Newcastle was once touted as the ‘Brasilia of the North‘ by an ambitious town planner, T. Dan Smith. That was back in the 1960s when cities were seen as plastic crucibles to mould into concrete utopias, but half a century (and a corruption conviction again the Labour City Councillor that meant prison time) later, Newcastle’s concrete utopia has gone the way of many others; a neglected enclave of dereliction, crime and underuse. It is only the famous ‘skywalks’ – and derelict modernist surrounding landscape – that’s left. So when I visited the city, of course it was number 1 on my list of things to see.
There has a great deal of reminiscing about the urban vision that these walkways represent (by scholars far more suited than me), and besides, this is no attempt to historicise these daring flight paths of concrete with a broader political economy of post-war British urbanism, nor did I do much research on them before. I approached them only via the lure of their the brutalist aesthetics, both materially and infrastructurally. Before long I was lost in their Gordian entanglement with buildings, roads and pedestrian zones. The photo reel below shows the raw, unedited stills that I captured with my iPhone, and if possible, should be viewed conjunction with text (otherwise the jokes might not make sense….)
I chose (or perhaps was forced) to enter the walkways via an exquisite spiral wooden staircase, the lacquer blistering in the sun, that ascended from the street towards the derelict buildings hovering over the busy and cacophonous roadways. The sense of disorientation was immediate, as I was presented with multiple lines of flight. The skywalk wayfinders, presumably aping the blue motorway style road signs that work so efficiently below, were plastered in stickers with only a few scraped off to reveal enough letters to recognise the words and thus direction. But they offered no real sense of authority here.
Large colourful graffiti is everywhere at eye-level. As far as someone can stand and spray without falling, there is some graffiti adorned on the walls. The traditional urban narrative will constantly link graffiti with crime and anti-social behaviour, but the reality is far more complex. As anyone schooled in the basics of urban geography will tell you, the presence of graffiti is too often erroneously aligned to the broken window theory of urban governance: that one broken window left unfixed will begat another and another until the space is awash with crime. However, graffiti evidences a whole myriad of forces, anti-sociality perhaps, but more prominently, neglect, disinvestment and the burgeoning rent gap. A quick google tells you that the masterplan for this area of the city is for new, shiny retail, office and housing developments, straight out of the gentrification playbook. Hence, this area reeked of real estate-enforced rent gaps. The housing tower of Bewick Court looms over the walkways, reclad yet unloved, literally trapping vulnerable people as prisoners in their own homes. Drifting further toward the city centre, I hear the clatter of skateboards underneath (click on the audio file below), and peer down to see a group of younger people gathered round, watching as some of them attempt some kickflips (unsuccessful I might add).
Dereliction spawns graffiti and now skateboarding? I feel like it’s c.2013 all over again and I’m researching for my first book; it all seems rather quaint if I’m honest. The Olympification of skateboarding seems to have removed much of it’s subversive edge, and I wonder if these youngsters would be chased by police or private security guards away soon, if at all. But as sure as night follows day, I walk a bit further down the ramp and spot some classic skate stoppers on some concrete blocks in a courtyard that is so perfect for skateboarding it could be in a computer game. It apparently goes by the name of Princess Square. The undulating surfaces, the stunning brutalist architecture, the multiple escape routes; in the 90s I can only only assume this place would be swarming with young sweaty guys, stinking of weed, causing the Saturday shoppers nearby to tut under their breath.
The shops in front of me, emblazoned with the ‘closing down sales, 70% off!’ signs in the windows that again are red flags of a rising rent gap, signal the boundary of my pyschogeographic wonder; I was here for skywalks, not to be a consumer. So I turn 180 degrees and walk back up the ramp, back over the skaters. But not before seeing a sun-bleached photo collage of a young man, and dead flowers all taped to some railings. Again, a quick google confirms the fatal stabbing of a boy in this very spot a few years ago. A sobering moment that evidences the human cost of urban dereliction.
Doubling back on my route, I enter a covered walkway with beautiful graffiti covering every inch of the walls. I can tell that the dim lights, even in the bright sun of the afternoon were massively inadequate to provide any semblance of security. And wires dangle from them as entrails from an industrially butchered carcass. The video below captures the walk through the tunnel, and the eerie silence of all human life belies the promise of the area’s once utopian dream. From a planning perspective, these skywalks lack any semblance of ‘natural’ surveillance or what Jane Jacobs called ‘eyes on the street‘. Corners are tight so you can’t see anyone coming; the passage ways are dark and aren’t overlooked; there are plenty of buildings around, but even though the windows are now either boarded up or broken, they don’t look onto the skywalks. So even when people did populate these modernist masterpieces, they wouldn’t have provided the ‘natural’ protection that a teeming city life so often provides.
The retail and leisure outlets that exist on these skywalks seemed derelict, although a closer inspection shows them not to be. A coffee shop is closed, but will open on weekdays, and the pool & snooker hall was teeming with drunken laughter from the stag party clearly in attendance. But that they lacked the clean, surface-level spectacle of 21st century consumerism merely added to the sense of a stretching rent gap; the last vestiges inner-city authenticity before it gets retrofitted and crassly appropriated into some sort of creative, hipster, working class chic; very ‘grim’ indeed.
The skywalk takes me over the thundering motorway below, and toward a mountain of rubble. The side of the road I just left had a massive hint of an exploding rent gap, but this side was a slap across the face. As I navigated the awkwardly placed steps, a dead bird was splayed across the walkway. If, as the planners intended, these skywalks were meant to lift the pedestrian out of the city’s two-dimensional apparatus of vehicular capture vertically into three-dimensional lines of flight, then now they lie as hapless and lifeless as this dead bird. Oh look, a broken window.
The skywalk arcs magisterially over the motorway below; a curve mirrored by the car park to my left; it’s hulking concrete skeleton offering an extended middle finger to the regeneration work going on opposite. In the foreground, a stretch limousine – the stretchiest one I’ve ever seen – waits patiently to exit the car park presumably back into the city centre to mingle & conspire with the other limousines that gather there after dark.
I stumble and meander my way into the car park via an entrance more befitting of a nuclear bunker, and up some stairs to see if I can get to wonderfully brutal Cuthbert House across the way. Given how my drift so far has been characterised by stops, starts, dead ends and confusing layouts that would make the Bonaventure Hotel in LA look like a beacon of architectural minimalism, I can’t see a direct route; well not one that wouldn’t involve a literal line of flight.
By now, my feet are beginning to ache and I’m in need of sustenance, so I admit defeat to this labyrinthian behemoth, and retreat to the (relative) simplicity of Newcastle’s bus network.
The skywalks certainly have seen better days, and may well be entering the end of them. The stench of urban real estate capitalism was so strong that it overpowered any lingering sillage of anti-social behaviour. The lines of flight that these skywalks carried me off on this mini-psychogeographic venture are unlikely to be those that finally smash the apparatus of capture that is rampant urban capitalism. Yet they remain utterly unique, certainly in my urban adventures, and contain just enough of that utopian vision of urban verticality for them to land elsewhere, and start the cycle all over again…