Newcastle Station Clock

Newcastle Station Clock

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

NEWS: Archiendo Gains Credibility (a bit)

Your beloved archiendo began as a band of rag-tag, freewheeling students brought together by the remarkable fact that we were always right, but unfortunately with little qualification to back up our insights. Post graduation, whilst most contributors went off into the big wide world to gain experience and confirm their suspicions of correctness, I did not. However, after months of attempting to break through into real architectural writing, I am highly pleased to announce that starting Monday, I will be an Editorial Intern at ArchDaily.

This does not mean that I'm going to forget about Archiendo! As an editorial intern I will be doing a bit of writing, and will be sure to post links to my articles on ArchDaily (for obvious reasons I will not be pasting them in their entirety onto Archiendo). And of course, I will always need this blog as an outlet for inappropriate architectural ideas.

In the meantime, as part of the selection process, I was asked to write about a building that I used every day. Through fear of this writing never getting aired, I am going to place it here, as it is an important subject very close to my heart. Enjoy.

It is often the case that the best building designs are misunderstood or taken for granted, and never have I seen a better example of this than the Richardson Road Student Accommodation in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. By any method, on one's first encounter with the complex it seems bizarre: on maps, it looks like tangled barbed wire, scattered at the edge of the university campus; in person, the features that most stand out are the awkward angles, the simple severity of the dark brown brick and, often, the levels of mess and litter that are maintained by the student population on a daily basis.

Based on this information you'd be forgiven for thinking that Richardson Road is little more than a student slum, but in truth ex-residents (myself included) often give it higher praise than any other accommodation on campus. The reason for this is very simple: in under a year, 'Ricky Road' is capable of turning a group of nervous strangers into a thriving, messy, noisy, turbulent and ecstatic community of 1,600 young adults.

Usually, residents opt for the route of apologist, using phrases like “it may not be much to look at, but...”. Personally though, I defend every principle of Richardson Road's design. The angular aesthetic may make for some awkwardly shaped rooms (the bedrooms range from four- to eight-sided, and the living room and kitchen areas are highly irregular twelve-walled spaces) but when considered as a whole, the design logic emerges. Adjacent flats are given oblique views into each other's living rooms, enough to see if your new friends are home, but not enough to violate privacy. Each six-bedroom flat is therefore given ample opportunity to get to know others who live in their block.

These angles are also used to approximate curves which enclose grassy open space, meaning that in the summer months the area between the blocks is packed full of sunbathers, Frisbee players and barbecue parties. This inward-looking aspect of the design also serves to contain the student community, an important consideration when inserting thousands of students into an existing local community.

If the form of Richardson Road is perfectly designed to encourage social exploits, then the materials and detailing are designed to withstand the consequences. 18-20 year-olds are notoriously careless when left to their own devices, and the materials of Richardson Road reflect this. The brickwork exterior is continued inside, where it is spruced up with a simple coat of paint. The kitchens are finished with wipe-clean plastic on the walls and the ceiling. Nothing is particularly expensive, and everything is sturdy – which is just as well, because almost everything is at risk of damage after every alcohol-fueled night out.

In turn, these finishes offer reassurance to the students themselves. They are no longer holding house parties at their parents' homes. This is their home. Any smash or spill can wait until morning, leaving them free to relax and enjoy themselves.

After nine months in this melting-pot those students who arrived, wide eyed and excited, leave with friends and memories to last a lifetime, exclaiming to all how much they loved their home despite its bizarre and shabby appearance. I was privileged enough to spend my first year of architectural education at Richardson Road, and my training gradually revealed that the building and its atmosphere could not be separated.

But these factors which make Richardson Road so great are also its curse. In an education industry that increasingly relies on image, Richardson Road is seen as a detriment to Newcastle University, and they are soon to be demolished. The University cites, among other issues, negative feedback from prospective students, who without the hindsight of experience could not possibly know what they might be missing. This scenario is typical of something that many architects will be familiar with: sadly, what people want from a building and what people need from a building often conflict with one another.


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