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Byker - The Divergence Between Architectural Intention and Lived Experience; The Effects of Design and Society

Part 2 Dissertation 2009
Laura Hughes
Newcastle University | UK
Proposals for the Byker estate began in the late 1960s when the architect Ralph Erskine and his design team were appointed by Newcastle City Council. Much was praised and publicised in the methods utilised for participation and forward allocation of existing residents, and the design itself aimed to create a ‘village scale’ environment for the Byker people. Now, forty years on, what remains of Byker? How has the original design fared; physically and in the opinion of local residents? What impact has a changing society had on the estate? This dissertation will investigate the divergence between architectural intention and lived experience in the case of the Byker estate.

The analysis is split into two parts; design issues and social change, and is assessed in terms of the housing, external spaces and community facilities. Extensive primary research was conducted including; interviews with local residents, community activists and designers to give an up-to-date picture of the estate. This data was contrasted with information published in the 70s and 80s.

The design decisions made by Erskine are having repercussions on the perceptions of residents. Interconnected pathways and small private courtyards created to aid accessibility and interaction are now overgrown reducing surveillance and providing secluded areas for anti-social behaviour. Additional security measures have been implemented to minimise these fears across the estate. The poor maintenance programme that existed until recently has led to serious deterioration, causing a lack of pride and respect for the area. In addition, changes in policy from national to local scale have impacted on the finance available to Byker, and local unemployment is high.

Conclusions from the study address the dynamic process of inhabitation and the place of Byker in today’s society. Byker has recently received Grade 2* listing and whilst this will not guarantee its future indefinitely it will mean more money is available for maintenance to be carried out in the original spirit of the estate. This may go some way to resolve the concerns of local residents and improve the perceived reputation of the estate across the city, re-addressing the balance between design and quality of life.

Laura Hughes

Erskine’s Byker estate has become an iconic project in the history of post-war social housing and architecture. When most designers were imposing cheap, ill-considered copies of key modernist designs, Erskine experimented with a radically new approach. He moved his office into the soon-to-be-demolished working class area and engaged with local residents. Endless articles and books have been written and many claims made both for the visual exuberance of his bright, Scandinavian-inspired design and the effectiveness of his social engineering.

Forty years on since its inception it seems appropriate to test the multiple claims made for Byker and to assess its appropriateness for current circumstances. This dissertation focuses on how design intentions have played out through time and how the design has responded to changing social conditions and rising resident expectations.

The great strength of this study is that it is grounded in a firm theoretical base complemented by a strong personal engagement with the area. Living close by enabled the student to spend considerable amounts of time over a long period talking with residents, attending community meetings, working with community groups and interviewing several of those involved in the original design process. In addition the many writings on Byker published over a 40 year period were examined in detail. This led to the accumulation of a rich data base on which to construct a well balanced evaluation of a complex place.

What started out as an academic undertaking has led to a strong community conscious ethos in design and a continued involvement with Byker and its stakeholders through planned workshops and events.

Dr Peter Kellett
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