The Wall, along with the low rise dwellings built to its south, replaced Victorian slum terraced housing. There were nearly 1200 houses on the site at Byker. They had been condemned as unfit for human habitation in 1953, and demolition began in 1966.
The new housing block was designed by Ralph Erskine assisted by Vernon Gracie. Design began in 1968 and construction took place between 1969 and 1982. The architects opened an office on site to develop communication and trust between the existing residents. Existing buildings were to be demolished as the new accommodation was built.
The new high-rise block was designed to shield the site from an intended motorway, which eventually was never built. Construction materials for Byker Wall were relatively cheap, concrete, brick and timber. Surfaces were treated with bright colours, while brick bandings were used on the ‘Wall’ to indicate floor levels.
Its Functionalist Romantic styling with textured, complex facades, colourful brick, wood and plastic panels, attention to context, and relatively low-rise construction represented a major break with the Brutalist high-rise architectural orthodoxy of the time.
There area has been well documented over time, notably by photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen.
It’s reputation has had its ups and downs but most recently:
It’s been named the UK and Ireland’s best neighbourhood – it’s got top schools, friendly neighbours and community art classes – alongside high levels of poverty.
It has been lauded by Municipal Dreams
When Historic England awarded Byker its Grade II* listing in 2007, they praised both its ‘groundbreaking design, influential across Europe and pioneering model of public participation’. The estate’s main element, the Byker Wall, is – like it or loathe it – an outstanding piece of modern architecture. The conception and design of the estate as a whole was shaped by unprecedented community consultation.
I went for a walk around one morning in May 2017, the photographs are in sequence as I explored the estate. It’s hard to do justice to the richness and variety of architecture in such a short time, but I only had a short time.