Published  24/07/2002

Sweden’s English immigrant returns again


After Nordgren’s Baltic, it is timely to remember the act of faith in 1960s Newcastle which brought back Ralph Erskine from Sweden in time to prevent the wholesale collapse of the housing community at Byker along the North side of the river from the Baltic centre. Today this pioneering housing scheme is still visible, and embedded effectively in the city grain, its bright colours untarnished along the elegant superstructures, radical innovations in Britain at the time. Recently Erskine, now in his late eighties, designed the famous Ark office building (now occupied by Seagram) in Hammersmith, London. Very recently, his Millennium Village at Greenwich looks set partly to redeem the disastrous Dome implant effect on the Greenwich environment. After training in London, Erskine who grew up as a Quaker, soon settled in Stockholm and established with his wife a small office. His Swedish work grew in the post-war period, and his key assembly buildings for Stockholm’s Frescati University developed over thirty years are five distinctive, almost unrelated structures. The Gymnasium, the students’ union, and other buildings still harmonise with each other in some indecipherable manifestation of Erskine’s basic humanist philosophy. He became perhaps Sweden’s best known architect in the 1960s, and led new ideas in the activist European grouping of young architects known as Team X. He received the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture here as long ago as 1987. If the Aula Magna, his great assembly hall for Frescati smacks a little of monumentality, he can forgive himself at this late stage in a long and brilliant career. To look across from the Baltic viewing level to Erskine’s massive revision of outmoded housing dogma of the post-war period is to recognise that Newcastle, even pre-Baltic Centre, had grown an architectural tradition which always could look to Sweden, as the Town Hall still demonstrates.

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