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Title: Sunderland The town hall as a working unit

Pages: 32 - 39

                        

Author: Robert Waterhouse

Text: 
SUNDERLAND: THE TOWN HALL AS AWORKING UNIT

Sunderland's town hall and civic centre, designed by Sir Basil Spence, Bonnington & Collins, is unassuming, ingenious and practical. Robert Waterhouse reports on how it's likely to affect the town.
Is it a coincidence that Sunderland's new town hall and civic centre follows closely on that of Newcastle-upon Tyne? Competition between Wearside and Tyneside is as fierce as ever, with the impending local government reorganisation giving Sunderland numerically equal standing beside Newcastle in the metropolitan authority. And if anything is likely to prove to outsiders that Sunderland knows how to look after itself it is the town hall, perhaps the first in Britain to be built as a down-to-earth working unit and therefore in complete contrast to Newcastle's hybrid palace.
The site designated for the complex was West Park, an open hilly space rising south from the town centre and west of Mowbray Park. A pre-war Act of Parliament had given Sunderland the authority to build on West Park, for even then the existing town hall (built 1890) was quite inadequate as an administrative centre and departments were spread inefficiently all over town. However, the war brought extensive bombing, aimed at shipyards and pit heads but managing to damage 20 000 houses, so it wasn't until the late fifties that the council got round to thinking again about accommodation for its own staff (now about 900 strong). The immediate belief was that the existing site, at under nine acres, was not big enough and that it would be great to include some five acres of Mowbray Park. There was a public enquiry, and the decision went against the council.
This seeming setback was probably the beginning of today's successful building. It concentrated the forward planners' sights on a realistic job rather than a prestigious fantasy so that in their preliminary brief they had the good sense to stipulate that over half of the public departments should have ground level access. Jack Bonnington, partner in charge for Sir Basil Spence, Bonnington & Collins (appointed architects in 1964) was quick to realise that a building grouped round courtyards would best fulfil the brief.
The formula devised after detailed user surveys was of two hexagon-shaped courts two storeys high linked by a four-story central core (itself necessarily a hexagon), flanked on the north (town) side by a multi-storey car park and on the south by the civic centre. This allowed the departments most used by the public not only to be at ground level but to have their own separate entrances from the courtyards, meaning quick, uncomplicated access for those going to pay rates or visit the children's department while protecting the backstage office areas from casual intrusion - once people understood the system.
Based on a 5ft triangular grid, the concrete structure is supported by columns spaced at 20ft intervals round equilateral triangles. These can be seen exposed in the main entrance hall or sprouting from the underbelly of the ground floor level as one walks up to the building from the car park. They allow corners and levels to be assimilated at will, and thus provide for the structure's basic success: its change of level and pace. making the most of a rocky and difficult site while keeping within the strictest simplicity of exterior and interior materials.
Outside, in fact, the main visible element is a brown brindled engineering brick for the building's plinth, matched by complementary tiles as cladding on the industrialised concrete wall panels. The same tiles are used throughout the steps and terracing, and in the public spaces inside. Some 200 different shapes of tile give variety to walkways, and in all more than two million individual pieces of tile and brick were supplied by Hawkins Tiles (Cannock) Ltd. The only other exterior materials are glass, aluminium window surrounds and the concrete of pillars and honeycomb understructure - apart from the copper roof of the council chamber and the Cor-Ten louvres on the plant room which tops the central core.
It is inside this core that the building pivots, with a well opening out visibly the logic of the planning and allowing access to departments not served by ground floor entrances. The well has become a sort of whispering gallery in reverse, where people meet on the first or second or third floors to discuss together while watching others move around the reception desk on the ground floor. The acoustics are such that nobody is overheard but everybody is part of a workmanlike hum.
Beyond the immediate steps and galleries of the well the tiles stop and the enclosed offices begin, guarded by reception areas which are sometimes partitioned off from the main office space, sometimes left as a gaping window for the inquisitive; the choice is that of the particular department. All walls within the offices and office staff corridors are non-structural, so the building could be stripped to its shell and begun again if necessary in the distant future. But this would prove expensive, especially since modular storage space, a system developed by the architects and built for them by Plexiform Carson, has been set into walls backing onto corridors (though on a knock-down principle). Most of the interior surfaces, including all wall panels, are lined in ash grey Warerite melamine laminate. Corridors and offices, originally to be carpeted with cork-backed pvc were eventually fitted with a warm orange nylon felt from Scandinavian Flooring, Distributors. Most of the office furniture, basic but practical, was also develops and designed by the architects and built by Plexiform Carson with chairs from Hille
So, throughout. there's a unity of materials which naturally made for quality at reasonable costs (from 7. 10 - 8.25 sq ft complete). The civic centre end is more expensive - with its anodised aluminium chain curtains and Rotatlex candelabra in the entrance area, its council chamber equipped with press-button voting and lined with a Columbian pine ceiling, its Wilton carpeted committee rooms and its mayoral suite furnished by Herman Miller. Even so, the cost was kept to about 3 sq ft more than the offices, and the basic components are still dominant.
The architects had all the way to satisfy their hard-headed clients that they were getting what they wanted, at the right price. It was felt that, for a project that had been long on the cards, Sunderland was not very ready with vital information. On the other hand, Sunderland felt that they were paying the architects for the brief as much as the design, and that it was their job to make both satisfactory. Both parties agree that their relationship was friendly and fruitful, yet there are minor points where they begged to differ. Over signing, for instance. Jack Bonnington proposed a system, relying on strategic plans of the complex. showing how to find numbers and names above individual entrances. In the first few months the town hall was open it proved so difficult for people to find their way around that the local architects' department improvised a motorway-type system and substituted for the plans. Then there was the question of corporate image: it seemed logical to the architects that a new town hall called for a new logo, carried trough to council vehicles, notepaper, etc. Sunderland thought otherwise. A typical reaction, from a man who had fully accepted the building, was: ''we don't need a symbol. That's a symbol" (pointing to the existing coat of arms) ''that's registered and means something. Why should we look like British Rail ?'' However, the argument continues among council officers.
Lack of full cooperation between town hall departments possibly let the architects down in their actual siting of the building. At one stage it was proposed that Burdon Road, which separates the
Town hall from the park, would be closed to traffic, creating a wide precinct area. Unfortunately, the timing of the town's traffic plan is such that there is now no immediate hope of closing the road (which takes most of the traffic to Teesside) and people who work in offices fronting it complain about trucks grinding past in low gears. It may also be eventually found that double glazing would have been worth the extra cost for the windows facing into the courtyards. Everyday occurrences. like the wedding that was brightening a wet March morning, could prove unnecessarily distracting to office workers. It's a little ironic that the building is vulnerable to outside noise when inside surfaces are so carefully covered. Indeed, the committee rooms in the civic centre - away from streets or courtyards - are so quiet that a hiss has been built in to prevent embarrassment.
Whether Burdon Road closes to traffic or not (and the planners say it will) the town hall is extremely conscious of the motor car. Councillors and senior staff have their own convenient car parks under the building, while visitors, less fortunate staff and townspeople use the enormous four-floor 572-car stadium on the north side. If you happen to be down in the town centre by the library. this car park is the only bit of the building you see so it seems fair to ask whether the motorist really is as important as all that. The answer is complex. First. most of the car park was a bonus, built over railway lines and old sheds, not part of the designated site. Secondly, this same set of lines, most of which still exist separating the town hall from the town, will eventually be built over and the gap joined, Thirdly, the car park is just one in a strategic series standing by ready for an invasion when cars are banned from the town centre. If that ever becomes a reality, the scheme will justify itself. For the moment, the space is desperately under used and must annoy pedestrians struggling past on their way to the town hall. One also has the feeling that the extensive terraces on the car park roof were a planning sop to make it look like a community measure; certainly, the whole building abounds in terraces and one more or less can't really have mattered.
If you haven't a car you can catch a bus from town to Park Lane Bridge and then have a relatively level walk through over the car park. If it's raining, though, that's quite a long walk without cover. The other alternatives - two entrances from Burdon Road - involve enormous flights of steps (or circuitous ramps. heated against ice) which are still without cover. These steps, beautiful as they undoubtedly are to the camera, could be a curse if you were old or in a hurry. In retrospect, they form the strongest part of the case that was put by the local civic society, for siting the town hall in the centre of town, on the level. On the other hand, without its numerous changes of level. without its majestic steps, the building would lose much of its character and most people seem to enjoy the challenge of getting up the hill: for those who don't, an alternative system (escalators?) might be studied.
Is this celebration of natural contours and veneration of the motor car at the expense of the pedestrian an indication that although the shape has changed, the concept of the town hall has not? Is Sunderland, in its own modest way, just as derisive of ordinary people and their needs as were the Victorian monuments to mayoral dignity? It seems fair to say no since, once arrived at the building, visitors are treated well, don't have much queueing and evidently enjoy themselves. Staff, united in one building for the first time, are using each others' skills and clerical efficiency has improved by about a quarter.
However, this wasn't a cheap building. Some 31/4 millions are a lot to spend on administrative efficiency in a town of only 220 000 with unemployment running at about three times the national average. And, because of its site, the town hall can't in itself put new heart into a run-down town centre which despite a recent large scale scheme of flats let at ''economic" rents above a pedestrian shopping precinct - largely lacks restaurants, pubs, common open spaces and other places to relax and enjoy life. The council have plans for a kind of Billingham Forum, which they hope will in turn create the demand for pubs, etc. They say that they cannot be expected to set up in commercial activities. Maybe it is simply a matter of being patient, of waiting for each problem to be sorted out. Meanwhile the town hall sits proudly on its hill, proof of what can be done when you have the land. Let's hope that the authority can do as well for those who live or work below it.

(Caption)
Seen from a tower block in the town centre, above, the town hall is an imposing fortress rising from the railway lines. A multi-storey car park dominates the approach (view from car park terrace back into town. opposite) as it does from Burdon Road left, which may be closed to traffic in the future, leaving the town hall and Mowhray Park precinct. The park is linked across by a footbridge, right

(Caption)
Outside and inside the central core. Brown brindled engineering tiles serve as exterior cladding and paving, and for interior surfaces in public areas. From the ground floor, steps and lifts lead to three upper floors, with departments opening off the landings. Balconies are used for private conferences or simply for watching the world go by (not encouraged for staff). The public, though, can study staff at work in offices opening over and besides entrances

(Caption)
The architects have taken full advantage of the change in levels over the site. Not only are steps everywhere, but the south hexagon is one storey higher than the north giving a subtle variation in perspective which helps break up the heavy tile cladding of the exterior walls. Steps lead from the central core down onto Burdon Road at two points. Ramps, heated in winter, allow circuitous access for mothers with prams. Inside the south court is the register office, where confetti is still allowed. Wedding parties can use special stairs from an underground car park and go across the pedestrian badge to Mowbray Park for photographs to be taken. All this while the everyday life of the town hall continues - excellent, except that the offices are no more noiseproof than any others with single glazing

(Caption)
Public areas within the town hall are mostly on the ground floor with their own entrances, and like the rates hall, above and the housing department top. Floors are finished in the same engineering tile used outside. The enhance hall, in the central core, bottom left, is open and accessible, but rather imposing if you approach it from below. In the council offices everything works to a system, with desks and storage developed by the architects and made to measure by Flexiform Carson, who have since introduced similar ranges on the market. The system, finished in ash grey Warente laminate, allows considerable flexibility - it contains no structural elements. Storage itself is knock-down. Carpeting, except in principal offices, is a warm orange nylon felt. Chairs are from Hille

(Caption)
At the extreme south of the complex the civic centre sits, restrained and aloof. The entrance foyer has anodised aluminium chain mail curtains and a Rotaflex candelabra: the council chamber, a Columbian pine ceiling; committee rooms are furnished by Westnofa and Form International; service staircases are white tiled

 

 

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