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Form and function

There’s a great Stephen Jay Gould essay about size in which he discusses the design factors that dictated the shape of the great Gothic cathedrals.

This article brought it to mind.

This building is, apparently, an under-rated classic.

It is, actually, a very pretty building. However, functionally, and in terms of its location, it’s a disaster.

It was conceived not as a functional space but as an assertion of civic pride, of T Dan Smith’s determination to make Newcastle pre-eminent, the dominant capital of the North East. Like the local football club buying a new Number 9, the utility of the purchase was outweighed by the desire to make a mark, to assert that this is Newcastle, colonial capital of all it surveyed, not just a convenient river crossing but a place of weight and significance.

Last time I was there to make a presentation, the IT didn’t work, the cupboard door fell on my head when I tried to find a connection point for my laptop, the 13 amp extension lead I was offered because the sockets didn’t work hadn’t been PAT tested and even though I’ve lived in the North East for many years, I still went to the wrong entrance. I may have been a little crotchety after the miserable walk across from Haymarket metro with my bags and laptop, but I wasn’t impressed, and, as ever, I felt sorry for the church of St Thomas the Martyr, divorced from the town it serves by T Dan’s other legacy, Newcastle’s appalling road system and utterly misnamed central motorway.

I also felt sorry for the staff of Newcastle City Council, stuck with a civic centre that they’re told is a great building, but working in difficult offices, in awkward spaces, in an inconvenient place, and with the knowledge that every change in technology will mean more expense, more costs and more difficulty. Little wonder that the city council had, at one stage, ambitions to move as many staff as possible to a new office block at Gosforth on the site of the old Northern Rock tower.

Having a civic centre that is past it’s ‘useful by date’ is not an experience unique to Newcastle. Propose merging councils and among the objections you will receive will be ‘what will we do with the redundant civic centres’ and ‘do we have a council chamber big enough for the new councillors?’ The idea that civic buildings should make a statement about local authorities and the places they lead is institutional narcisism, and almost always leads, in the space of a generation, to the need to demolish or expensively retro-fit. Worse still, they represent an entirely mistaken belief that the institutions of local government are somehow immutable, when in fact, in England at least, every generation government tinkers with the duties, boundaries or powers of local government as it struggles to make the union and its shambles of a constitution work.

It’s not just that form must follow function, but rather, that form should not be determined by a single function to such an extent that it makes the building useless if that function is not required in the future. Newcastle Civic Centre is not the capital of the north east, no matter what the council’s shallow, overweaning and ubiquitous leader thinks – if its overblown form and inconvenient facilities epitomize anything, it’s hubris. T Dan Smith’s new Brasilia never happened, and Newcastle now is just a small part of the city region where its leader struggles to assert himself against the leaders of larger councils in the same city region and combined authority who all despise his easy access to the Newcastle based media and decry his shallow dash to the nearest microphone at every opportunity.

Next time your local council propose building a new civic centre, tell them no. Tell them to procure the workspace their staff require. If they tell you they need a banqueting suite, or bespoke committee rooms and a council chamber that has no other useful purpose, tell them no. The saddest local government workspace I’ve ever seen is the old Berwick Borough Council chamber, shoe-horned into the historic Guildhall at soem point in the 70s, self consciously aig the luxurious fittings of larger council chambers like Newcastle’s. It was pointed out as a footnote to a  tour of the old Berwick Gaol in the same building, and has been utterly useless since Berwick BC was abolished by a government decision in 2008.

If you think Newcastle Civic Centre is a great building, ask yourself this. What is it for? Does it fit that purpose?

It may be pretty to look at, but if that is all it is for, but like a cathedral designed to let light in because electric light had not been invented, its time has passed. Preserve it as an artefact, by all means, but acknowledge the choices that have made it incapable of serving the needs of the current day.

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This entry was posted on October 5, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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