A story of architecture, community and change in the inner city and New Towns of North East England
In 1969, Sirrka-Liisa Konttinen was looking for somewhere to live. Among the rows of densely packed brick terraces, within the pubs filled with amateur singers, musicians and dancers, and the hairdressers and laundrettes where gossip was the essential means of exchange, the Finnish photographer made her home and in doing so found a subject that would occupy her for the next twelve years. Byker, the old Byker before the wrecking ball swung by, built originally to service the Tyne in the golden days of shipbuilding and King Coal, would be captured on film and mummified by her gaze.
The worn-out, crumbling terraced houses, crowded together in claustrophobic clusters, did not seem to have a place in a Britain wanting to break with its past. To the committee man, Byker in the East End of Newcastle was a slum, a hangover from the industrial period when houses were poorly built and lacking the sanitary facilities required by a modern age. Just as the 1956 Clean Air Act had eradicated trips to the backyard coal shed, low-cost indoor plumbing had made the outdoor toilet an unmistakable sign of social deprivation.
Byker had originally been scheduled for demolition in the 1950s when a utopian future still seemed attainable. The architectural fashions that had grown out of modernism and had expressed themselves through poured concrete, geometric patterns and the high-rise then seemed like a panacea to the planners. Society could be reorganised from above for the benefit of all. But such high-minded convictions also came with disdain for the tight-knit working class communities set to be liberated by the committee. The attitude of the time was reflected in New Towns for Old: The Techniques of Urban Renewal (1963) by Wilfred Burns, Newcastle’s Chief Planning Officer (1960-1968):
In a huge city, it is a fairly common observation that the dwellers in a slum are almost a separate race of people, with different values, aspirations and ways of living. One result of slum clearance is that a considerable movement of people takes place over long distances, with devastating effect on the social groupings built up over the years. But one might argue that this is a good thing when we are dealing with people who have no initiative or civic pride. The task, surely, is to break up such groupings, even though the people seem to be satisfied with their miserable environment and seem to enjoy an extrovert social life in their own locality.
This quote bookends the Amber Collective’s Byker (1983), a documentary which sets these words against the community captured and brought to life by Konttinen’s camera. Her celebrated Byker photographs, originally published by Jonathan Cape in 1981, are here paired with snatches of dialogue (“She comes from Finland – such a beautiful place, nice and clean. And she chooses to live in Byker!”), live-action footage and a voiceover narrated by Konttinen herself (“Being a foreigner gives me one advantage: I can be nosy and forgiven. Many doors are opened for me that would possibly remain closed for another photographer”).
In the film, the past is evoked through black and white still images panned and scanned with a rostrum camera. Black and white doesn’t just represent what once was but a superior mode of life, a time of community and belonging, a sort of paradise lost. The present, which is shot in colour, is devoid of the warmth of the earlier sequences. Konttinen’s subjects are now troubled and alienated, divorced from their communities, lone individuals baffled by technology and the new society brought forth by the end of industry. One older character sums up this predicament from her new colourful Byker Wall flat:
But I would still say they were happier times in many ways. There wasn’t as much crime. You hardly ever heard of a murder. You weren’t frightened to walk in the streets. Aye, people were friendlier. Course they had to be. You never knew when you had to go to the woman next door for her to come and give you a hand ‘cause you were in the family way – the bairn was coming. But now you don’t come if your neighbour looks at you. She might have fifty watches and she’ll not give you the time ‘cause you’ve probably got two in all. But in them days I’ve been telling you about nobody was jealous of anybody. A different class of people in Byker now.
This misty-eyed reverence for the good old days of community was also captured in Byker Song (1974), a lament for the soon to be erased suburb broadcast by Tyne Tees Television. “What will be left when the old streets come down?” is sung over a montage of once-proud terraces meeting their fate. “Byker, you’ve born and bred some men. If they pull you down your time won’t come again.”
Over in the West End of Newcastle during the 1950s, Scotswood Road had its own outsider recording a community on the cusp of change. Jimmy Forsyth, born in Barry, Glamorgan in 1913, was wandering around when he heard a rumour that the old streets of Scotswood were going to pulled down. “You don’t realise that all these things are going to disappear,” he said in a detailed interview with Amber films. “Everything disappears in time but you don’t think it’s going to disappear as quick as it did.” Down on his luck and armed with a cheap camera bought in a junk shop, Forsyth began building a body of work that would eventually encompass over forty thousand images.
Galvanised by a lack of enthusiasm for the planners and their methods, this slight and inquiring Welshman began systematically documenting the changes that were taking place. “I don’t think that it’s progress,” he recalled. “It’s called progress. What they do is they knock a slum down and put another one up.” As the terraces fell and the skyscrapers sprouted upwards, Forsyth’s eye was drawn to the people of Old Scotswood whom he met on his snaking walks. Children dressed in their Sunday best, Teddy Boys looking for a good night on the town, workers taking a break from repairing the road all pose for their portraits, overjoyed that somebody would want to tell their story. Others, captured from behind, gawp at streets reduced to rubble, savouring final glimpses of the terraces where they had hoped to enjoy their latter days as Scotswood is slowly erased, street by street, house by house.
“I don’t like being right up a height,” says an elderly woman peering out of a new high-rise tower block in Tyne Tees Television’s The Road to Blaydon (1968). “And I don’t like the high buildings and that, because I’m too lonely. It’s really lonely. And when I go in through the day and there’s nobody to see and not a sound and when you go in the house it seems as though you were locked in.” Elsewhere, the “marvellous” new buildings are praised by families who have never known running hot water or an indoor bathroom. “It’s a palace compared to my old flat,” beams one young mother. “That was thirty-five shillings a week and this one’s four pound five but of course for the difference of the houses it’s worthwhile.”
Such juxtapositions are testament to the marked ambivalence of this documentary film, unsure as it is whether the community of Scotswood was betrayed by the promise of “Brasilia”. The virtues of the old world (“Scotswood Road is Scotswood Road. It’s just a feeling, a togetherness, a friendliness”) set in contrast to the slogans of the politicians (“The New Jerusalem, an island of advanced development in an old country as famous as Rome or Paris”) reveal themselves both as distortions that either forget the difficulties and hardship of life in the slum or promise too great a prize. This conflict is even expressed through “The Blaydon Races”, the Geordie folk anthem, which oscillates between the cheerful and sombre, unsure which to choose.
Uncertainty is avoided elsewhere in several works which bask in the triumph of the new. In Sharp with the Flats (1964), the tower block becomes a spectacular symbol of the coming of modernity. At the grand unveiling of the Shieldfield Six, onlookers gape at these state-of-the-art architectural wonders stretching high into the heavens. With necks craned upwards, the crowd greets civic dignitaries mopping up the generous rewards of association. As the film crew begin their tour of this most unusual dwelling, directing attention towards the cutting-edge amenities held within, the narration lauds “the willingness of all concerned to depart from diehard traditional methods and try new ideas.”
Local government’s eagerness to experiment with form and function is further reflected in Stock Shots: Newcastle and Gateshead (1960s) and Newcastle Upon Tyne: Regional Capital (1968). Two promotional films that show off the best of Tyneside’s modern architecture: Owen Luder’s monolithic Trinity Square car park, Ryder & Yates’ futuristic British Gas Research Centre and George Kenyon’s triumphant Civic Centre; dreamscapes conjured up by a generation of architects and planners forging a new world with pencil and paper. The Amber Collective’s photographic collections Modern Housing: Peterlee and Killingworth even appear to join in with these jubilant celebrations. Beauty is found in both the geometric orderliness of Peterlee New Town and Killingworth Towers, Roy Gazzard’s brutalist reinterpretation of the Northumbrian medieval castle.
Amber’s allegiances, of course, lie with the past not the future, and besides Byker there is no better evocation of this than Quayside (1979), a poetic meditation on the “Tyneside Classical” architecture that surrounds their Side gallery. Movement is key to this short film with stationary buildings appearing to drift around, shifting in the breeze. Newcastle Quayside is now beset by ruinous decline; the Tyne’s days as a working river numbered.
Criticism is aimed squarely at the planners and is delivered through fragmented, overlapping disembodied voices which fade in and out on the soundtrack: “Primarily, I blame Newcastle Corporation for the slow death. They decided years ago that they were going to redevelop the Quayside,” arrives one denunciation. “Having turned the Quayside into a car park it’s killed any possible chance of trade,” announces another. “I’ve seen the Quay gone down for a very very long period and the people responsible are the city fathers. Newcastle City Fathers have always been a ruddy menace. They killed the Port of Tyne.”
Special condemnation is reserved for one of North East England’s most prominent political figures: “Dan Smith was such a wise man,” says the voice of Tim Healey. “He wanted to build houses for his grandchildren while he was knocking houses built by his grandparents. He thought he was much better than them. He knew what his grandchildren wanted. That’s arrogance in no mean order. He made a right bloody mess. Weh but Newcastle’s a mess. The whole of Tyneside’s a mess. I cannit see there’s much you can do about it.”
Such criticism is best seen in the context of the moment. Quayside was released at a time of great uncertainty for Newcastle’s waterfront, threatened as it was by the long-term decline of heavy industry on the river and the announcement of a road construction scheme that would have destroyed much of this historic area. The city council, outmoded by various forms of popular protest, was eventually forced into dropping its plans for the Quay. Almost all the historic buildings honoured in Quayside were listed and the area was later designated a special conservation zone. A considerable victory for the independent film collective at the heart of this struggle.
Try as they might, Amber could not save the old streets of Byker from the bulldozer. Local government did, however, want to do things differently this time. New Byker was built as a reaction to the failure of mid-century utopianism. The orthodoxy that had elevated the tower block would be shattered by a programme with community at the centre of its plans. Examined from the balconies of Ralph Erskine’s Byker Wall, Amber’s critique of Wilfred Burns-era planning therefore seems misplaced. This colourful modern estate threw up its own set of difficulties and challenges. New Byker has since attracted devotion and opposition in equal measure, not least from those living within its walls, confounding all attempts to judge the now Grade II* listed estate as an outright success or failure. Decades later, Byker still intrigues. In 2005, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen returned to see what had changed.
The process begins, as it had done thirty years previously, with a knock on the door, an invitation in and a chat. Some talk of their fears, their struggles with mental illness or grief. Others, a life well-lived and the joys of finding God. The identity of the occupants, their stories, their individual cultures, their sense of themselves as people, are slowly revealed through these intimate discussions which gently probe into past lives. Sometimes, objects, artefacts and personalised interiors speak louder than the participants themselves. Prized possessions held in hands become clues that reveal inner lives. Captured by the camera, and arranged in tableau, a split-second unearths an entire world.
Amber’s Today I’m With You (2010) chronicles Konttinen’s photographic journey throughout the modern estate. This documentary contrasts past and present to show the great changes that have emerged since Old Byker was demolished and New Byker took its place. The original emphasis on the alienation of the uprooted individual is substituted for a meditation on the immigrant experience. Many of the stars of the film have no knowledge of the old terraces once celebrated by Konttinen’s camera. Fleeing war and persecution abroad, they have found a hospitable environment to raise children and start a new life. Byker, once white and working-class, is now home to refugees and asylum seekers from across the globe.
The film acknowledges some problems on the estate (burglary, violence, loneliness and the threat of deportation) but its tone is mostly celebratory, expressing the sheer joy of Konttinen’s photographs. “Byker’s changed!” enthuses one modern resident whose family used to live in the old terraces on Kendal Street. “It’s really rich. I’ve got Kurdish neighbours, neighbours from Chechnya. There are people from the Congo downstairs and someone from Angola. So, to me it’s perfect, it’s bringing the world to my doorstep.”
The photographs above are from Amber’s archives and are licensed through Creative Commons. Links to individual collections and the North East Film Archive are provided in the text.
This is the first instalment of “Documenting the North East”, a history of documentary photography and filmmaking made in North East England. On the Waterfront looks at rivers, Belonging After Industry discusses football, cage fighting, makina and the night-out. You can follow me on Twitter here.