Building the Shitegiest: ‘Hasta la Victoria (Library) Siempre’

As mentioned below, I have been planning a diatribe about a truly ugly and cynical building project near my home. I had thought about detailing each minute facet, highlighting the myriad ways in which it is indicative of the arse-about-face nature of the ‘Big Society’ and the unsympathetic, postmodern aping of the original library that the disastrous annex indulges in. However, I’m just a bit tired of it now. I walk past it every day. Ire turned to sadness, turned to    resignation. I try not to look at it now.

But then I re-found this series of pictures Mariley took, and decided to post them here and let them speak for themselves… with a few words of my own. Basically, I do still find it offensive; both as a building and as a concept. Here’s a little bit of background info for those not living in Heaton.

For the first 18 months or so of moving into Heaton, this proud red-brick and sandstone building was derelict and in a pretty sorry state. So when a makeshift plywood wall conspicuously found its way around the perimeter, a glimmer of hope and curiosity began to shine; ‘what are they doing to the old library building?’ The glimmer was short lived, as soon after a poster was attached to the wall proclaiming the new uses of the community building. A restaurant, office spaces and (surprise surprise) “trendy flats[1]”. The conversion (and compartmentalising) of old Victorian buildings with at least a desire of communality into private cells is a common practice, I suppose. A friend of mine in London lived for a time in a wonderfully austere-looking Victorian school, converted soullessly into ‘Grand Designes’-esque apartments (it was the poshest flat I had ever been to, and I had some great nights playing guitar there). But to see such a project blooming in Newcastle sticks in my throat, not only because it hints at an insidious individualism and disregard for public spaces, but also because they have made such a pig’s ear of it!

An Aesthetic

You don’t need to have studied architecture to recognise the new annex to the Victoria Library as an uninspiring, thoughtless mess (which is lucky, because I haven’t studied architecture!) It is obviously attempting to reflect some of the stylistic features of its forbear – the brick and stone combination, the three turret-like protrusions, the colloquial reference to the terraced houses it faces. But it’s the sort of colloquial architecture employed in out-of-town hypermarkets; like putting a clock tower and slate roof on a massive Asda, in an attempt to make you forget you’re walking around a warehouse in an industrial estate. Also, these allusions are just so poorly executed. The example that irks me the most is the central turret. Shorn of its actual use, it looks like a repository for surplus bricks. The fact that the stonework is asymmetrical makes not only the annex look awkward, but also affects the elegance of the original.

Then there’s the wooden bit at the side. Oh God! You can almost see the powerpoint presentation spiel: “The brick links the new building to the old, the wooden part links it to Heaton Park”. Clever. Except, with the imposing CCTV camera tower and fence (which, I admit, is not a permanent feature), it looks more like the Big Brother house of old; all gaudy colours and ersatz grass.

A Concept

Though the decline into dereliction, selling and eventual ‘redevelopment’ of this building was variously the work Labour and Lib. Dem councils, the tacit invitation to own a piece of council property smacks of the Conservativism of old. It also seems to fly in the face of the so-called ‘Big Society’ initiative (or perhaps illustrates the absolute meaninglessness of that rhetoric). What could be more ‘Big Societal’ that re-opening a long-forgotten library – or reusing it as a community centre? I would volunteer there (I basically live the life of an old age pensioner), I would certainly use the facility.

But it has been made the realm of the individual; purchasable, private, exclusive. And that makes the above mentioned design flaws all the more difficult to stomach.      

(p.s. This is a vista as viewed from the Victoria Library. Cheryl Cole (I think) used to live in one of those tower blocks in the distance!)

[1] I don’t think this is an actual quote from the poster, though it may as well be. I can’t check because the poster was daubed in graffiti and removed within the week.

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