The Continuing Joy Of Concrete


Whilst in the wilds of Northumberland I also got to spend a little time admiring one of my favourite buildings in Newcastle.

Originally called Swan House*, it now rather sadly goes by the hideous name of 55 Degrees North. Built in the late 1960s and designed by Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall & Partners (that’s Robert Matthew of Royal Festival Hall fame), the building has been described, somewhat predictably, by the Newcastle Evening Chronicle as a “monstrosity” and “one of the biggest eyesores on Tyneside”. Originally erected as the north’s response to the Post Office Tower (in use rather than style) it sits on concrete stilts above the Pilgrim Street traffic roundabout in the centre of the city, oblivious to its surroundings as traffic flows past which in turn returns the compliment by ignoring the building as it does so.

When British Telecom decided that the building was surplus to requirements it was eventually redeveloped in 2002, and as such I suppose I should be happy the construction of “165 executive flats, shops, bars and restaurants in a Continental-style plaza” has at least left the fabric of what was originally built in situ. In fact given the clearance of some of the buildings surrounding it, including the equally maligned (and now sadly demolished) Bank of England building designed by Sir Basil Spence, it’s looking even grander than ever – as carbuncles go it’s an inordinately handsome one.

*The building’s original name derived from the area’s link to Joseph Swan, inventor of the electric lightbulb. And as it happens it was on this very day in 1878 that his invention was first shown to a meeting at the Newcastle Chemical Society, followed a couple of years later with Moseley Street, which meets the Pilgrim Street roundabout, becoming the first street in Britain to be illuminated by incandescent bulbs.

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