Tuesday, 27 July 2010

D-Day for the 'Get Carter' multi-storey

I see the iconic 'Get Carter' car park whenever I look out of my bedroom window. I live in a riverside flat, but there's no view of the Tyne or its seven much-photographed bridges. I'm on the side of the block with Britain's most famous multi-storey car park looming over it (which helps keep the rent down, of course).

I can't complain, really - the modern architectural gems that are the Sage, Baltic and Millennium Bridge are all in easy walking distance. Newcastle city centre is only slightly further away.

I mention this because they started knocking the car park down yesterday. The 8-week demolition job is big news on local TV and radio: the brutalist landmark is one of those defining images for Gateshead and, to a lesser extent, Tyneside.

It's odd to think it won't be there any more, but this has been in the pipeline for a a very long time - and, for all the understandable sentiment, it is admittedly rather ugly. It's Michael Caine and the 1970s Brit gangster flick which gave the car park its fame, rather than any aesthetic gifts.

I pass it most days on the way to the Metro station, I see it close up whenever I go to the Tesco store next door. It's therefore poignant to witness it being dismantled, though seemingly few people around here consider its demolition a controversial decision.

My local landscape is an appealing mix of the historic - a lot of it industrial heritage - and modern developments. The High Level Bridge (pictured), which gives magnificent views of the other bridges and of the Quayside, captures the juxtaposition itself: Owen Hatherley once described the bridge, built in the mid-1800s, as 'proto-Constructivist', evoking sturdy tradition and (to our eyes) post-1917 modernism at one and the same time.

The street in which I live is encircled by railway tracks, a constant reminder of industrial legacy, but a decidely upmarket new kitchen showroom has just opened at the end of the street. The old railway social club is still fairly busy, but there are swish apartment blocks springing up next door to it; the nearby Baltic gallery is a home of contemporary art yet retains the old 'flour mill' exterior; the ultra-modern Sage and the 12th-century Castle Keep are equal distances away.

Newcastle central station (pictured) is an outstanding achievement from an earlier era, but marred slightly by the very commercial 21st century installing of ticket barriers (meaning only passengers can access large parts of one of our best 'public' spaces). This is quite jarring, as one of Newcastle city centre's great attractions is that the best built spaces are generally visible (and often accessible), from the Georgian-era golden sandstone buildings on Grey Street, or the Lit and Phil, to recent additions like the popular new City Library.

I expect the era of austerity we're entering - if the government gets its way - will squeeze out anything considered non-essential in new public building developments, bringing a utilitarian mindset which frowns at such fripperies as aesthetic pleasure or spaces to relish and enjoy. Michael Gove's dismal cancellation of Building Schools for the Future projects, devastating for both architects and schools, is perhaps an indicator of what is to come. Of course the private, upmarket developments will continue, as long as a layer of society can afford them, while for many there is a housing crisis, here as everywhere.

The struggle for good and affordable social housing, the protection of public space, the creative flourishing of our built environment, the defence of jobs in architecture and construction - all these, it seems to me, are both necessary and interlinked.


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