How an art factory became a symbol of post-industrial revival on Tyneside
The so called ‘Bilbao effect’ has been extensively covered in academic writing and by journalists. This essay – a sample of a longer piece – instead explores the building’s historic significance to the region, and the North East’s need for a new post-industrial identity, as well as examining the method of conversion to determine the success of BALTIC as an act of adaptive reuse and to identify its role in the redevelopment of Tyneside.
Situated on the south bank of the River Tyne, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (BALTIC) is the UK’s largest contemporary art institution. Opened in 2002 as an ‘art factory’ BALTIC holds no permanent collection but focuses on the organisation’s vision to create environments and opportunities that make contemporary art more accessible to the North East of England. It was in the 1980s, prompted by support from Northern Arts (now part of Arts Council England), that Gateshead instigated a programme of site-specific projects designed to bring art to the region and put the North East on the national map as a destination for cultural arts. The notion of BALTIC, which would come to be designed by Dominic Williams of Ellis Williams Architects, began in 1991 when Northern Arts, as part of its five-year plan, declared its intention to support ‘major new capital facilities for the Contemporary Visual Arts and Music in Central Tyneside’ (Guest: 2008, p06).
The story of Joseph Rank Ltd’s Baltic Flour Mill began, arguably, in 1925 when the riverbanks of the Tyne were cleared to make way for the construction of the Tyne Bridge, which encouraged – and enabled – businesses to relocate to alternative locations closer to the city centres of Newcastle and Gateshead. The former site of Gateshead ironworks, now empty and derelict, became the location for Baltic Flour Mill. Designed in 1939 by Hull-based architect Gelder and Kitchen, it comprised five masonry buildings: a flour silo and several back-end warehouses (figure 01). The silo building was the only part to have begun on site when construction was halted due to the Second World War.
Plans were resurrected in 1947, with the unbuilt sections updated to a steel and glass composition – more common by this time due to its cheap and simple construction. The building opened in 1950 and, at its peak, employed over 300 people but a fire in the animal-feed store in 1976 led to falling sales and redundancies before the mill finally closed in 1982 after just over thirty years in operation. The warehouses at the back were demolished but the masonry silo building, too expensive and difficult to knock down, was left empty and alone on the Quay.
Tyneside suffered badly following nationwide deindustrialisation and, by the early 1990s, the banks of the Tyne had decayed and were in desperate need of rehabilitation, with residents nostalgically remembering the area a ‘dirty and rotten’ (Miles: 2005). The deindustrialisation of the North East represented a loss of cultural identity and regional pride, ‘shaped by an industrial past, then fractured by the upheaval of deindustrialization [sic]’ (Robinson: 2002, p.317). Stratton (ed. 2000) notes that the regions hit particularly hard by deindustrialisation were the most in need of a new cultural identity and so Newcastle and Gateshead turned to the redevelopment of the diminished riverbanks to construct a new Quayside.
Miles (2004, p.186) identifies the historic importance of the River Tyne as ‘a focal point for the North East’s sense of itself’ suggesting that ‘with the impact of deindustrialisation and the decline of the Tyne’s industrial role, the reinvigoration of the Quayside appears to has constructed an alternative symbolism […] giving the people of the region something tangible with which they can reassert their collective identities.’ He discusses comprehensively (2005) how the subsequent investment of millions of pounds into the Quayside sites (on both sides of the river) has not only stimulated ‘a degree of public confidence and regional pride’, contributing to a renewed ‘feel-good factor’ in the North East, but has revitalised a sense of community and improved the local economy.
The deindustrialisation of the North East represented a loss of cultural identity and regional pride
According to Powers (1994, p.92) changes in British industry since 1980 ‘have been damaging to its buildings as to so much else’ and thus it stands that an approach to the area’s rehabilitation should retain the sole building remaining on the Gateshead Quay. Scott (2008, p.145) argues that ‘[alteration] comes about as a consequence of a general wish to keep things as they are. Its justification, beyond the limits of sentimentality, is one of change of use or occupation being required in order to give new life to a building or quarter, and so to ensure their vital continuance within the fabric of the city [italics added]’. Here, he almost disregards the host building, except as a facilitator of ‘new life’, but his comment on sentimentality should not be overlooked. Baltic Flour Mill was not saved for its architectural qualities but rather the building’s more functional merits – namely its size and location – alongside its social standing in the region’s history offered an impressive amount of potential.
Gateshead’s desire for a contemporary art space was not, however, directly prompted by the empty building; in fact, a number of alternative sites had been investigated, with the Council generally favouring adaptive reuse as a strategy. Having been saved for no reason other than the expense of demolishing it, the silo building became Gateshead MBC’s target for BALTIC. As the last brick building on the Tyne it had inadvertently become somewhat of a local landmark and deserved a new purpose.
Nordgren recalls (2019) that there was already a trend evolving in Europe to save and find uses for the old industrial buildings (some more successfully than others) but when the brief was launched, there was no Tate Modern – a building to which BALTIC is now often likened – and the so-called Bilbao effect of ‘arts megaprojects had yet to become the standard tonic for rust-belt riversides’ (Fairs: 2002, p.21). As a recently qualified and relatively unknown architect, Williams’ anonymous entry impressed the jury panel by retaining much of the building’s external character, using the existing masonry as an enveloping skin within which a new structure – incorporating four new floor plates – would be inserted. This process of ‘remodelling’ involved, in the first instance, the ‘radical surgery’ (Sudjic: 2002) of scooping out the internal silos – with Nordgren (2019) dismissing the prospect of retaining the concrete tubes as ‘nostalgic’ – to leave the exterior masonry structure hollow. The contemporary addition was therefore inserted between the north and south facades and two new, glazed curtain walls to the east and west. Robust materials, such as rough wooden timber flooring and Cor-Ten steel, were chosen to reference the region’s industrial narrative and form spaces inside that were as aesthetically strong as what remained of the masonry exterior.
Where structural additions were made, these are visibly new. The converted building includes two outdoor terraces (at levels 1 and 4), as well as a two-storey ‘viewing box’ – described by Guest (2008, p.58) as ‘one of the most distinctive features of BALTIC’s exterior and one of the most popular interior features’ – which cantilevers 7m from the west facade. The remodelled front elevation has also provided BALTIC with, arguably, one of its greatest assets: three glass lifts provide sensational views across the Tyne for the entire ascension from ground level to the rooftop restaurant at level 6. Foyers at each floor create generous ‘orientation spaces’ which act as a transition ‘between seeing art and not seeing art’ (Nordgren: 2019), with sightlines across the Tyne. This act of intervention visually links the building’s new use to its historical context by merging the interior gallery space to the river at all levels of the building.
Cantacuzino (1975) notes that many industrial buildings had, since the Second World War, been demolished or in other ways abandoned to make room for more profitable development. In explaining the significance of adapting ‘old into new’, he argues that the adaptive reuse of existing structures can contribute to a building’s survival and its reinterpretation as a local landmark. As a converted building, BALTIC’s structure plays an important visual role as an icon on Gateshead Quayside, while providing a strong cultural link to the identity of the region. The Baltic Flour Mill conversion arguably goes one step further, however, due to the social and cultural importance of the host building. While the original mill held little architectural importance, its cultural standing as part of Tyneside’s industrial history made it a fragment of history worth reusing.
The merit of that reinvention, however, should be assed against wider criteria. Brooker and Stone (2004, p.11) express the value of remodelling old buildings to reshape cities and ‘readdress the meaning and value of the existing built fabric’ to change the cultural value and function of buildings as the needs of the economies and societies around them evolve. Across Britain, the vacant buildings that remain as a legacy of an industrial past stand as icons at the core of the communities that grew up around them – but the challenge of adapting these buildings is finding the right balance between preservation and change (Stratton, ed: 2000). BALTIC has seen more change than preservation, but arguably the retention of the original building – in as much as its size, location and overbearing masonry facades – has allowed it to remain recognisable as the building that local residents were used to.
The success of BALTIC as an institution is indisputable. Despite Nordgren’s claim he was never interested in attendance figures, the ‘art factory’ has become a successful draw for ‘Tynesiders’ and tourists alike – and, in alliance with the Millennium Bridge and the Sage, has put Gateshead on the national map as a destination for culture. Morrison’s (2004) declaration that ‘most now associate the Baltic Centre and the “winking eye” Millennium Bridge with Tyneside’s renewal as strongly as their antecedents ever did the Tyne Bridge’ unequivocally declares the iconographic status of BALTIC’s revival and its impact on the cultural heritage of the region’s industrial context, translating across time from past triumphs to new successes.
The challenge of adapting these buildings is finding the right balance between preservation and change
The redevelopment of the Quayside as a cultural destination has given ‘Tynesiders’ a new raison d’être and forms a new narrative for what the region now is, instead of what it was. More so than creating a national destination for touring art-lovers, the importance of BALTIC within the wider regeneration of Gateshead Quayside is the use of an existing piece of the urban fabric to restore culture, identity and pride in the North East.
When Baltic Flour Mill stood alone on the riverbank in 1994, even Gateshead Council would have struggled to estimate the impact of the area’s redevelopment not only economically but for regional morale and identity. The influence of the Quayside site would have been negatively impacted had the silo building been demolished and a new construction erected in its place. Regardless of the building’s architectural merits as an example of adaptive reuse, the conversion of a post-war industrial structure allowed the people of Tyneside to keep a piece of their heritage.
 BALTIC. Available at: http://baltic.art/about/what-is-baltic (Accessed 22 Apr 2019) and NewcastleGateshead. Available at https://bit.ly/2I6RlWp (Accessed 23 Apr 2019)
 The successes of the Garden Festival’s art commission programme, innovative local promoters such as Projects UK, partnerships such Art on the Metro run by Nexus (1980), Art on the Riverside managed by the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation (1995), the title of UK Region of the Visual Arts for the year 1996, and culminating in the construction of The Angel of the North; Anthony Gormley’s 20-m-high Cor-Ten steel figure, stimulated new and higher expectations of the public realm. ‘These developments were underpinned not by economic imperatives, but by a will and determination on the part of local arts activist and politicians to provide the area with the cultural facilities that it deserved’ (Bailey et al: 2004, p61).
 Local iron-founders Hawks Crawshay & Sons was the contractor for the High Level Bridge, designed by Robert Stephenson in 1849. The company ceased trading in 1889 and the ironworks was closed.
 Fowler et al. (2001), in particular, identifies the ‘legacy of the industrial era [as] paramount in defining the culture of the North East’, noting that the region’s ‘old industrial strength’ weakened over the course of the twentieth century as, becoming redundant or outsourced to alternative locations.
 Defined by Brooker and Stone (2004, p.11) as ‘the process of wholeheartedly altering a building. The function is the most obvious change, but other alterations may be made to the building itself such as the circulation route, the orientation, the relationships between spaces; additions may be built and other areas may be demolished.’
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Lead image: Sherin Aminossehe (2020)
Figure 01: Gelder and Kitchen (1939) New Flour Mills, Gateshead [Drawing]. Baltic Archive, Gateshead.
Figure 02: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (1949) Baltic Flour Mills, Gateshead, 1949. Flickr [Online]. Available at:https://www.flickr.com/photos/twm_news/15389453635/in/album- 72157625316987586/ (Accessed 10 Apr 2019)
Figure 03: Ellwood, S. [Online]. Available at: https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/in-your-area/gallery/readers-share-photos-baltic-turns-9676512 (Accessed 26 May 2020)