Newcastle’s Skywalks

When T. Dan Smith took over the reigns as head of Newcastle City Council in 1959 he became one of the first local leaders in the United Kingdom to recognise the importance of urban planning in coping with the bundle of problems faced by cities and towns all around the country. Smith wasted little time and soon after his appointment named Wilfred Burns as the city’s Planning Officer. Burns came with considerable pedigree, having been involved in the reconstruction of Coventry after large parts of the city were leveled in aerial bombing raids during the Second World War..

By 1963 Burns and his small team had published the infamous Development Plan Review which proposed a wholesale redevelopment of Newcastle’s city centre. The audacity and ambition of the plan thrust Smith into the national spotlight, and in professing his desire to transform the city into the ‘Brasilia of the North’ Newcastle soon became synonymous with a strain of planning that would later become one of the most publicly-reviled in history.

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T. Dan Smith. © Amber Online, 1987.

Part of the impetus for wholesale change in British city centres in the 1950s was the increasing number of cars on the road. Automobiles—although still a mark of affluence—were becoming more widely available to the public following the end of the war. Towns which had been built to Victorian—or even medieval—blueprints were sagging under the weight of city centre traffic problems. Alleviating city centre traffic became one of the central concerns of 1960s planners, and in Newcastle Wilfred Burns sought to strike a balance between pedestrian and vehicular accessibility in his proposed urban designs.

His solution was segregation. Pedestrians and traffic would occupy discrete zones in an ideal Newcastle, with neither having to interact with the other.

To achieve this segregation it was necessary to consider whether the vehicles should be dropped to a basement level, whether the pedestrian should be lifted up to a new ground level or whether vehicles should be on top of the pedestrians.[1]

Burns settled on a mixture the first two, believing that elevating pedestrians above road traffic would create the most vibrant and enjoyable city centre experience. This amounted to creating a dense network pedestrian decks and walkways that traversed the whole city centre all the way from the top of Northumberland Street rolling down to the banks of the River Tyne. In theory a pedestrian would be able to walk the length of the entire city centre without having to cross a single road.

The effect of this scheme is, therefore, to secure segregation of pedestrians and vehicles in the vertical plane, provide for easy servicing to all the shops and to provide car parking facilities with access to cars at the road level but egress by pedestrians on to the shopping deck.[2]

 

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Proposed elevated shopping area. © Wilfred Burns.

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Proposal for re-development of Newcastle city centre including elevated precincts and walkways. View from the top of Nortumberland Street. © Wilfred Burns.

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Model of proposed changes to Newcastle city centre. © Wilfred Burns.

As the mockups and models show, Burns was zealous in his application of this theory. The topography of the city is significantly altered and if it had been carried through to the end, the city would look entirely different today.

Although Burns’s Newcastle masterplan enjoys a certain auspicious position in planning lore (more for its novelty than its dexterity), the majority of his ideas were never realised. Any hope of a cohesive implementation were dashed by a mixture of public dissatisfaction and financial constraints. Some elements of the city centre scheme did see the light of day but progress was glacial and granular. Both the Central Motorway system and Eldon Square were born out of the pair’s plan, although they were both long gone from Newcastle City Council before the projects were completed.

Other developments were more fragmentary. Smith succeeded in attracting some noted architects to the project, most notably Basil Spence (Central Library, 1968) and Arne Jacobsen (unrealised Hotel plans, 1967) and his commissions fueled the ascendancy of the industrious Ryder & Yates (various projects, notably in Killingworth).

These projects represent the most enduring facets of T. Dan Smith and Wilfred Burns’s legacy but there are other fragmentary, ghostly remains of their utopian dream hidden in the city’s built environment. Chief among them are the vestigial remnants of the grand elevated pedestrian walkway system. Some of them are tucked away in largely unvisited parts of central Newcastle while others are used with relative frequency.

A small network of skywalks built to carry pedestrians from Basil Spence’s central library over the Central Motorway and into the East End of the city is the most prominent remaining example.

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While this section is fairly complete, other parts of the skywalk network were built speculatively with the obvious assumption that they would be completed one day. The most startling example of this is an unfinished elevated walkway to nowhere that runs under the Tyne Bridge.

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Unfinished walkway under the Tyne Bridge.

Plans to create skywalks over Northumberland Street were never realised, but they were fully anticipated by the developers of what is now Primark’s building. If you look closely at the side of the building, you can see blocks poking out of the the walls running in a line all the way along. Far from being architectural flourishes, these anachronisms are structural ledges which were originally intended to support a skywalk. They are also in evidence on the back of the neighboring old Mcdonalds and old HMV buildings.

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Unused skywalk supports along the side of Primark on Northumberland Street.

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Close-up of supports.

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Further unused skywalk supports on the back of the McDonalds and old HMV buildings.

Another skywalk which was built is an offshoot of the library walkway network stretching down past Manors car park into the run down East Pilgrim Street area. This one allows egress to the car park itself, which was one of the primary functions of the walkways. There’s a fenced-off stub of walkway which was presumably meant to connect to an elevated walkway along the side of Bank House, which is now demolished.

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The Manors elevated walkway and stub viewed from the derelict base of the former Bank House building.

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Manors skywalk stub overhanging on the left – presumably intended to connect to an elevated walkway on the side of Bank House. The concrete structure pictured was the base of Bank House and presumably survived demolition because a structural support for Swan House is built into it.

If Burns’s plans for a city of elevated pedestrian walkways were ambitious, Ryder & Yates’s proposal for the regeneration of the Quayside area was audacious. As the hub of Newcastle’s industry, the Quayside enjoyed over a century of prosperity but by the time T. Dan Smith was in office it was deeply derelict and left reeling from years of post-war deindustrialisation and neglect. Smith turned to the trusted Ryder & Yates to figure out how to revitalise the area and—possibly inspired by Wilfred Burns’s love of pedestrian decks—came up with the Tyne Deck plan.

Ryder & Yates proposed decking over the River Tyne, from one side to the other, and building a sprawling conference centre complex on top. Few can deny the sheer audacity of this plan. It’s doubtful whether even the most radical members of Burns’s planning team would have countenanced the idea, but its very conception captures the  utopian mood of the 1960s planning scene in Newcastle.

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The proposed Tyne Deck © Ryder & Yates, 1969.

The development in visual terms of the monumental building complex in an area of historical development representing continuity of major achievements and thus unifying the aspirations of the Region… The destruction of a boundary and the formation of a new City of Tyneside … The transformation of an area potentially the most vital on the Tyne, from dereliction to the centre of public activity, a symbol of re-birth… The upper Tyne transformed into a linear lake with all the advantages to be derived from the constant water level with its banks not exposed disfigured and eroded by an ebbing tide… A reservoir beneficial to the Water Company particularly on the completion of the Solway barrage for retaining water from the Lake District.

The deck would have contained in its structure sluice gates to control upstream water levels, locks to allow small craft through, and a salmon leap. “The principal function of the deck is to create an acceptable site for the erection of important public buildings that will be related to the new administrative boundaries, and to the Region. Acceptable in the sense that the Deck being part of the river is the common inheritence of Tyneside, reaching beyond reactionary parochial attitudes and, in terms of precise location, the historic centre of the people of the Tyne.[3]

— Ryder & Yates Architects, 1969.

 

Foonotes and References
[1] Wilfred Burns, A study in Re-planning at Newcastle Upon Tyne (1967): 27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ryder & Yates, ‘Tyne Deck’ in Northern Architect – Journal of the Northern Architectural Association (May 1969), extract posted on Skyscrapercity.

This entry was posted in local history, planning and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Newcastle’s Skywalks

  1. Ryan McGrory says:

    Thanks for this excellent post I am visiting Newcastle tomorrow for 3 days and I am going to use this information to go a walk of all the unbuilt and amazingly utopian areas!

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