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Tyneside Modernism

By Owen Hatherley.

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City State: T Dan Smith, Towards the Brasilia of the north at the Lit and Phil, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

You can learn a lot about an exhibition from its comments book. In City State: Towards the Brasilia of the north (helpfully subtitled ‘T Dan Smith – What Went Wrong?’) the book has more arguments in it than most exhibitions have in their entirety. ‘A charismatic visionary’, scribbles one; ‘AN ARROGANT MAN!’ another; ‘demolish the lot!’ here, ‘saddening for a lost public vision’ there. Some are surprised that buildings they’ve always hated look so beautiful in John Davies’ photographs, others express admiration for Smith’s politics but note ‘what a mess he made of Newcastle’. It’s a reminder that no definitive judgements can be passed on Smith, save perhaps the six-year sentence passed down by the judge at his 1974 corruption trial.

Thomas Daniel Smith was of what people used to call the ‘hard left’. The son of a miner from Wallsend, who, after spells in the Independent Labour Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party (not to be confused with the ’80s libertarian organisation that continues as Spiked Online et al) took control along with a group of fellow far-left ‘entryists’, of Newcastle Labour Party, then subsequently of the incongruously Tory fiefdom of Newcastle City Council in 1958. Variously declaring an intention to make it a ‘Brasilia of the North’ or a ‘Milan of the North’, Smith left Newcastle in 1965 to take a job heading the Northern Economic Planning Council, ran various PR companies, headed the Peterlee New Town Development Corporation, and founded a company called Open System Building, which would then be run by the architect John Poulson. In 1970, when Poulson went bankrupt, his accounts were meticulously pursued, landing Smith with a series of trials, some of which acquitted him, one of which sent him down for six years. By the 1990s he lived out his dotage on the 14th storey of a tower he had commissioned thirty years earlier, with enough gumption to play himself in a film, T Dan Smith – A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Utopia. When thinking about Smith and Poulson it’s impossible to keep from your mind their fictional portrayals on British television. Smith became Austin Donohue, corrupt local Labour leader in Our Friends in the North, a snake-oil salesman for ‘cities in the sky’; Poulson, meanwhile, was fictionalised as Red Riding‘s John Dawson, portrayed by Sean Bean as a terrifying Yorkshire thug. This is the dark heart of post-war urban politics – backhanders, the threat of violence, one-time socialists forgetting they were in politics to help out anyone but themselves, the tearing up and destruction of cities, the desecration of ‘heritage’. What is so interesting about City State is that it ignores this narrative completely, in favour of taking seriously Smith’s urban ambitions.

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Newcastle’s urbanism is poised tensely between classical rectitude – the planned city designed by John Dobson and others from the 1820s to 1840s, which bankrupted its developer, Richard Grainger — and the exhilaratingly aggressive industrial structures that made the city its money. Both are implicitly combined in the Literary and Philosophical Society, an extensive library and debating society housed in a serene, sharp neoclassical building by John Green. It was headed at one point by Robert Stephenson, the engineer whose proto-Constructivist High Level Bridge sliced a castle in two, something which would give any heritage watchdog today a coronary. It is, then, an appropriate place for this ambiguous half-celebration of a council leader best known for his destruction of traditional Newcastle. The images in City State show how this destruction, the domineering nature of modernity and the way its structures leap over, crush or transcend tradition, is a part of what makes the place distinctive, and not at all its opposite. The organisers hired for this the great photographer John Davies, whose book The British Landscape offers 25 years of wide-angled monochrome photographs of Britain as it actually is. Along with images of Stockport viaducts and Durham pit villages, The British Landscape contains astounding photographs of usually derided, masterplanned post-war landscapes – the chaos of intersections in Herbert Manzoni’s Birmingham, the meticulously planted hillscape of J.L Womersley’s Sheffield – taken from the planner’s vantage point. That is, from above, seemingly either from the top of a tower block (where the perspective is supposedly bleak and isolating) or an office block (where it is the perspective of the lord of all he surveys). These images combine a certain classical stillness with a barely suppressed charge of excitement.

Their planner’s eye view is wholly appropriate. Under Smith, Newcastle’s was the first English council to have a planning department (headed by one Wilfred Burns) and here you can see the brochures and PR booklets sent out to council tenants that detailed the benefits of urban motorways and point blocks. With inadvertent irony, one booklet notes ‘much of the money needed for the five year plan will be borrowed’. Davies took a book’s worth of photographs of the area, which decorate the walls of City State. He claims to have found, where contemporary critics like Ian Nairn saw an international style boredom unworthy of Newcastle, something unique. In fact, he goes as far as to say that this is ‘unlike the architecture of any city I have photographed’, and sets out to prove ‘the distinctiveness of Tyneside Modernism’. What makes this distinctive, according to Davies’ captions, is the way the buildings support themselves on massive pillars, which allow pedestrian or vehicle traffic to pass underneath, or which fire off pedestrian walkways, flyovers and overpasses from over and under – but other elements are apparent, such as a strange neo-medievalism in the design of office blocks and the Bank of England, the use of rough stone or concrete, a generalised northernness, all with a black & white palette imposed by the council. Davies’ photographs were taken in the last year or so, and they show the multilevel city in an ostensibly well-preserved state, with the recent cladding and/or rotting masked by the monochrome. The finest of these buildings look breathtaking in these images. RMJM’s Swan House shows it as a sublime elevated grid, at the centre of a riot of walkways and highways, while Ryder and Yates’ MEA House appears as the strange, angular terminus of that same system. Meanwhile, the council were every bit as ruthless about ploughing the private car through the city as their 1840s predecessors were about slicing it into pieces for the benefit of the railways. With hindsight we can see what a mistake that was, and there are few places as uninviting to the pedestrian as the point where Swan House meets the Tyne Bridge. Yet this is more to do with a failure to achieve Smith and Burns’ aim of completely separating pedestrian and traffic, rather than the evils of the aim itself.

The problem with the idea of the Brasilia of the North is that Newcastle never found a northern Oscar Niemeyer. This was not for want of trying. Smith invited Le Corbusier to design what would have been his only British building, although it never worked out. He did manage to convince the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen (designer of that other 1960s icon, those curved chair which Christine Keeler famously straddled) to redesign the neoclassical setpiece of Eldon Square, although he was sacked after Smith left the council, meaning at the very least that the banal mall which sits there now can’t be blamed on him. As it is, Smith relied upon Scottish architects such as Robert Matthew -Johnson-Marshall (designers of the walkways and Swan House) and Basil Spence (designer of a cluster of blocks by the Tyne Bridge, and the now-demolished Central Library), along with the interesting local practice Ryder and Yates. English artists were employed for the public art which accompanied the buildings, such as the Victor Pasmore murals in the Rates Hall of the new, Scando-style, no-expenses-spared Civic Centre (‘I wanted rate payers to look at them and think ‘this is the end!”).

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It was decent enough, but where Smith’s administration really succeeded (and failed) was in the rehousing of his core constituency, the working class voters of Newcastle. The high-rise estates take up fairly little of City State, perhaps because they don’t fit the thesis of civic ambition, although one image of a Shieldfield block raising itself up on pillars fits the overarching idea of a distinctive Tyneside multilevel metropolitanism, and the cubic houses by Ryder and Yates in Kenton at least look pretty fucking weird. After Smith, the slums of Byker that his administration had cleared were redeveloped by Ralph Erskine, in the sort of sensitive, Scandinavian modernism he had tried and failed to impose on Eldon Square, but couched by a Tory council as an explicit alternative to Smith’s schemes like the Cruddas Park high-rises. Meanwhile, the most famous buildings of the time are in Gateshead, outside of Smith’s jurisdiction, in the form of Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon’s Trinity Car Park and Dunston Rocket – both of them fiercely individual, pugilistic, visceral Brutalist sculptures, and both slated for demolition.

All of this is photographed by Davies, as part of a general thesis that the greater ambition of the time was to do with an intriguing fusion of regionalism – devolution, fierce local pride – and internationalism, through looking out towards Europe and the ‘Third World’ for ideas both architectural and political. So the architecture of the entire area makes up a wider picture of a potential enclave, a genuine city state, which he attempted to create through the Northern Economic Planning Council and New Town Development Corporations. This is the area where the Harold Wilson Labour governments were at their most interesting, and most unlike those of Blair and Brown – the place where they made a serious attempt at a real reorganisation of power in the United Kingdom. In the corner of the exhibition a three-hour film, Mouth of the Tyne, shows footage of Smith in the mid-1980s, explaining the ideas on devolution he lobbied for in the 1960s. Britain divided up into 11 locally-administered areas, each of which would control the ‘commanding heights’ of their local economy. These would elect a representative to a second chamber, replacing the House of Lords. This would then be integrated into a federal Europe, and in the process the south-eastern, aristocratic biases that skew British politics would be eliminated. The failure of this is all around us, as Old Etonians prepare for government and their thinktanks advocate the population of Sunderland moving to London.

Yet some of Smith’s ideas should sound rather familiar to anyone who has followed Blairite ideas about ‘regeneration’, the ‘Urban Renaissance’ announced by Lord Richard Rogers. First of all, the estate he commissioned overlooking the Tyne, Cruddas Park, is being reclad and rebranded as the luxury duplex development ‘Riverside Dene’. And in these ’80s interviews, he talks about wanting to make Tyneside into a ‘science city’, removing its reliance on ‘yesterday’s industry’, ie coal and shipbuilding, having no truck with nostalgia for the local past, clearly intending to build something more high-tech on top of it, partly through a massive extension of polytechnic education. Then there’s his use of more civic-minded European cities as an exemplar, his talk of ‘science parks’ rather than factories, and perhaps most of all, his emphasis on culture. The ‘philosophical background’, he says, of Labour’s plans for the area, was Northern Arts, an organisation he founded. The discussion of the importance of arts and, by implication, of tourism, sounds like inadvertent prophecies of the Blairite urban renaissance, and its local incarnation, the ensemble of Millennium Bridge, Sage and Baltic, carved out of the post-industrial Gateshead Quayside. The accidental descendants of Smith’s New Town ‘science parks’ are no doubt the call centre colonies of Killingworth. The difference, of course, is that Smith’s kind of regional boosterism had a place for democracy, and for socialism, both of which are as absent from today’s ‘NewcastleGateshead’, as they are from everywhere else.

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John Prescott may or may not have had Smith in mind when he devised plans for regional devolution in the early 2000s. Perhaps because the Greater London Authority, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament had managed to carve out niches significantly to the left of New Labour, the North-East Assembly was designed to be a relatively toothless creature. Nonetheless, its overwhelming rejection in a 2004 referendum perhaps shows that the area doesn’t want to become a city state, an independent metropolitan area able to step out of London’s shadow. People in Teeside or Wearside would apparently rather be ruled from Thameside than Tyneside. As it is, rather than being able to reject the more unpleasant whims of New Labour as have Scotland and Wales, the area is instead largely administered by a multitude of competing, unelected Regional Development Corporations, who can pursue Pathfinder schemes more brutal than any 1960s slum clearance. Meanwhile Newcastle became the epicentre of the financial earthquake when Northern Rock, based in the Regents Centre, a Smith-era office complex, had to be nationalised to save it from collapse. The 2004 referendum and the Northern Rock collapse were a return as farce of the calling in of accounts that did for Smith, much as the crash of Blairism was the sorry echo of the crash of social democracy in the 1970s.

What of Socialism, presumably the reason Smith entered politics in the first place? Was he just on the make, or was the graft all a means to a definite political end? Naturally, Smith consistently claims the latter in Mouth of the Tyne. Yet the documents here show a dizzying quantity of business ventures, in PR, engineering, design, painting and decorating, all established with the ex-Trotskyist’s adroitness at setting up front organisations. They sit strangely next to his notes for speeches at ILP or RCP meetings – ‘workers of the world unite!’ is scrawled on one of them, something you just don’t get with New Labour civic dignitaries like (Sir) Bob Kerslake and (Sir) Howard Bernstein. The video footage shows Smith building up a complicated, often unconvincing but strident and intriguing defence of his, ah, ‘extracurricular’ interests. He claims that the reason he established such close links with Poulson was because he was an opponent of system-building (note here the name of Poulson and Smith’s former business venture, Open Systems Building, and take the following with a heavy pinch of salt). In fact, he claims, rather than being the corruptee, he was using Poulson all along in order to influence architecture and planning on a nationwide scale, so as to shift it in a more careful and individualistic direction. ‘I wanted to influence as many British cities as I could, and Poulson was my instrument for that’. The nondescript, interchangeable curtain-walled towers that Poulson produced for British Rail, some of which still survive, are proof of just how suspicious Smith’s assertions here are. It sounds like a post-facto rationalisation of entirely contingent alliances, yet put across with a certain gall – ‘if I had been successful and Poulson had been successful, then 70% of the problems of our town centres would have been avoided’, as apparently none of their blocks would have been system-built. ‘I have no moral qualms’, as he unashamedly puts it.

This is as maybe, but one thing which is certain is that he pleaded guilty in 1974, although even this, he claims, was because of ill-health, with Smith surviving on ‘Valium and Carlsberg Export’. Mouth of the Tyne ends with Smith discussing ‘the power structure’ of money both old (the House of Lords, the public schools, Oxbridge) and new (financial and industrial capitalism). He claims, plausibly, that he was too powerful and too influential to be allowed to continue at the top, an area strictly reserved for those who have been groomed for it, where after Eton and Cambridge ‘the sign on the bus stop reads ‘to the power structure”. These ‘non-elected people that you never hear about’ were in his day sundry Lords and Civil Servants, and in ours we could add the multiple Regeneration Commissions and Local Development Corporations, with their names like Yorkshire Forward, Creative Sheffield, Bridging NewcastleGateshead, One NorthEast, Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder, and knighted, unelected council leaders like Bernstein and Kerslake. This particular variant of quango was pioneered by the Wilson government, and many of them had T Dan Smith on their board.

On this 1980s footage, a red-faced, tired but pin-sharp and funny Smith declares that ‘capitalism itself is fundamentally immoral and corrupt, and its major corruptions are all legal’. It’s both utterly true and a rather poor alibi. Yet listening to him, you can’t help but think how relevant his rhetoric is now. He notes that working class movements are told by Lords that their politics are outdated, and today Baron Mandelson of Foy tells Unions to move with the times. He claims the real corruptions are legal, and while he got six years, Northern Rock chairman Matt Ridley escaped without even a fine. As the missing link between Marxism and Mandelsonism, T Dan Smith appears here as the ultimate political curate’s egg – fascinating, charismatic, creator of an impressive but often despised landscape, both convincing and dissimulating, a corrupt mandarin who intended to create a decentralised socialist Britain. Swallow it all whole and it might poison you, but better a man who got his fingers burnt when trying to create cities in the sky, than when claiming expenses for mock-Tudor beams.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Owen Hatherley is the author of Militant Modernism (Zero Books, 2009) and writes for the New Statesman, Building Design and New Humanist, among others. Read his recent interview with 3:AM here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 30th, 2009.