Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Byker Wall

The Byker Wall is the name given to a long unbroken block of 620 maisonettes in the Byker district of Newcastle upon Tyne, England. The block was designed by the notable architect Ralph Erskine assisted by Vernon Gracie, and was built in the mid-1970s. Its Functionalist Romantic styling with textured, complex facades, colourful brick, wood and plastic panels, attention to context and relatively low-rise construction represented a major break with the Brutalist high-rise architectural orthodoxy of the time

In the mid-sixties Newcastle City Corporation took the decision to redevelop the Byker area of Newcastle upon Tyne. Originally Byker was a Victorian working-class area of typical densely-built terraces. By the 1960s much of the housing needed major repair and upgrading. In 1953 Byker had nearly 1,200 dwellings considered unfit for human habitation (many lacked bathrooms), yet 80% of residents wanted to stay in Byker, a location on the eastern edge of the city centre close to industry on the riverside. Newcastle council aimed to clear the slums but keep the community. The appointment of Ralph Erskine as architect in 1969 was seen as an inspired choice and one sensitive to local needs. Erskine's Plan of Intent was adopted by the Council in 1970.

Compared to its warehouse district surroundings, this housing project is a veritable oasis and it almost seems like a real neighborhood.  If it were possible to feel at home in such a place, this kind of architecture enables such a welcome. 
The neighborhood, however, has suffered the kinds of the social problems common to other inner-city urban housing areas, including juvenile crime and vandalism. In parts of Byker turnover of tenancies has been high. Families have moved away - particularly those in employment. Some shops and services have been abandoned and boarded up. In the mid-1990s it has been estimated that one in three of Byker's adult inhabitants was unemployed.
I suppose that this proves that you can take away the urban blight and still be left with a different kind of blight, one that continues to exist in the mind and soul of the underclass regardless of the surroundings that they habitate.

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