Sunderland’s buildings: the good, the bad and the ugly

The Garths - a Modernist post-World War One housing project built on the site of a slum.
The Garths - a Modernist post-World War One housing project built on the site of a slum.
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The best and worst of Wearside’s modern buildings will be examined as part of this year’s Heritage Open Day extravaganza.

Architectural historian Dr Michael Johnson is to give an illustrated talk on the Modern Buildings of Sunderland: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly on September 12.

The space age of the 1960s inspired Modernist changes to the city.

The space age of the 1960s inspired Modernist changes to the city.

“I’ve given lots of talks on historic buildings, but this explores the most controversial aspect of the city’s architectural legacy – modern buildings,” he said.

“Structures inspired by Modernism, a radical movement that transformed architecture in the 20th century, are often harder to appreciate that ornate historic ones.

“Some deserve criticism, but others deserve to be more appreciated. Modernism was a response to the brave new world of modern technology and scientific progress.”

Modernism dates to the late 19th/early 20th century, with one of the earliest examples - The New City designs - created by architect Antonio Sant-Elia in 1914.

Structures inspired by Modernism, a radical movement that transformed architecture in the 20th century, are harder to appreciate that ornate historic ones. Some deserve criticism, but others deserve be more appreciated.

“This vision of huge mechanised buildings introduced the Machine Aesthetic to architecture,” said Michael, a design history lecturer at Northumbria University.

“Society had been transformed by industrialisation and urban expansion, and this made people uniquely conscious of living in a modern era.”

The Bauhaus movement in Germany quickly embraced minimalist design, but the radical approach took longer to win over Britain. Indeed, it took a war to do so.

“A desperate need for housing after World War One saw local housing associations create buildings which were often Modernist in conception,” said Michael.

“Most notable in Sunderland were The Garths, a Modernist mass housing project which accommodated around 1,000 people in blocks of flats with access balconies.

“With a quadrangular form and brick construction, the Garths were reminiscent of worker housing blocks designed by Modernist architect J.J.P. Oud in Holland.”

Hitler’s Luftwaffe caused yet another housing crisis during World War Two, after thousands of Wearside homes were destroyed or damaged in air raids.

Post-war reconstruction had to be achieved quickly and cheaply - and prefabricated houses played a major part in addressing Britain’s post-war housing shortage.

“Modernist-style pre-fab houses were built across Sunderland, including Sackville Road, Saltburn Road and Solway Square,” said Michael.

Other post-war housing development included flats and maisonettes built on Modernist principles at Carley Hill, Monkwearmouth and Gilley Law.

But perhaps the most “iconic” of the buildings were constructed within the town centre in the 1960s and 70s - inspired by both Modernism and the Space Age.

“Three town centre tower blocks - Astral, Solar and Planet House - were constructed for £959,258 by Sunderland Council in the late 1960s,” said Michael.

“Next came Sunderland Polytechnic, with an impressive Modernist edifice with a brilliant glazed façade. Strips of glass were cut away to expose the frame.

“But Modernism demanded architecture be of its time and this meant historic buildings were often viewed as outdated relics - such as the old Town Hall.”

The much-mourned Victorian building was bulldozed in 1971 and replaced with a Modernist superstructure - the Civic Centre.

Designed by architects Sir Basil Spence, Bonnington and Collin, the building won a Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal.

“Modernist buildings embodied philosophical ideals, but lofty ambitions were often undermined by technical flaws and indifference to human needs,” said Michael.

“The style gave architects a license to cut corners by using cheaper materials and construction methods, and the loss of the Town Hall is still controversial.”

lMichael’s talk will be held at the City Library in Fawcett Street at 1.30pm on September 12. Contact 561 1235 to book places.