About me
Bookshop

Get new posts by email.

About me

Revisiting Middlesbrough’s Community in a Cube

In 2012, I wandered around the Community in a Cube (CIAC) in Middlesbrough after I had a meeting nearby. This visually striking, sustainable, RIBA award shortlisted block of 82 flats in the redeveloping Middlehaven area of the town was of particular interest as it seemed to have become flavour of the month among architects.

Fast-forward to 2019 and the development has been back in the news for rather less welcome reasons. According to local and national press reports, inspections of the building in the wake of the Grenfell disaster have revealed that the building—and, in particular, the distinctive timber claddingare not compliant with fire regulations. ‘Not compliant’ to the extent that a 24/7 ‘waking watch’ patrol has been implemented at a huge cost.

So, when fate brought me to a nearby meeting again today, I thought I’d use the lunch break for another quick wander to see how the development had aged.


Over the last seven years, CIAC has become a local landmark. Its visibility from the A66 and the nearby railway line, combined with the eye-catching “sky homes” perched on top of it, have made the building a familiar and commonly mentioned icon of Middlesbrough.

That said, the intended ‘riverside vision’ has never quite emerged, with CIAC remaining the sole residential development in the area. It seems somewhat isolated as a result. The current plan is for a £30m snow centre to be build nearby.

The surrounding ‘naked streets’, which I found “disconcerting” on my first visit, are now much more traditionally clothed, with separation of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. There’s also no shortage of weeds on display, which actually somewhat pleasingly soften the visual impact.

Close up, the building looks minimally weathered. The distinctive black stripes on the cladding have mostly worn away on the front of the building, but less so on the less exposed elevations.

The gigantic zebra crossing like paving remains in place at the rear. The geometrically patterned inset wall looks as sharp and fresh as ever. From this angle, I think I’d be hard-pressed to identify photographs taken today from those taken when the building was first completed.

And while seven years ago I said this building “isn’t quite to my taste”, gazing at it across the water of Middlehaven Dock today, I could almost change my mind. Perhaps it’s partly familiarity, but it feels less ‘alien spaceship’ than it did when it was first completed.

All things considered, it has aged pretty well. I’ve no idea how well it has done from a sales perspective: I hear tell from local colleagues that some of the flats are now let to students of the nearby Middlesbrough College, but there are certainly a fair few owner occupiers.


Of course, though, as successful as the visual impact has been, I wouldn’t have dreamed that such a modern building would now be deemed a major fire risk in need of hundreds of thousands of pounds of remedial work. I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel for the owners and residents of the flats to be living somewhere where they don’t feel as safe as they once did, let alone the financial consequences.

While I understand from the media coverage that it was compliant with regulations when built, this experience must surely raise questions about when the right things are really prioritised when landmark architectural developments are being designed.

This post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, , , .

Thoughts on the restoration of ex-BBC Television Centre

I’m writing this in the courtyard of Television Centre in West London, which I happened to be passing today. I’m gazing up at the newly restored statue of Helios and watching the repaired fountains dance as they never have on any previous visit.

I think for most British people of my age, Television Centre is the home of Going Live, Live & Kicking, Blue Peter, Ed the Duck, Otis the Aardvark, and Philip Schofield and Andi Peters’s broom cupboard. After the BBC moved off the site in 2013, it has been closed for restoration and redevelopment, with luxury apartments the order of the day—albeit with three television studios remaining. It seems ironic that two-thirds of the studios in a location so closely associated with the BBC are to become the new standing home of iconic ITV programmes like This Morning any day now.

I last visited Television Centre with Wendy, a few months before it closed.

We were lucky enough to secure a place on one of the final tours of the building and were fascinated to get an understanding of the mechanics of production of TV shows (and especially news programmes). This aspect was far more interesting to both of us than the celebrity anecdotes, tour of the Match of the Day set, or inevitable visit to the gift shop.

We both felt a little uncomfortable at the tour of the ‘celebrity’ dressing rooms, knowing that they were the settings for sexual abuse: our visit coincided with a 12-month period in which horrific historical examples of abuse at the BBC were being recalled almost daily on the front pages of newspapers. The fabric of the building was also falling apart at the seams, the sense of magic ebbing away with the physical as much as the moral dilapidation.

Towards the end of the tour, we were press-ganged into making up the numbers for the studio audience of a recording of a truly terrible daytime game show which we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of since. In a high-pressured time-limited trivia finale, the host fluffed the reading of almost every question. He then got to record ‘pick-ups’, having a second (and occasionally third) go at reading them correctly. The contestant didn’t get a second go at answering them, and so presumably ended up appearing inexplicably flummoxed by perfectly simple questions, through no fault of her own. “TV magic”, it seems, still favours the “talent”.

This afternoon, Television Centre is quiet. In fact, as I tap away, I’m the only person in the courtyard. At least from the outside, the restoration appears sympathetic. The front of the site looks all the better for the landscaping that has replaced the exterior car park, which also has the effect of making the Centre seem smaller and more intimate.

I expected to feel a certain sense of melancholy from coming to a place to which I once felt such a close connection, knowing that a part of our collective cultural heritage had been auctioned off to the highest bidder and converted into apartments I could never hope to afford. And yet, that is not how I feel.

Perhaps incongruously, I feel a strange sense of satisfaction at seeing the building sympathetically restored. The impression is of quality and accessible historical grandeur, and it feels strangely as though the hope for the future inherent in redevelopment has frightened away the collected ghosts of the past.

It doesn’t feel like a wonderous “TV factory” any more, as it did from a distance in my childhood; but nor does it feel like a tainted crime scene, as it did on my last visit. It feels like a housing development sympathetically built around a listed building—which is, I suppose, exactly what it is.

This post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , .

Photo-a-day 288: Millennium rainbow

20121014-220332.jpg

This is a picture I took earlier in the week of the Millennium Bridge lit up, as it is every night, in its rainbow-like colour scheme. The current lighting system was installed in 2009, and is LED based for super energy efficiency.

It’s the (first, second, third, fourth) fifth time I’ve featured the bridge this year, so you may be bored of seeing it by now…! In my own defence, this is the first night-time shot of it!

This post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , , , .

Photo-a-day 236: High Level Bridge

20120823-214046.jpg

This is one of the footpaths on the High Level Bridge linking Newcastle and Gateshead. The top deck of the High Level Bridge carries trains, whilst pedestrians and road traffic cross on the lower deck. It was opened by Queen Victoria herself, and if you’re wondering about the dates and designers, this plaque might help:

20120823-214306.jpg

The bridge was the world’s first major wrought iron tied-arch design, and spans 1,337 feet across six spans. During the Great Fire of Newcastle and Gateshead in 1854, it’s said that the bridge “vibrated like a thin wire”.

One has to wonder whether these not-so-good vibrations caused the first flaws in the ironwork that developed to severe cracks found when the bridge was due for restoration in 2005. These led to the bridge being closed for three years, and road traffic now being restricted to only taxis and buses in a single direction.

In the first year after it re-opened, though, some 32,000 drivers – my dad and brother included – ignored these restrictions. Perhaps, like dad and Glenn, all of them got lost and confused, ended up at the entrance to the bridge before they knew it, and were unable to turn round!

In response, Northumbria Police launched a crackdown, and fined over 1,000 drivers £30 in a few short weeks. Electronic registration number capturing monitoring equipment now automatically issues fines to anyone who breaks the rules.

This post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , , , .

Photo-a-day 225: Hownsgill Viaduct

20120812-163231.jpg

This is the Hownsgill Viaduct. It’s 55m high, and a little over 200m long. It used to carry the Stanhope & Tyne Railway, but these days carries only the C2C cycle route. Construction was completed in 1858 to Sir Thomas Bouch’s design.

Bouch would later go on to design the Tay Bridge, which collapsed in use. Seventy-five people were killed, and Bouch’s reputation and career were left in tatters. Whilst the Hownsgill Viaduct is still standing, its fate has become almost as grim: it’s one of the UK’s suicide hotspots. In 2011, there was a death every two weeks. In response, Durham County Council is arranging the construction of a 3m high steel tube and cable fence.

Suicide barriers are a knotty public health issue: whilst they seem logically sound, it’s difficult to come up with strong evidence of their effectiveness. The most famous study in this area (and one which came up in my Part A MFPH, as it happens) is of the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto – where, actually, fewer suicides occurred each year than at Hownsgill. The study suggests that whilst the Luminous Veil barrier prevented suicides from the viaduct itself, it had no impact on the suicide rate as a whole. Of course, study design is a huge problem in this field, but it remains the case that no published study has shown a reduction in the overall suicide rate as a result of the erection of a barrier.

I guess the only thing we know for certain is that suicide is better tackled through comprehensive and wide-ranging suicide prevention programmes rather than through barriers alone. Psychiatry services often suffer when healthcare resources are tight; yet the biggest cause of death in British men under the age of 35 is suicide. Let’s hope that the vital work of mental health teams isn’t dismissed by anyone as “easy pickings” in the ongoing recession.

This post was filed under: Health, Photo-a-day 2012, , , , .

Photo-a-day 224: Ouseburn spectacular!

Over the course of this photographic year, I’ve featured lots of bits of the Ouseburn, a local river that runs from its source, near Newcastle airport, to the Tyne, near the famous Quayside. It also passes fairly near my house.

I’ve featured it so many times now that I know it’s become a groan-worthy subject for some: Wendy included! But today, I wanted to show you the Ouseburn at Ouseburn: the point at which the river flows through its namesake part of Newcastle, in the Ouseburn Valley. This is it flowing under the huge Byker Bridge:

20120811-190955.jpg

The Byker Bridge was opened in 1878, and, in something resembling current Government policy, its construction was funded by a toll charged for use until 1895. It was designed by Robert Hodgson, who was better known for his rail bridges. It is built entirely of brick, and is almost 100ft tall and over 1000 feet long. This picture gives a better sense of scale:

20120811-191650.jpg

Perhaps the more interesting construction which lies almost alongside Byker Bridge is the Ouseburn Viaduct, which carries the East Coast Mainline. It was – remarkably – originally a timber construction built in 1839. Thirty years later, the timber was switched to iron. Unfortunately, the viaduct is currently undergoing a £10m restoration, and so all that can be seen today is a web of scaffolding:

20120811-192737.jpg

I’ll have to visit again when the work is complete… Ouseburn will be back!

This post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , , , .

Photo-a-day 207: The Shard

20120726-101007.jpg

I forgot my photo-a-day yesterday – oops – so here’s a picture of The Shard that I took earlier in the week. Little-known facts about The Shard include the fact that it’s tall, it’s located in London, and it has a lot of glass on it.

This post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , .

Photo-a-day 196: Grand Hotel

20120714-184316.jpg

This is Newcastle’s former Grand Hotel, built in 1891. I’m not sure when it stopped being a hotel, but it now houses a Health Fayre sandwich shop, a branch of Blackwell’s, a Campus Coffee shop and Newcastle University accommodation.

One interesting conundrum about this building is its location. The road you can see running in front of the shop changes at some point from Percy Street (to the left of this picture) to Barras Bridge (to the right).

The Grand Hotel building is listed by the Council (and the architects’ original plans) as being located at 1-24 Barras Bridge. Yet Health Fayre, Blackwell’s, and Campus Coffee – which are all located within the building – are listed being on Percy Street. However, the Newcastle University accommodation situated above these shops, and whose entrance lies between them, is listed as being on Barras Bridge.

So there’s the intriguing reality of several doors located next to each other on the same side of the same building, with the middle one listed as being on a different street to the others!

I’m glad I’m not a postman!

This post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , .

Photo-a-day 193: Royal Victoria Dock Bridge and Emirates Airline

20120711-230603.jpg

A few days ago, I mentioned the Royal Victoria Docks Bridge – and since I’m in London today, I thought I’d share a picture of it. As I said, it was built with the capability of running as a transporter bridge like the one in Middlesbrough, but this facility hasn’t been used.

Just a little way from that bridge is the new Emirates Airline. The consensus amongst Londoners that I know is that this is far more a tourist attraction than a serious transport proposal. As a tourist of sorts, I didn’t want to buck the trend, so I hopped on here, at the station on the North bank:

20120711-230613.jpg

And here’s a pretty picture of the venue formerly known as The O2, but which the IOC now insists on us all referring to as the North Greenwich Arena:

20120711-230622.jpg

But the most pressing question I had after my brief “flight” was: what’s in the box?

20120711-230631.jpg

I assume it’s some sort of emergency equipment, but it’s a pretty small box. Do any of my well-informed readers know what’s in it? I’m intrigued…

This post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , , , .

Photo-a-day 192: Newcastle’s town wall

20120710-175452.jpg

This is a bit of Newcastle’s ancient town wall – specifically, the Durham Tower bit. The wall was built in the 13th and 14th centuries, and was once 2 miles long, 2m thick, and over 7m high. There were 17 towers like this one, all within shooting distance of each other to repel attackers. The construction of the wall was funded through a special tax – a murage – which was levied for a hundred years.

The wall kept the town reasonably well protected from invaders, seeing off attacks from David II of Scotland and the Earl of Douglas among others. By the 18th century, the wall had fallen into disrepair, and Scottish armies were able to invade Newcastle a couple of times. By the late 18th century bits of it started to be knocked down, because it started to get in the way.

These days, it’s a scheduled ancient monument which is also the home to a notable literary landmark: Morden Tower, where many great 20th century poets came – and still come – to read their work. Allen Ginsberg, Ted Hughes, Basil Bunting, and Seamus Heaney are just four of the hundreds of previous poetic visitors! It’s also the place where the band Whitehouse once gave a performance in which the entire audience walked out. I don’t think that’s ever happened to any of the poets!

This post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , .




The content of this site is copyright protected by a Creative Commons License, with some rights reserved. All trademarks, images and logos remain the property of their respective owners. The accuracy of information on this site is in no way guaranteed. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author. No responsibility can be accepted for any loss or damage caused by reliance on the information provided by this site. Information about cookies and the handling of emails submitted for the 'new posts by email' service can be found in the privacy policy. This site uses affiliate links: if you buy something via a link on this site, I might get a small percentage in commission. Here's hoping.