Concrete City: Killingworth New Town
Killingworth is a planned town near Newcastle Upon Tyne in the North East of England. Built as part of the New Town programme of the 1960s and 70s, the entire township was constructed on derelict land with the bold social purpose of regenerating the local economy. Constructed in the Brutalist style, the townscape was intended as an inspiring vision of modernity. However, the uncompromising design and the concept of New Towns soon fell out of favour and much of the original 1960s development has been demolished. The images in this article are rare archival photographs from my own collection.
The building of New Towns was an attempt to regenerate economically depressed areas by creating fully-functioning townships with residential space and industrial sites to stimulate local employment. Killingworth was intended for a former mining community of 20,000 people and was formed on 760 acres of derelict colliery land near Killingworth village, which had existed since the 14th century. Unlike most New Towns, building was undertaken by the local authority - Northumberland County Council - rather than the government.
Construction of the infrastructure began in 1963 and reclamation of the derelict pit sites began a year later. Spoil heaps were levelled and planted with trees, and a 15-acre lake was created to the south of the intended town centre. The township was built on the edge of Newcastle’s historic Town Moor and therefore incorporated a large expanse of recreational land.
New Towns were built in a range of architectural styles, from subdued derivatives of Modernism to pseudo-vernacular modes. Killingworth, however, was built in the avant-garde Brutalist style. As the name suggests, Brutalism was a stern, uncompromising style that had a bloody-minded commitment to the principles of European Modernism. The originator of the style was the brilliant but controversial architect and master-planner Le Corbusier. In his later years, Le Corbusier began to explore the expressive and structural possibilities of concrete, a material he described as ‘béton brut’ (raw concrete). British architects such as Alison and Peter Smithson applied Le Corbusier’s experiments to create the architecture of Britain’s post-war Welfare State. The architectural historian Reyner Banham adapted the term béton brut into ‘Brutalism’ to define this emerging style. Based on pre-formed concrete, the new architecture was cheaply-built and utilitarian in character. The light, ethereal forms of Modernism were replaced with heavy, solid masses interlocking in complex, abstract forms. Visually, it might be said that Brutalism constituted a ‘fossilisation’ of Modernism.
Killingworth's planners adopted a radical approach to town centre design, studding the landscape with Brutalist high-rise blocks. The new town centre consisted of pre-cast concrete houses and 5 to 10-storey flats. Most of this was designated as local authority housing. The first houses were built at Angus Close to house workers for the British Gas Research Centre, one of the major employers in the new township. The rest of Killingworth's estates were cul-de-sacs or ‘garths’, which were assigned numbers rather than names.
Apartment blocks known as ‘the Towers’ were added in the 1970s. Tenanted by the local authority, they were made of dark grey concrete blocks, and were named after places in Northumberland: Bamburgh, Kielder etc. The towers were linked by a complex network of integrated walkways and elevated decks built on the Swedish Skarne method of construction. These exemplified the Modernist concept of ‘streets in the sky.’
As a planned environment, the town centre had to provide all the amenities needed by the new community, including office blocks, shops and car parks. The first shops built in Killingworth were Moore's and a sweet shop, situated between Garth Six and Angus Close. Next door was the West House pub. The shopping centre also included Dewhurst’s butchers, Gregg’s bakery and a newsagent’s. Notable landmarks included the Woolco department store, which sold groceries and car parts, and which incorporated a tyre service bay. Raised above the car park was the Killingworth Health Centre, which housed a doctors' and dentists' surgery. Killingworth Working Men's Social Club in East Bailey was built in the 1970s. An office block owned by Merz & McLellan was built in the town centre, containing 100,000 square feet of office space. 600 professional and clerical people were employed here. Constructed by Northumberland County Council, the building towered over Killingworth and could be seen for miles around.
Killingworth’s Brutalist housing became notorious for its harsh aesthetics, but some of its architecture is more impressive. The former British Gas Research Centre by Ryder and Yates (1967) is one of the finest industrial buildings in the North East, a union of architecture and technology which proves that the Modernist machine aesthetic was not entirely misguided.
British Gas Research Centre
Killingworth has grown since the early 1960s. The Highfields Estate was built in the 1970s and its various divisions were named after battles e.g. Flodden, Agincourt, Stamford, Culloden and Sedgemoor. The estate contained some of Killingworth's first privately-owned houses. From 1973-4, Killingworth was used in the filming of the classic sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? Agincourt in the Highfields Estate was used as the location for the new home of Bob and Thelma, a young couple with middle class aspirations. Bob’s resolutely working class friend Terry Collier works at a factory, which was filmed at Killingworth industrial estate. The programme's title sequence shows traditional working class dwellings in Newcastle being demolished. Even the titles were presented in a Modernist typeface, suggesting that the characters are being thrust into the modern era and that all ties with the past are being severed.
Brutalism had socially progressive intentions, but in practice many of the buildings developed into decaying, crime-ridden tenements. Both the architectural style and the ideology behind it became unpopular with the public. At Killingworth, the intention was to create a vibrant community, living in heroic Brutalist structures set within expansive grasslands. Despite this Utopian vision, the design did not live up to expectations and the estate began to look like a prison.
The Towers were unpopular with residents and were demolished in 1987. The walkway to the shops was eventually demolished as it served no further purpose after the Towers’ demise. Around 1995 the Local Housing Association modernised the Garths in West Bailey, adding pitched roofs to convey a more traditional domestic character. Although the Brutalist structures of Killingworth have now vanished, the remnants which survive are emblems a failed new age of architecture and of lessons learned from the past.
Banham, Reyner (1966) The New Brutalism: ethic or aesthetic? London: The Architectural Press.
Hackney, Rod (1990) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Cities in Crisis. London: Muller.
North Tyneside Council (1986) Killingworth Township: key statistics from the 1981 census. North Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council.