9 Apr 2012

Newport-on-Usk


Concrete history (not meaningless league tables)

The think tank Centre for Cities recently published ‘Cities Outlook 2012’ which concludes that Newport’s economic prospects are about the worst in Britain. The ‘Today’ programme rushes down the M4 to interview people in the street. They obligingly confirm that Newport is a crap town – the only good thing is that you can get out of it quickly on the M4. Meanwhile a vox pop in top-performing MK apparently confirms that this is the place of the future - the really good thing about it, is that you can get out of it quickly on the M1. This piece of cheapo journalism tells us a lot more about the state of our cities than anything in the Centre for Cities report. It confirms that the Thatcherite ‘great car economy’ and consequent subtopian sprawl are victorious. Despite the best efforts of Lord Rogers our cities are fundamentally weakened by edge sprawl. It also illustrates how economies are now sub-regional and cities have little power to control their economic futures. We are in the fast lane to an entirely unsustainable future.


One of many pleasant peculiarities off Stow Hill

The report also announces that Cambridge has the very top growth prospects in Britain. So that’s alright then - the natural order of things is confirmed, just like watching Downton Abbey. All you need for economic success is an 800 year old university and the privilege and patronage that goes with it. The Centre for Cities report claims to analyse why some cities are successful and others not but actually all it does is produce league tables of symptoms. Naturally these confirm that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There are geographic and historical reasons behind this but mostly it is the consequence of macroeconomics not local factors and particularly the disastrous political choice to promote globalisation. League tables don’t help us to understand the problems of cities and certainly don’t help solve them – in fact they tend to reinforce prejudices. This is especially so as investment decisions are notoriously based less on hard evidence than on the foolish confidence that the future will be like the past. The most patronising advice in the report is that the poorer cities, stuffed financially by the present government and systematically stripped of powers over 30 years, must provide ‘strong leadership’ and work in ‘partnership’ to solve their problems. Bet they haven’t thought of that.


Vicarage Hill and the Wentloog levels

Newport, the much maligned third city of Wales, has a wonderfully dramatic location where the mighty River Usk cleaves through the hills to meet the Bristol Channel. The essence of the place is the relationship between the broad tidal river, the steep hills to either side and the almost ethereal Wentloog Levels along the Severn. The Usk is a serious river which emphasises Newport’s position as a border town. The actual boundary of Wales is the Wye, a fine river which has Wordsworth to advertise it. But the Usk, starting in the Brecon Beacons and meandering through the quiet rolling landscape of Monmouthshire (Gwent), is its unspoilt and under-rated peer. It reaches Caerleon a few miles above Newport, a delightful small town with some of the finest Roman remains in Britain including the superb amphitheatre and an excellent small museum. Those of you on a Ghost Box / Arthur Machen pligrimage might find your ancient ruins here.


The Civic Centre - the ghost of TC Howitt

From modest medieval origins Newport expanded rapidly in the C19th, the daughter of the iron and coal industries of the Gwent valleys. It mirrored the spectacular advance of nearby Cardiff and in the early C20th had the same sense of confidence and swagger. This optimism crashed in the depression of the 1920s but Newport continued to grow and new industries were established. The towering Portland stone Civic Centre on the hill above the railway station, like contemporaneous Southampton, shows immense civic pride and is an obvious riposte to Cardiff and Swansea. There was a lot to be proud of, with the Council rehousing over half the population in the inter war years.


Gaer - a design for life

After the war the Borough seemed in the vanguard of the new welfare state, building innovative new housing estates, as we shall see. It was a boom town with a huge new integrated steelworks at Llanwern opened in 1962, courtesy of a Conservative government’s planned economy. British cars, no longer coal, were exported through its massive docks. The construction of the beautiful original Severn Bridge and the M4 made Newport the most accessible place in Wales. Fatefully the Borough decided that the town centre should also be remodelled for the new age of the car, resulting in the hideous overkill of expressways which so dominate and isolate the city centre today. But in those days the future looked clear, and the future was industrial. There was serious talk of a megacity merging Newport with its larger neighbour, laughably to be called Newdiff or Carport. It has sort of happened anyway with the peripheral sprawl of both cities along the M4.


Kingsway - rip it up and give the fabulous Market a proper setting

What went wrong was the industrial economy, stupid. Newport’s development was similar to Cardiff until the mid C20th, each with its own hinterland. But the larger city became the capital of this small nation with all the economic advantages that status brings. Increasingly it came to dominate Newport, which remained an unpretentious industrial town. Back in the days when towns used to frank their post with boosterish slogans like ‘Leeds – Motorway City of the 70s’ or ‘Cardiff – Capital of Wales’ Newport chose ‘Home of the Mole Wrench’. A younger me thought this was hilarious because I had no idea what a mole wrench was - still don’t TBH - but at least I now realise making them might be important to the economy, unlike the political establishment. Newport used to make things – still does, but the mighty Llanwern steelworks was closed in 2001. There is something of a sense of loss in Newport reminiscent of post communist East Germany and equally of post Motown Detroit. Some of this is very creative and many larger cities would be rightly jealous of Newport’s musical prowess. And while those same cities might be tempted to have Goldie Looking Chain heritage plaques, Newport would be well advised to spend its time supporting local venues, record shops, studios etc.


Signs of life (not global blandness)

Approaching from the Severn Bridge along the M4 Newport is announced by a glowering Monte Cassino like fortress above the wooded escarpment, which turns out to be a monstrous modern hotel. How on earth was this eyesore ever permitted? Well such is the power of golf, the great hope for a diversified economic future. This was the HQ of the 2010 Ryder Cup held in Newport. The new economy of post industrial Newport is otherwise fairly typical of most British cities – edge city shiny brittleness in sprawling business parks and sheds around motorway junctions and tawdry out of town retail complete with KFC, Frankie and Benny and the usual budget hotels. Meanwhile the city centre, hugely weakened by the above, struggles to re-invent itself around ambitious plans for waterside development as translated by the cynicism and short-termism of the development market. We need to explore both Newports as the edge city, unusually, contains some very interesting stuff.


The only way to arrive

Arrival by train is quite exciting. The Severn Tunnel is a bit of a bore (no pun intended) but from the Midlands the line runs right alongside the Severn and from the North you traverse the spectacular Borders countryside. You get an expansive view of the industrial city including its iconic Transporter Bridge before the train crosses the broad river next to the remnants of the C14th castle. It is not quite the entry over the Tyne into Newcastle, but it has drama.


Accidently making the old utilitarian canopy look special

After this exhilarating approach the new station designed by Grimshaw is a disappointment. It was a finalist for last year’s Carbuncle Cup, described by Oliver Wainwright as ‘a bleak attempt at novelty….a globular silver swoosh realised with the prosaic flair of design and build’. But it could hardly compete with the Museum of Liverpool or the winner, Media City. It does seem insubstantial and is badly detailed but the snake-like form is not uninteresting. For me the real problem is that Grimshaw’s new entrance is now disconnected from the city centre, facing onto a bewildering new ring road and a formless chaos of open car parks. Not exactly the world class entry that was promised. The extant former entrance was much more convenient having a clear relationship with High Street and is impressively metropolitan – a big stripped down inter-war neo-Georgian effort, complete with vestigial pediment.


The death of the High St...

High Street is quite grand with imposing commercial buildings including Newport Arcade, like the wonderful Cardiff arcades. The 1930s Portland stone municipal buildings opposite front the interesting Victorian market hall which is best seen from Dock Street. Tucked amongst the confident turn of the century commercial buildings is a much tarted up medieval survival, the Murenger House. The bombastic red brick Edwardian baroque Post Office has been extended in bombastic debased Po Mo. Worse is its hideous car park, the ramp of which blocks off what should be a small square in front of the (1930s) station. So High Street no longer leads to the station and the pedestrian route to the splendid Newport Bridge rebuilt in 1927 is also effectively cut off by the absurd expressway alongside the river. High Street desperately needs reconnecting with the bridge and the station.


... more glorious than the birth of retail parks

The epicentre of Newport is the Westgate Hotel (rebuilt in the 1890s), the scene of the doomed Chartist uprising of 1839. This was crushed by the military leaving 22 dead. Here five streets converge in a very impressive and coherent ensemble of buildings from Newport’s turn of the century belle époque. Commercial Street, an immensely long straight continuation of High Street, leads eventually to the Transporter Bridge. The buildings although not individually particularly noteworthy display that fin de siècle confidence and scale which is such a characteristic of Newport. There is strong vertical emphasis and a rhythm of gables rather reminiscent of Belgium towns; diversity of styles within fundamental rules. Sadly many are vacant including the Next shop, which directs customers to Newport’s retail parks (pace the absurd claims of Lord Wolfson on the NPPF).


Betwixt town and transporter - Commercial Street


Repression and reform - the fight for democracy is still on

The city centre definitely needs a broader retail offer and the new 'Friars Walk' centre does make sense in linking Commercial Street with the Riverfront developments and new pedestrian bridge (see below).   But in order to promote this very ordinary development the Council gratuitously destroyed an exceptional mural of the Chartist  uprising by the popular post war public artist Kenneth Budd,  despite a very spirited local campaign to save and relocate it. This is just stupid, vicious and short sighted. The city desperately needs to bolster its special identity, not wantonly destroy it. What an own goal.


Joining up the townscape dots - Dock St

Dock Street led from Newport Bridge to the 1842 Town Dock, now filled in. Upper Dock Street includes the wonderful Market Hall of 1889, designed like a Flemish cloth hall with a soaring tower of sandstone with Bath stone dressings. The hall has a high central roof and a gallery. It is full of character but sadly not enough customers. The market is as iconic to Newport as the Transporter Bridge and its future vitality should be top of the agenda for the City. Fortunately the market no longer needs to fear demolition for a planned new road - indicated by the elevated stub off the expressway which menaces the building and illustrates quite how mad road building plans had become. Dock Street also contains some other quite handsome polychromatic brick buildings and is an attractive enclave. John Frost Square and the Kingsway Centre expunged much of the street but Lower Dock Street remains fairly coherent and has some important mid C19th survivals like the Masonic Hall. A new office scheme opposite make an attempt at civility but typically ASDA doesn’t.


Bridging the impressive tidal range

The Usk made Newport but did not make it picturesque. The tidal mud banks are certainly not considered conventionally beautiful. The Severn estuary has the highest tidal range in the world, hence so much glistening mud teeming with wildlife. Former wharves and industry south of Newport Bridge offered typical regeneration potential and with Cardiff Bay as a bad example Newport initially sought to hide the mud with permanent high tide. However the planned barrage was not approved because of the impact it would have on salmon – the Usk is one of the great fishing rivers of Britain. So, like its other big neighbour Bristol, Newport has to learn to appreciate the ecology and drama of mud and tides.


When a promenade is a noun but not a verb - former Technical Institute's new setting

Newport Unlimited is the regeneration company charged with turning around the fortunes of the city and has a new masterplan for the city centre. This contains good analysis and some interesting ideas but is over optimistic about the scale of new development that can be achieved and more importantly the quality of the new places that will be created, drawing on the usual litany of international examples. Apart from low values and demand the really big problem for Newport is the expressway which severs the river from the city centre. Although 20mph limits on the dual carriageway, speed tables and pedestrian crossings have helped, it still doesn’t feel like the boulevard envisioned in the masterplan.


Full tide and the Waterfront Arts Centre

New object buildings sit in splendid isolation between the river and the ‘boulevard’. The Waterfront Arts Centre by Austin Smith Lord is sculptural and looks effective from a distance but a bit too basic close to. The new University of Newport building designed by BDP is similarly an isolated riverside object but has a confident timber roof recalling the Richard Rogers Senedd in Cardiff. Grimshaw’s striking 2005 City suspension footbridge over the Usk is slightly show-off but well used.


New Newport  - university & footbridge

Promenades have been constructed to either side of the Usk which is magnificently wide at high tide but exposes much mud at low tide. The progression of bridges makes for an impressive sight - the stone piers of the busy railway bridge and the elegant metal arches and balustrades of Newport Bridge with the Castle between, Grimshaw’s footbridge, George Street Bridge of 1964 (the earliest cable stay cantilever bridge with tall concrete masts - precursor to the Severn Bridge), the bow arched southern bypass bridge and the Transporter in the distance. Again, not Newcastle but it has drama. What seems a pity is that the opportunity for a linear park along the river has been missed. The extensive new residential developments along the banks are very ordinary, although in many ways this is better than the screaming cacophony of Cardiff Bay. The river provides a calming, linear focus for development but the glorious mud can be relentless and a green foil of parkland would be very effective.


The castellated expressway interchange

The ruins of the Castle guard the river bank next to the railway bridge but are quarantined by the expressway. They can be reached by an elaborate subway under the swirling roundabout and a bridge over the thundering expressway. This area has been enlivened by interesting sculpted concrete and faux naive tiled murals of industrial history by Kenneth Budd. The subways don’t smell of piss, so this is about as good as you can get for the genre. Nevertheless the overall impact of the highway is disastrous. The masterplan recognises this and there are proposals for a new square in front of the Market Hall although it seems to be in the ‘too difficult’ basket. Actually the plans need to be much more ambitious. The roundabout and its slip roads should be demolished, the underpass buried and the hideous multi storey car park between High Street and Queensway swept away. You could then bring together those key elements of Newport’s identity – High Street, the station, the Castle, Newport Bridge, Baltic Quay with its emblematic ‘Steel Wave’ sculpture, the Riverside Arts Centre and the Market Hall – all around a new green square with Budd’s folk brutalism as a focal point (fully restored of course). This would provide a real city focus for Newport. It would be nice if this included a new library building given the inspirational impact of Welsh libraries on popular culture.


The former Odeon on Clarence Place

Across Newport Bridge is an important group of buildings. The 1976 Clarence House, a ten storey curtain wall office with ground floor shops and multi storey car park, is according to the Buildings of Wales the best of Newport’s decade of development. Opposite is the splendid, confident Edwardian classical Technical Institute, its future uncertain. A fine parade of commercial buildings circa 1900 leads to the Lutyensesque War Memorial. Facing this is the Deco Odeon of 1938, the finest in South Wales with cream and black tiles and wonderful brickwork with expressionist fins. Sadly it is empty.


Similarities with Goole

Newport Transporter Bridge is south of the dockland district of Pill (or Pillgwenlly). Until Council building after the war there was a stark divide between working class housing on the flat lands near the river and industry and the very salubrious suburbs on the hills above. Commercial Road is somewhat reminiscent of the old Bute Street in Cardiff. It is still quite lively although very run down and it is sad to see fine buildings like the King’s Arms derelict. However the former library on Temple Street with its legend ‘Knowledge is Power’, which inspired the Manic Street Preachers, is being renovated. There are also quite a number of new houses restoring the old street pattern, but poverty is everywhere very evident. In the shadow of the Transporter Bridge there are some quite grand buildings including the ebullient Waterloo Hotel.


Striding across with delicate power


INMOS? See below

The Transporter Bridge sits stranded by the southern bypass and usurped by newer bridges but it is absolutely magnificent. Rising some 75 metres above the river and with a 210 metre span it is the largest remaining example in the world, rather more elegant than Middlesbrough. Exceedingly tall, tapering lattice-braced steel towers with amazingly slight bases support a high level deck which includes a walkway, only now occasionally opened. The steel framework produces exciting abstract compositions. You shuttle across the river on a suspended gondola incorporating a jolly octagonal timber control room. Completed in 1906 it was designed by the French engineer Arnodin. The bridge was closed but to Newport’s great credit restored in 1995. It is totemic of the town and when it was passed of as part of Cardiff’s townscape in the film ‘Tiger Bay’ there was much annoyance locally.


Victoria Place and rococo chapel

Up steep, magnificent Stow Hill from the Westgate Hotel is the parish church of St Woolos, now a cathedral and much altered but with a Norman nave and a choir of 1960 by Caroe. The reredos by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens is very strange. Various chapels line Stow Hill but the finest is found at Victoria Place, itself a beautifully restored pair of 1844 stucco terraces which rather shames the treatment of Park Square below. The former Congregationalist Chapel of 1859 is set obliquely to the terraces and is almost Rococo in its composition and decoration –quite a sight. Victorian and Edwardian suburbs like Stow Park, Clytha Park and Gold Tops are testament to the prosperity and confidence of Newport in its belle époque. There are similar suburbs east of the Usk on the ridge towards Christchurch.


Belle suburbia

Beyond Stow Park is the Gaer Estate, probably the best of a number of remarkably good council housing schemes built immediately after the war by the Borough Architect Johnson Blackett. He was a confident modernist and it shows. Gaer has a superb position with commanding (or in estate-agent-speak ‘stunning’) views of the Bristol Channel and the Levels with their impressive array of industrial kit and the Transporter Bridge. Johnson Blackett used the steeply sloping site boldly with crescents following the contours in a very picturesque way. Long curving terraces are the most spectacular feature, no doubt calling on the building tradition of South Wales valley towns. There are also three storey blocks of flats with full height stair windows and balconies as well as modernist semis. The housing is all set in generous parkland with a contemporary school and shopping parade. Although initial impressions can be superficial the estate feels well cared for, if shabby in places. CCTV is not in evidence and there is little litter or vandalism. Like the Ermine Estate in Lincoln it looks like a real success story. Other estates by Johnson Blackett, such as St Julian’s, Alway and Ringland also have much to recommend them. One of the nicest features (to me) is the choice of road names – British authors for Gaer (Shakespeare Crescent, Masefield Vale etc), British classical composers for Alway (Parry Drive, Elgar Avenue); so different from the house builders bollocks of today (Corncrake Meadows etc).


Taking in the view - Gaer


Following the contours 

Newport is also famous for a bold experiment in council housing of the 1970s. Richard MacCormac was the key figure in the design of 4,000 houses at Dyffryn, beyond the Ebbw River. The plan is highly unusual – indeed eccentric. The houses are corralled in a near continuous terrace which wriggles around a series of peripheral culs de sac so as to enclose a huge area of internal green space including woodland and a school. The housing is uniform two storey brick with sombre brown tiles but there is whimsical woodwork at the rear. This is not a Radburn layout as front doors and parking are from the culs de sac but it shares an obsession with the segregation of traffic from pedestrians which is really addressing the wrong problem. The green space contains playgrounds but is actually marginalised from the life of the estate and hidden from the wider world. It is clearly underused and heavy duty vandal proof fencing around sheltered housing suggests at times it is badly used. Dyffryn is an unusual illustration of the problem of focussing the design of housing around the car. At Gaer, designed before the days of mass car ownership, the car is secondary to the layout not the primary focus but the relationship works very well.


Dyffryn - the roundabout cul-de-sac terrace in a woodland

Richard Rogers’s famous microchip factory is also at Dyffryn. This is difficult to appreciate because of oppressive security - Chris was told he needed permission to step onto the grass outside the main gates to take a photograph. From a distance it is certainly an impressive, delicate piece of engineering. We wondered if it was inspired by the Transporter Bridge.


INMOS: Transporter Bridge-ish? Discuss. 

Since its construction in 1982 the factory has been submerged in a huge sprawl of offices and big white sheds all clustered around an M4 junction. This edge city also surrounds the magnificent C17th Tredegar House which Newport to its credit has restored (now National Trust). Factories and sheds would be more sensibly sited in the extensive industrial area than here in what should be a green belt between the two cities. Many of the complexes are offices like the ONS and the Patent Office and should surely be in the city centre. In the rush hour there is complete gridlock exposing the completely unsustainable nature of so much new development, reinforced at the time of writing by hysteria at the petrol pumps showing how fragile the whole car economy actually is. Ironically Newport has good public transport as it is one of the few cities that still retain municipally owned buses.


Building George Street Bridge, by Hans Feibusch 

We concluded our tour at the Civic Centre which dominates the prospect of Newport. It was designed by Cecil Howitt no doubt on the strength of his pompous classical Nottingham Council House and begun in 1937 although not completed until 1960. The Buildings of Wales says in a ‘ghostly classical’ style and the Companion Guide says it has a ‘silly’ clock tower. It definitely lacks the wit and interest of Swansea’s near contemporary Guildhall and the impression is overwhelmingly monumental and forbidding. It certainly does not seem to welcome visitors; our request to see the murals in the Stair Hall caused some consternation but they were worth the fuss. Commissioned in 1960 from Hans Feibusch they represent scenes from Monmouthshire’s history from the Celtic settlement to the construction of the George Street Bridge in 1964. The Buildings of Wales says as a scheme of municipal decoration it is unsurpassed in C20th Britain, except for Brangwyn at Swansea. What a pity Newport does not celebrate them more.


Snap! Similarities with Swansea

Newport, an unassuming town, was made at City at the last Jubilee bash in 2002. Like the rest of Britain it is struggling with the effects of 30 years of non-industrial policy and more recently the greed and incompetence of the financial sector. This city has lots of strengths but needs more concrete help to realise its full potential - not patronising advice on how to succeed at slash and burn in the neo-liberal world of economic Darwinism.

8 comments:

Dawn Foster said...

Thanks for this - a really wonderful, insightful post on my much maligned hometown.

Anonymous said...

Newport should be vibrant. The local authority should be ashamed.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article and a badly-needed insight into what Newport has going for it, even at a time of economic crisis. The attempts at revitalising the centre should focus on repairing the damage of 1960s road policy (like in so many other cities!) and making the best of the iconic buildings. Instead of copying Cardiff, Newport should develop its own identity again.

Jack Burnett-Stuart said...

Home of the Mole Wrench! Now I will think of Newport quite differently. Thanks for the (as always) illuminating post.

Anonymous said...

Like the comparison of Celtic Manor to Monte Casino - Only difference was here the Europeans beat the Americans!

Ian Waites said...

Lovely Gaer flats -subtle curves too. Excellent.

Phil said...

As a Newport resident, thank you for your very insightful comments. Why can't our planners be even half as enlightened. Newport's city planning is a farce bordering on tragedy, a hotch potch of architectural styles that just screams a lack of coherent vision. You point about the new space-station train station is absolutely on target: visitors emerge from the station now without any clear idea how to get into the city centre. Great integrated transport! Our planning problems are exacerbated by the simple fact that many of the members of our council seem to lack the intellectual capacity to challenge the wild notions of the so called 'experts' and expensive out of town 'consultants' that are regularly hired (then go away again without facing the consequences) A Grand Jury of local residents would, I am sure, come up with more realistic and sustainable solutions. I am also rather fed up with the standard 'macro-economic' excuses. Newport has been under performing through the last half dozen economic cycles in good times and bad. We can't forever blame Margaret Thatcher, though it suits the socialist rhetoric of some. An elected mayor anyone? This city needs a kick in the proverbial and it won't come from the committee style arrangements of our current council.
I agree with your suggestion that we should have had a green Linear Park along the Usk. Who wants to be in a waterside development looking at mud half the day? Posh waterside developments next to the steaming tidal flats? Are they having a laugh?
What I see is that Newport is for ever trying to 'ape' other cities (e,g. waterside developments ad passim, ad nauseum as if it is obligatory if you have a bit of water somewhere) rather than developing indigenous, locally appropriate solutions.
I would disagree on one point. I think we do need a north-south express way and an 'embankment road' solution is the most obvious answer to this, unfortunately the simplest alignment is now occupied by a university, arts centre and so forth and has to try to accommodate pedestrians. The footbridge should have been at a higher level taking people over the Kingsway directly into the city centre from the East Bank. The giant safety pin is ambitious but grand design seems to have been the priority rather than any common sense consideration of function and use.
At present too many residents are driven onto the M4 as the next best thing to a Newport 'ring road' just to get from one side of Newport to the other (the main residential areas are in the periphery, so are the well paid jobs, and we wonder why the centre is neglected?) The last 30 years have seen a stream of planning decisions that make it ever more difficult to travel through the centre of Newport. You mention the wondrous Roman remains at Caerleon. Has any modern planner noticed they laid out their road system on a 'Grid Plan' - which taking topography into account has the basic premise that the 'urban centre' should be the centre or cross roads of the East-West, North-South Transport routes. No such time honoured solution in Newport however, not since the 1970s. Through our council's long standing aim of removing the car from the city centre we have destroyed that city centre, people are still using their cars and they have added to congestion on the M4.

architectural columns said...

Just to let you know guys, there is a new city in a far off country from Britain that was inspired by Newport and they are calling it Newport City as well and it sits right across a new airport hub at that country's capital. I'm talking about the Philippines.