Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Urban Trawl: Teesside

Throughout 2009, this series' aim was to discover what happened to towns after 12 years of New Labour, to test the idea of the 'urban renaissance' against the recession's reality. Now, with the recession barely over and growth hardly registering, the question is different – what happens after New Labour, after the Regional Development Agencies, after the 'bonfire of the quangos', quite possibly after CABE? Does the 'big society' mean anything in these places, or is it just an ideological bromide for classic Thatcherism? Will architecture change? Will the half-finished grand projects lie indefinitely abandoned?

So we begin is Middlesbrough. According to a report by credit-rating pests Experian, the Teesside conurbation is the 'least resilient' place in the UK, with the highest level in public sector employment. According to the patronising Coalition phraseology, the industrial boomtown called an 'infant Hercules' by Gladstone is still an infant 150 years later, now needing to be 'weaned off the state'. Yet it's inescapable that what actually occurred here under Blair and Brown was the use of the public sector to try and spur into life a moribund private sector. That's especially clear in Middlehaven, the site of one of Will Alsop's many plans for post-industrial towns – just north of the central station, by the old docks and the magnificent, still-functioning Transporter Bridge.

Posters and fences enclose the wasteland, although not much effort has been expended in keeping them up, revealing an absolutely huge, poisoned-looking grass expanse, broken up by two buildings and a public sculpture. The wager was that 'Boro might become a tourist destination, if Alsop and invited architects like FAT were to be given their head; the renders in front of the wastes show a Super Mario World which bitterly contrasts with what is in front of your nose. The public sector levelled the area for, so far, an optimistic temporary suite designed as an aptly upturned lime green box, and the new Middlesbrough College by Hickton Madely at Archial. This is a huge building, and aside from the Bridge it dominates Middlehaven, its curving mass covered in a silver and yellow cladding, with small windows punched into it at random. Round the back, it's a huge white shed, as if we wouldn't be looking. Far away is the other building – the Docks' Clock Tower, attributed to Philip Webb – tall, gaunt and profoundly haunting in this dreamlike, spacious and sinister context. Between the dereliction is red and black landscaping, carrying at least some of the renders' cartoonish promise, connecting the area to the football stadium, or to another publicly funded project – Anish Kapoor's Temenos.

This steel sculpture, engineered by Cecil Balmond, begins Kapoor and Balmond's unexpected career as monumental sculptors to late British neoliberalism, but is less embarrassing than the hot pink 'Arcelor-Mittal Orbit'. A stretched tendon, it is both industrial and biomorphic, with the tautness between its opposed sides evidently a 'reference' to the Transporter Bridge. But looking at the Tees' surviving industry – the Bridge, the shipbuilding cranes, the curvaceous maw of the distant cooling towers, the intertwined tentacles of the nearby refineries - who can say that Kapoor and Balmond are better artists than these anonymous engineers?

But with all this (private sector) industry falling into disuse, what else to revive the area than the property market, the country's biggest money-spinner? Middlehaven, unlike the Pathfinder schemes we'll come to (but with the same end in sight), tries to kick off property speculation by appealing to art, heritage and tourism. If it won't work as a money-making scheme – and the area's desuetude rather suggests it won't – it's not down to political noncomformism. Middlehaven is eerie, but it is not frightening. That honour is reserved for the truly alarming redevelopment of St Hilda's, further along the river on the other side of the Transporter Bridge. Similarly, a large area is being cleared, but here the process of erasure is even more partial, the landscape even more scarred. There are scattered industrial sheds, stumps of low-rise council housing (mostly boarded up), and the lonely 1840s Old Town Hall, amongst huge, yawning open scrubland, looking out to the cooling towers of Billingham. Short of doubling for a post-apocalyptic film set, it's hard to see what exactly the use of this is. Then you find out, in the form of a sign that says 'BOHO ZONE', which you then find as the name of a new, neo-modernist building that the place has a purpose – as the veritable front line of urban cool. One suspects that Middlesbrough Council hoped for a small army of Hackney hipsters crowding the wasteland, to bring in that all-important 'creative class'. They've evidently been reading their Richard Florida.

If you forget about this horrifying post-industrial wasteland and the destruction of council housing for a minute, there's something laudable about that ambition. Middlesbrough now has large sculptures by Anish Kapoor and Claes Oldenburg, and a Museum of Modern Art. The promise was that the creative industries could replace heavy industries, and they've had a damn good shot at it. Unfortunately, the execution and the will are divergent, and the most permanent legacy, Erick van Egeraat's Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, is a curate's egg – an atrium in a box dressed pretentiously with jagged ornament, barely masking a distribution shed's backside, housing rather ineptly some excellent exhibitions. It bears repeating that these kinds of art galleries can be lifelines in towns like this, irrespective of their architectural shortcomings – and at least there's a good viewing platform at the top, from where you can survey Middlesbrough's gridiron plan, and some of its often fine buildings – the glorious sombre melodrama of the second Town Hall, and the surprisingly elegant Miesian contextualism of the brown glass Corporation House (now 'Centre North East') that neighbours it.

You can also see some truly horrible reclads – two student towers with pitifully small windows and the similarly bleak grey-clad Thistle Hotel. The adverts emblazoned on the former use the word 'luxury'. Beyond that is the curious mix of early high-tech, Gothic and PFI of Teesside University, which advertises itself as 'University of the Year'; and the planned grid of terraces, which have a certain architectural variety, and several whole streets suffer the tinning-up that signifies the presence of the barbarous Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders.

Publicly funded as all this may be, and in perhaps the UK's biggest planned town to boot, there's a striking lack of coherence to all this, bar the optimistic chasing of 'creativity'. To find something that is coherent, go to the private sector new town of Billingham, the town ICI built, a chemicopolis whose planned 60s centre, by local architects Elder, Lester & Partners, is striking. It's the space-age coated in pigeon shit, with some fabulous buildings, such as the Lubetkinesque towers of Kennedy Gardens (whose patterning is the barcode façade avant la lettre). From the elevated part you can survey the surviving ICI skyline; from the ground floor a functioning, if elderly civic modernism. One part, the Forum, is Grade II listed, but a redevelopment has given it the tackiest of blue and yellow re-claddings, raising once again, after Park Hill, the question of whether there's even any point listing 1960s buildings.

In the centre, meanwhile, is Peter Freeman's 'Spectra-Txt', a public art tower whose twinkling lights are supposed to be reminiscent of local boy Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, which was inspired by the night-lit refinery tendrils of ICI's Wilton site. And if you're really looking for some truly astonishing structures – if not 'architecture' as such – you're spoilt for choice in the long strip of industry that still stretches between Middlesbrough and Redcar. The fluted concrete silos of the Dorman Long works, the breathtaking (for more reasons than one) former ICI Refinery, with an excellent, Redbrick Modernist BDP office block as part of the site, a volcanic eruption of a Power Station, the monumental cranes of Teesport, and finally the Corus Steelworks, recently closed. Those who claim that Boro has no architecture may like to reflect on the enormous stylistic debt Modernist architects owe these places.

In Redcar itself, the near-derelict seaside town hides its holes via 'Virtual Shop Fronts' and the promise of 'creative industries hubs'. The view of container ships from the beautiful sandy beach implies that someone is still making money out of this place. As it is, Teesside awaits the butchers. Take the train to Redcar East, and you can walk to a place where the private sector has had totally free rein, in a development of seemingly endless, looping cul-de-sacs, BUPA Health Centres and Retirement Homes. In one of these cul-de-sacs is a Sound Mirror, a stark concrete structure designed as an Early Warning System in WW1. It's exactly the same size as the bungalow next door, and feels part of the streetline - an irruption of the industrial past into the spec builders' zone of dead time.

Originally published in Building Design, 11/11/10


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  3. Great work. I work in Teesside and have a business up there. It's...not just depressing, that's the wrong word. The right words are all above.