T. Dan Smith's 'Brasilia of the North'

'Housing has always been a field for over-indulgence in emotionalism by some, and cynical disregard by others, anyone trying to work out and then implement a comprehensive policy concenrned with all the physical aspects of houses...must therefore expect constant criticism and, perhaps most importantly, a constant spate of ill-informed comment that is supposed to be helpful and knowing.' [1]                                       (Wilfred Burns, 1967)

The development of 'Triptych Towers', occurred early on in what was to be a colourful period in Newcastle's political history. This was a period of great vision within the city under the governance of 'city boss' T. Dan Smith (who led the council from 1960 - 1965) and his aspiration to create a city which he promoted as a 'Brasilia of the North'.

Although, it should be noted early on, that the concept for the Shieldfield towers actually predates T. Dan's leadership era and the project was actually pushed forward by the previous, progressive council - high rise flats were a popular choice among local authorities, as the housing act of 1956 had made them an affordable solution for many councils.

The Labour Party gained a majority administration in Newcastle in 1958 however and T. Dan Smith took over the role of Chairman of the Housing Committee, prior to construction commencing on the flats.

His visions for modernist regeneration within the city is evident even from the proceedings taken during his early meetings within this role and they offer a rare insight in to the formative days of the T. Dan Smith story.

In a report in the council minutes dated March 4 1959, T. Dan smith discusses the awarding of the contracts for the development of the flats in Shieldfield and notes that:

“The Job was started some time ago, but I would like to think that I had a little influence on it... Councillor Smalley referred to this wonderful Utopia. Even I would not claim that. I am used to making ambitious claims, but I have never been able to define what is Utopian.” [2]

This comment captures the excitement stirred by the development of the flats (at Shieldfield, but also the sister developments at Heaton Park Road and Cruddas Park), with one councillor even defining them as 'utopian'. There is a sense that the flats were an opportunity for Smith to bring his formative modernist vision in to fruition and the report is almost entirely one of accolades, which Smith seems keen to lay his stamp on.

When Smith gained his position as leader of the council in 1960, it would be his ambitious architectural plans for the city that would prove to be both his making and breaking. Viewed as a 'flawed' visionary by some, T. Dan Smith was implicated in the Poulson Affair scandal, for taking bribes to award building contracts, which ultimately led to his imprisonment and political disrepute.

Upon his release he would be the focus of a documentary film made by the Amber Film Collective titled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Utopia. The film is a fictionalised account of Smith's involvment with the Poulson Affair, arguing out two commonly held views of Smith - which on the one hand saw him as a sort of scapegoat for a larger web of corruption and on the other, as a self interested politician who had merely acted in manner which benefited his own financial interest.  Regardless of the view held, it cannot be disputed that Smith's legacy remains within the present day city and perhaps most notably in the partly fulfilled vision of his walkways in the sky, which can be observed around the current city library development and also the Eldon Square shopping centre. 

When Labour gained power in 1958, Wilfred Burns was appointed as Chief Planning Officer in what was to be the first separate planning department in the country [3]. This partnership, between Burns and Smith, was to prove a formidable force in the 're-planning' of Newcastle and their pursuit of the modernist cause. My research uncovered a great deal of contradiction with relation to their plans for residential development in the city and as a starting point it may be useful to consider David Byrne's comments on Burns' attitude to inner-city residential areas, and in this case Shieldfield particularly:

"The far from slum working-class area of Shieldfield was demolished to accommodate them [The Central Education Precinct and Central Motorway East]. Burns was ingenuous about 'socially outworn housing'. for him it had a remarkable tendency to be located in areas where central area-related developments were going to be put" [4]
Here we observe a sense that Burns was one of those extreme modernist planners whose vision came before the communities they displaced and my own research has also unearthed two quotes which seem to support this view. The first quote is in relation to a study that commented on a notable increase in mental health problems that had been observed in people moving from older working-class communities, to new modernist developments. To which Burns' response was:
“These Illnesses, however, declined steadily after the first few years of residence and could, perhaps, have been largely avoided if whole areas of people were re-housed together” [5]
However, Burns articulated a seemingly contradictory sentiment the following year:
“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 locality.” [6]
In short Burns' comments reflect an attitude which seems to sum up what Byrne's describes as a period in which 'The planners ruled the city' [7].   Apart from the 'Central Area Development' and its emphasis on vehicular and pedestrian separation, the dispersal of inner city residential developments in to overspill estates in other, more remote, areas is a defining feature of the Burns-Smith plan - the personal and social impact of which is so effectively articulated by my interviewee Norah (See: 'Norah's Story').

So in relation to Shieldfield we can observe that it fell privy to the larger schemes of the city planning department and perhaps its architecture was lost prematurely in that raising to the ground spirit of modernism.

Shieldfield flats status as one of the early modernist development within the city saw it become a sort of flagship development in Newcastle and in a contemporary article published in the Journal newspaper in 1961, a model of the flats is foreground in a photo-opportunity, in which Burns poses with the then Town Clerk, as well as a professor from the Royal College of Art,  advertising the 'Newcastle Looks Ahead' exhibition which was to be held at the Laing.  The exhibition was said to include photographs of 'old' Newcastle and models of the planned developments within the city, which would showcase the Burns/Smith vision for the city.

This article was featured the same week as the official opening of the flats and local newspapers also included a number of articles discussing the flats more specifically (here I again refer to all the developments: Cruddas Park, Heaton Park Road and Shieldfield), with journalists keen to register the mood of the new residents moving in to these tower blocks:

"It's a palace when you've lived in a place like we came from" [8] they quote, of a resident who formerly lived in  Melbourne Street (a neighbouring area to Shieldfield). All of the quotes included in local press article are celebratory and reflect a focus on the beneficial changes the developments brought, such as the addition of modern amenities including gas, hot water etc.  Developments which undoubtedly improved the quality of living for many.  However, they also shy away from coverage which would suggests an atmosphere of discontent among former residents - seemingly choosing to speak to those who had been moved in to the developments from elsewhere.

So while I am keen to present as unbiased account of the flats as much as is possible, the evidence I have unearthed so far through my research (into the attitudes of planners such as Burns, as well as Norah's own story), suggests at the incredible social upheaval experienced by the community of Shieldfield during this period - in a move which showed a very apparent lack of sympathy towards the established community in the area.

Of course later developments, such as those at Byker, would learn from these mistakes and planners would instead attempt to work with the residents in redveloping the area - unfortunately this occurred too late to reverse the social costs of Shieldfield's then diffused community.

[1] Burns, W. (1967) A Study in Re-planning at Newcastle upon Tyne. London: Leonard Hill Books.[2] Newcastle upon Tyne Corporation. (1959) ‘Multi-Storey Flats – Heaton Park Road, Etc.’ Proceedings of the Council of the City and County of Newcastle upon Tyne, March 4 1959. Newcastle Corporation, Newcastle upon Tyne. p.748.

[3] The Essay: North East Free Thinkers: T Dan Smith. (2009) BBC Radio 3, 26 October. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00nhmcf/The_Essay_North_East_Free_Thinkers_T_Dan_Smith/ (Accessed: 10 March 2010)
[4] Byrne, D. (2001) 'The Reconstruction of Newcastle: Planning since 1945'. in Colls, R. & Lancaster, B. (eds) Newcastle upon Tyne: A Modern History. Chichester: Phillimore & Co. Ltd. p. 345
[5] Burns, W. (1962) Development Plan Review : Towards a New Housing Policy, the Planning Base. Newcastle upon Tyne: Newcastle Corporation. p.19
[6] Taken from: T. Dan Smith: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Utopia (1987) Amber Films [DVD] Newcastle upon Tyne: Amber Films.
[7] Byrne, D. (2001) 'The Reconstruction of Newcastle: Planning since 1945'. in Colls, R. & Lancaster, B. (eds) Newcastle upon Tyne: A Modern History. Chichester: Phillimore & Co. Ltd. p. 343
[8] Chronicle Reporter (1961) ‘Mr. Roy Thompson open city’s giant new flats’ Evening Chronicle. 14 April, 1961.