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Bensham Grove: Learning to Belong

Part 1 Project 2010
Alice Gunter
Newcastle University Newcastle-Upon-Tyne UK
The project was set in Bensham, a deprived part of Gateshead, where social problems have caused a divide in the area leading to a lack of community and identity. Bensham Grove Community Centre is a scheme that already exists so the project aimed to expand its reach and find the best way to realise the work of the centre and the larger role it can play in the neighbourhood. The original Bensham Grove building was the starting point for the project, before searching for real solutions to the problems posed by the location, façade and stigma of a community centre.

Biomimicry is the idea of looking at animals in their natural environment and recreating the concepts that they use. Ants create a mesmerizing community, working together for the greater good of their colony as a whole. Using this way of working, a community centre is created where everyone feels part of a team working towards a better society. The design came from the idea of having a ‘nest’ in which everyone would feel comfortable and assemble. The original house is used for the core because of its strong physical presence in Bensham. The rest of the building is made up from separate ‘pods’ sitting under large concrete undulating roofs that form ribbons running down the sloping site. Visitors to the community centre first gather in the ‘nest’ and then work their way out to the different pods, creating their own pathways, an idea which ties into the principles of adult learning, where choices need to be offered. The building uses large open corridors in which people can gather and over time the coarse concrete materiality of the building will become smooth, meaning these areas of pause and the pathways made around them will become clearly defined, allowing learners to control the paths they take but still under some direction and guidance, an important theory of adult learning.

Alice Gunter


Located in Gateshead, this project was based in and around an existing Adult Education and Community provision. Offering students an opportunity to engage with a complex social and site condition, the project also challenged many common preconceptions about education- requiring them to question what it might mean to ‘belong’.

Bensham Grove is a product of the late 19th Century Settlement Movement, founded on principles of social change and self-improvement through education, and the philanthropic endeavours of the founding family, together with the continuing efforts of the staff over many years, have ensured that the provision continues to be held in real affection by the surrounding community. Responding to the existing domestic and homely environment, whilst positing a fresh new identity and integrating a significant new-build provision, lay at the heart of the project.

Students were encouraged to refine and reinterpret a multi-layered brief, integrating teaching and learning facilities alongside, or within, broader community focused spaces. Art as a catalyst for change was maintained as a strong theme throughout the project, reflecting strong historic associations to the Arts and Crafts Movement through Morris, the Pre- Raphaelites and the work of the ‘Pitmen Painters’.

The existing context of historic villa and mature walled garden, located at the convergence of traditional ‘Tyneside flats’ and a more refined suburban context, offered an intriguing social and physical complexity with which to wrestle and necessitated a close reading and particular personal response, explored using a diverse mix of communication techniques.

Alice developed a strategy to stitch the centre into its context through ribbons of landscape that interconnect both programme and site. Teaching and community, private and public, internal and external spaces have been woven together in a clear statement of regeneration and catalyst for change in the community. The proposal aimed to encourage public engagement: stepping into the building, on the roof landscape, connecting with parkland. Adaptability is a key principal in this proposal- spaces have been designed to accommodate multiple activities, facilitated through both rational and imaginative planning principles. This is an ambitious and imaginative proposal whose high ambitions were maintained throughout the development process.

Tutor(s)


2010
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