

Exhibition areas are on the first and second floors, More with Less on the lower and Urban Rooms, intended to be a more permanent if evolving display, above. Four architectural practices were commissioned to make installations for More with Less, each creditable though for me the most striking was one by Newcastle and Northumbria University’s Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment. It is a flowing, catenary arched form of wool, sawdust and fungal mycelium, all organic and locally available waste materials. Once the fabric was draped into its form, the mycelium started to grow and harden it. Water would apparently turn it to goo, though the designers are experimenting with additives to make it watertight. If so its waste materials and self growing properties will offer a low energy and organic way of building. Other subjects include insulation, Luxurious Thrift about how comfortable buildings can lead to uncomfortable architecture, and an installation centred around a dining table, with plants in the centre.

Luxurious Thrift by Office S&M: sometimes being comfortable requires uncomfortable architecture © Jill Tate

The Urban Rooms introduce visitors to the fraught process of urban development. The first concentrates on planning, the second on building and the third on participation, an astute sequence. Told through artefacts and maps rather than conventional architectural drawings, it should appeal to people who are interested in their environment but lack knowledge of the jargon to discuss it. Indeed, it may in time help to replace that jargon.

A Place at the Table by McCloy + Muchemwa, where ingredients for dinner might grow © Jill Tate

All in all the Farrell Centre offers a refreshing indication of how architecture and urbanism might be presented to a public. It certainly set me thinking about another example in the north east where history, economics, society and architecture combine – Seaton Delaval Hall, a short distance from the city. This the third in the trio of Sir John Vanbrugh’s great houses, after Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace. Smaller than the other two, it shows his architecture in extreme relief, even though what survives is more or less a ruin after a fire in 1822.

The powerful exterior of Seaton Delaval Hall

Size is an advantage in this sense. Vanbrugh had a prodigious imagination and an almost Rabelaisian appetite, to which his pair of vast houses gave more or less unfettered free reign. At Seaton Delaval, working for a scion of a minor aristocratic family who bought it from the financially distressed senior branch, he had to be tighter and more disciplined, resulting in what our cheerful local guide called a ‘five bedroom bachelor pad’. These five bedrooms revolve around a magnificent entrance hall, which leads from a formal entrance court flanked by a stable and kitchen block, through a salon to a pastoral landscape marked with an obelisk. If the planning owes something to Palladio, the robust and graphic detailing may owe a debt to Giulio Romano, and might anticipate Ledoux’s Saltworks, with its layered columns.

The magnificent (if partly ruinous) great hall at Seaton Delaval

Like Vanbrugh its client did not live to see it completed and it was left to a nephew, who had ten children. They seem to have been a nightmarish, 18th century version of the Kardashians in constant partying and even more perpetual attention seeking. They would invite guests, allow them to go to bed, and then pull down the temporary walls in their rooms as they undressed, having placed poultry in their beds. One unfortunate visitor went to bed and woke up with the room turned upside down, furniture fixed to the ceiling and the floor decorated. Such fun led them to be nicknamed the Gay Delavals, and their antics led to another round of financial distress despite the estate’s profitability, not just in agriculture but also in salt panning and glass making.

The family became extinct in the male line and it was inherited by a family of Lincolnshire baronets, who also through a female line inherited the ancient barony of Hastings. The late Lord Hastings struggled to save the hall and moved into the west wing, but his son recognised the near impossibility of the endeavour and gave it to the National Trust. But tracing history, politics and social mores it offers a rural counterpoint to the Farrell Centre’s insight into urbanism.

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