Byker Wall: Radical Postmodernist Housing
The Byker Wall mass housing development was designed by the architect Ralph Erskine. It was built in Newcastle Upon Tyne to re-house the working class community that had grown up around the shipyards and factories along the banks of the river. Byker Wall is designed in a recognizably postmodernist style and is indicative of post modernist architecture as a reaction against Modernism.
Byker Wall is situated to the east of Newcastle and built between 1969 and 1882. The working class community in this vicinity lived in terraced houses, but in the late 1960s the City Council decided to redevelop the area. The terraced housing was gradually demolished and the residents were re-housed in the new development. As far as possible, Erskine tried to keep old neighbours together in order to preserve community structures.
Byker Wall in conjunction with surviving terraced streets.
Byker Wall is part of the trend in postmodernist architecture that reacted against Modernism and tried to solve it social failings. Modernist architecture was notorious for its indifference to local climate. Modernists tended to use external staircases and corridors irrespective of whether the building was in Marseilles or Glasgow. They also ignored the needs and tastes of users – Le Corbusier forbade the use of curtains in his Unité d’habitation because he felt they spoiled the architectural effect. Post Modern architecture has tried to interpret locality and history in order to communicate with users.
The outer wall.
Inside the wall.
There are a variety of forms, colours and materials in contrast to the pristine uniformity of Modernism. The uneven outline gives a variety in level and scale, overcoming the monumentality and monotony of Modernism.
Access decks to the flats in the high-rise section.
The dwellings have a recognisably domestic character, with wooden slats and sloping roofs. The layout is radically different to Modernist Ideal Cities. The Modernist ideal was anonymous monolithic blocks raised on pilotti, allowing cars to pass below. Byker Wall is firmly planted on the ground, with decoration conducted in natural colours – greens and browns. The forms rise and taper into the sky, giving the necessary volume without forming a monolithic superblock. This is intended to create an environment people can relate to. Most of the accommodation is low-rise to maintain a sense of human scale.
The Byker Redevelopment was a model of public participation, at least in theory. Erskine kept his office on site (in a funeral parlour), which encouraged people to come in and give comments. Temporary materials like exposed wood are used extensively; this was to let people personalise the dwellings by repainting them and so on. There was a concern to preserve community structures. Most of it is low-rise dwelling. The wall is a spectacular visual motif and also provides enclosure and protection. It forms an acoustic barrier, screening off traffic noise from the bypass that is built alongside. The windows are small and scarce, like windows in a castle or fortification. The wall achieves the same effect on a macro-level. It is also an allusion to Hadrian’s Wall. Erskine is interpreting the locality, using references to the area’s past to create a metaphor for the location and the character of the inhabitants. He also left the pigeon crees (a characteristic of local culture) nearby and a number of old buildings.
Postmodernist architecture often reveals a consciousness of the specificity of place. Exponents typically employ small-scale solutions to problems, rather than universal ones. This transforms Modernist abstract space into specific places. Also indicative of a sense of place are the architectural fragments distributed around the environment. This is the capital from a Classical column and there are remnants of Classical sculpture taken from buildings that had recently been demolished. Again, they are emblematic of the area’s history and in particular, make reference to Roman culture.
The Architects' Journal in 1976 described the development as "possibly the most brilliant solution to the problem of modern urban mass housing" and the New Statesman magazine in 1977 described it as "the most spectacular housing development of recent times."