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Death of a Gentle Genius

Erskine pioneered people-first urban renovation

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One of the most important men in my life died last week, yet I hardly knew him. Ralph Erskine was an Anglo-Swedish architect, revered throughout Europe but almost unknown in America. He passed away at his home in Sweden, aged 91. I was privileged to work with his office in the early 1970s, and that experience shaped my life as an architect. Although born in Britain, Erskine developed as a major architect in his adopted Swedish homeland, admired for well-designed housing that was sensitive to site, climate and community. In 1968, the northern English city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (famous for its brown ale) appointed Erskine to create a redevelopment plan for an old working class area called Byker, home to nearly 10,000 people.

During the 1960s, redeveloping areas of poor quality housing usually meant wholesale demolition and relocating residents to other parts of the city, a process that destroyed the webs of community that bound families and neighbors together. This was a common experience in cities as different as Newcastle and Charlotte, and the fate of Charlotte's Brooklyn neighborhood in Second Ward was typical.

Taking advantage of loose federal guidelines that allowed housing to be demolished for almost any use deemed "better" by the city, Charlotte's business and political leadership sent a fleet of bulldozers into the African-American neighborhood. Local historians John and Amy Rogers and Tom Hanchett have recorded this orgy of demolition. Between 1960 and 1967, 1,480 structures fell to the bulldozer, but not a single new house was built to replace them. Over 1000 Brooklyn families were displaced, along with black-owned businesses. Churches, social clubs, the one black high school in Charlotte, and the city's only black public library were all pounded into rubble. The social fabric of the community was, for all intents and purposes, wiped out.

This story was repeated across America, and throughout British industrial cities where millions of people lived in substandard housing. Architects and planners saw only the dismal houses, and completely overlooked the invisible structure of community ties that defined neighborhoods in social and cultural terms.

Ralph Erskine was different, and in a community five times larger than Brooklyn, he stood the standard process on its head, involving the residents as partners and forging a strong bond between the community and the designers. During the rebuilding process, Erskine's partner, Vernon Gracie, lived on-site for many years in a flat above the drawing office set up in an old corner store, previously a funeral parlor, which became as much a community resource space as a professional design office. Erskine and his team showed what could be done when urban designers took community values seriously. Suddenly there was a real alternative to the standard urban renewal procedures that had devastated so many city neighborhoods.

What occurred in Newcastle was a revolution in urban redevelopment and I was privileged to be part of it. During and after grad school I worked as a junior designer in a local architecture firm that was paired with Erskine's office. In a situation familiar to American professionals, the local firm was responsible for producing the construction documents, following the designs of the lead architects.

Ralph Erskine and his team showed what could be done when urban designers took community values seriously.

I spent a lot of time in that converted funeral parlor, working on construction drawings, often trying to interpret Erskine's own red-lined sketches and notes airmailed from Sweden. The atmosphere in the office was like nothing I'd experienced. The architects invited the community into their workspace and into the process, explained what was going on, listened to their comments, and changed designs in front of their eyes to take account of their views. At Erskine's insistence, the city demolished old houses only a street or two at a time, and the residents were allowed back into new homes as soon as they were built. All the community's pubs, schools and churches were kept and refurbished. Byker was reborn.

I met Erskine only a couple of times on his occasional visits for important meetings, but he established the whole tone of our work. His gentle demands for ethical practice and his dedication to produce great architecture for ordinary people were translated into contemporary buildings by his partner Vernon Gracie and an enthusiastic team of young designers. Our shared objective was to give people beautiful, dignified places to live whatever their social or economic status.

Byker became recognized as one of the best housing developments of the 20th century, and has been declared a site of international importance by the United Nations. Although only 30 years old, the development has also been awarded historic building status by the British government, in effect preserving it for posterity. In my all-too-brief acquaintance with him, Ralph Erskine showed me what architecture can mean to ordinary people. I go back every couple of years and study the small parts of Byker that are mine, but every day I try to live up to the larger lessons Erskine taught me.

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