Restoration Man architect George Clarke looks to Sunderland's future
The presenter of Channel 4's Restoration Man is looking forward to playing his own part in the regeneration of Sunderland.
Architect George Clarke, who was born in city, is excited about the changes under way across Wearside and especially passionate about the plans by the city’s Music, Arts and Culture (Mac) Trust to create a new cultural quarter for the city, centred on the old fire station in High Street West.
Dance and drama studios, a bar, restaurant and heritage centre will all be included in the transformation of the 99-year-old building that has stood empty since 1992.
For George Clarke, cultural aspiration is central to making regeneration work: “That’s what the city needs,” he said.
“I genuinely think it’s brilliant. The main reason is that I think any town or city that needs regeneration, it needs to come from an arts and culture background.
“You only have to look at Gateshead, with the Angel of the North, the Sage and the Baltic. In Newcastle there’s a guy called Keith McIntyre who’s doing great work with arts students who take over areas of the city that have been neglected.
“After everything that has happened in Detroit, it is having a real resurgence at the moment, When you go there you see what artists and musicians are able to do.
“Of course, Sunderland is not like Detroit but it is quite staggering what arts, culture and music can do for a city.”
George has had firsthand experience of the changes encouraging artists can make: “When I first moved to London, Shoreditch was rough - really rough. You really didn’t want to stay there.
“Then arts studios started to open up and now it is one of the coolest, trendiest places to be in London.”
Doing the same for Sunderland would also help to reverse the brain drain which has seen the city’s brightest and best move away: “We have got a big student population, they work hard, they get their degree and then they go off to other parts of the world,” he said,
“If they think Sunderland is on the up, they will stay.”
“If there’s any way arts, music and culture can help the city, it will be great for Sunderland.
“I was involved in regeneration plans for Margate. Margate has had a tough time - a really tough time and now it’s come back. And you know why? The Turner Centre.
“Now you get people from London who don’t want to be in London any more and they are moving to Margate.
“Sometimes, great things happen from small projects.
“That’s what Sunderland needs. It does not take much to turn a city around. Sometimes it takes five years to realise a regeneration scheme, sometimes it takes ten. It takes people a long time to attach to something but when they can see something like the fire station plan, something on a smaller scale, something creative that helps the city, that can generate all sorts of excitement.”
George may live in London but he gets home to Wearside as often as possible and is a passionate Black Cats fan, who admits to being delighted that another season in the top flight has been secured – even if he has to be a tad diplomatic about it.
“Wherever I live in the world, Sunderland is home to me and it always will be,” he said.
“I have got to be careful because I am really good mates with Ant and Dec, but I am so happy, so happy.
“I would prefer every North East team to be in the Premier League - there’s nothing like derby day and there is a bit of me that would love Newcastle to be in there.”
George is also delighted to see work about to get under way on the former Vaux site, 17 years after the brewery closed its gates.
Developer Siglion was granted planning permission for the first phase of its plans for the site last month.
“I am delighted,” said George.
“I think it has been too long coming but I still want it to be done right - I have seen regeneration schemes go wrong.
“It has to be right for the city. We need to realise what Sunderland needs, what Sunderland’s qualities are and be realistic.
“A regeneration scheme is not just shapes on a piece of paper, Everybody has to back it and it has to work.
“There have been too many regeneration schemes in the past that have failed because they have not been carried out properly. It needs the right creative people.
“We have got to do a proper job.”
Exactly when George will find time to chip in, though, is unclear. The Oxclose School old boy is up to his eyes with commitments.
This month he has been travelling the country for live appearances: “I have been at the Ideal Home Show in Scotland and I am in Manchester this week,” he said.
“ It’s great - I do London, Manchester and Scotland.”
He set up his town TV company Amazing Productions last year – “it’s going really well” - and has no fewer than four series in the pipeline.
The summer sees a new run of Amazing Sheds while Amazing Spaces and the Restoration man return in the autumn.
But the one he is really passionate about starts next week: “This is our first big series. George Clake’s Old House, New Home.
“It looks at Victorian houses, bungalows, 60s builds, all kinds of homes - it’s about making them work for 21st Century living.
“It’s very much an interiors show. I wanted to do a really good, classic interiors show, about making the most of beautiful homes.”
Charitable work is also important: “I am a trustee of the Foundation of Light and we are pushing forward with the Beacon of Light,” he said.
“It will be really exciting, with the stuff on the Vaux site happening on one side of the river and the beacon on the other side.”
“Sunderland needs to be as creative, as ambitious as it can be.
“I think it is a very exciting time for the city. The last ten or 15 years have been hard but we have seen some really innovative and exciting projects coming through in Sunderland now.
“Anything I can do to help, I will.”