Byker Wall

a participatory process of design as it had been for Lucien Kroll in his Louvain Medical Faculty housing (pp. 44-47). Luckily, an old collaborator of Erskine, Vernon Gracie. turned down a more lucrative job in the Middle East in order to move to Byker. Together with Gracie, Erskine set up a local practice simjlar to American examples of 'storefront architecture* of the late 1960s in Harlem (New York), Mantua (Philadelphia), and in Boston's South End.

Byker became a way of life. By contrast to the atmosphere prevailing on most such projects. Erskine's attitude was not one of agitation and antagonism towards the authorities. His ties with his client, the Newcastle District Council Housing Committee, were close and his contribution as a professional positive rather than critical. He in fact assumed an enviable, and certainly rare, dual role: on the one hand, he acted as an architect for the Council, and on the other as a planning consultant. This meant that he was able to rewrite his own architectural programmes before actually accepting the commission as architect, and to maintain an overview of the future development of Byker by other agencies and firms. Because of his highly responsible ethos of self-control - in his dual capacity as supervisor and supervised -this privileged position led to creative innovations rather than either bland compromises or unchecked extravagances.

The intentions of client and architect were from the start to assist the economic development and modernization of the area. To do this, they improved Byker's accessibility by bringing in a road running along the north/east sides of the site and linking it to public transport. They supplied new housing, but at the same time preserved family and social links - the essential component of the programme.

The basic concept of space organization emerged out of the seemingly conflicting programmatic forces: the invention of the architect and scrutiny of the users, who were informed in detail about every decision. An early pilot project of 46 houses was built for testing by the development's future residents. Their post-occupancy criticisms were incorporated in the final project.

The fundamental design scheme was that of a large wall created by the high-rise perimeter block of flats. This turned its back to the planned highway and enclosed low-rise housing terraces, interwoven tightly with paths, open areas and gardens in a territory almost free of cars. The duality of the scheme reflected the bipolarity of the programme, the mass of the wall block acting as a barrier against the negative environmental impact of the road, the low, traditional, village-like frame sustaining the social fabric.

The curved volume of the project dominates the hilltop landscape impressively and has a dream-like effect. It rises, a weird huge mass, partly in silhouette, evoking memories of medieval fortifications from illustrations in children's books. The design of the wall, with its scenographic ornamental patterns, is indebted to Erskine's schooling in Northern European Expressionist architecture, which had been tried in social housing projects of the past - for instance Michel de Klerk's housing projects of Amsterdam South of the 1910s. Passing from the open landscape into the walled-in, intimately articulated area is a stunning dramatic experience similar to that one has in historical fortified cities that grew up over long stretches of time. Byker's exterior irregular gigantism, coupled with the informal humility of its interior, is exceedingly appropriate to the open site where it is situated, beyond urban constraints. Despite its fabulistic image, however. Byker is not merely a scenographic setting. And yet it is true that such a scheme probably could not serve as a prototype for an urban situation, where a less walled-in spatial concept and a more explicit public face are required.

The strongest impression of community cohesion emerges less from Byker's visual effects than from its spatial-functional organization and its functional details. Even though many of these physical details and their technical craftsmanship - for instance its rapidly aging external balconies - have not lasted well, its larger vision of the will of a community to survive as a community and of professional diligence and accountability remain intact.

Ten years after the project was completed. 90 per cent of the users expressed satisfaction. a remarkably high rate for low-budget rented housing. Byker won the Award of Britain in the Bloom competition, in the summer of 1980, as the 'best-kept village'. In 1989, it received the Prince of Wales Prize at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, along with Alvaro Siza's Evora-Malaguera housing project (1988).

It is ironic that just when such new, creative ideas about the architecture of social housing had started to emerge and to overcome the failures of the past, reasons beyond the architects' control - political and financial -made this kind of architecture largely impossible to pursue.

Close up of Byker Wall from the inside

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