and seem to almost trace the pattern of the houses abutting it on the inside. In the end the motorway didn’t happen, but the wall is not the white elephant some say it is as it still blocks out the traffic noise and provides a climate that seems to have nurtured some very healthy-looking trees and some quite exotic planting. To many, what makes Byker visually striking is the wall and the brightly coloured housing it encircles. But for me, it’s also the variety and the attention to detail. These little touches – ventilation shafts doubling up as bird-boxes, plant-boxes on top of bin stores and the curious salvaged city ruins such as cobbles and ornaments from the old Byker – create touchstones to the past, and speak volumes to the locals. All bring a more human scale and a delight in the everyday. 172
Byker is lively and stimulating. Helped by the sloping topography, Erskine plays with scale and height to break up potential monotony; he frames views, squeezes space and then opens it out. There’s almost an Italian hill-town quality to some parts, and I love that he reworks familiar local features such as the traditional ginnel passageway. Getting a little lost at Byker feels like a good thing as it is always shortly followed by the comfort of finding a familiar landmark around the next corner. To me Byker is surprisingly picturesque and has an English eccentricity about it. But for many, Erskine’s architecture is dismissed as whimsy and folksy. And these are not the only criticisms of Byker. There were a lot of good intentions to retain the original community but this didn’t happen as much as they hoped and later it became very much a council dumping ground. By and large these are not
the faults of the architecture, but social failings symptomatic of the political climate and sadly common to many UK estates. And yet what has come out of these problems is the estate’s ability to adapt, which is one of its successes. There is a looseness in the buildings and a deliberate ambiguity to the use of some spaces, which allows people to appropriate them and make them their own. I’m not sure what Erskine would think of the recent listing, which instigated with good intention to stop demolition of key buildings, has perhaps inhibited people from being able to adapt their own homes and gardens. Erskine was way ahead of his time – many of the ideas he was experimenting with at Byker are only now coming to the fore. His style of architecture isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but his social agenda and attention to the everyday have had a lasting influence.
Preview of 50 Architects 50 Buildings by Twentieth Century Society, edited by Pamela Buxton.