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Bensham Grove: Community Centre

Part 1 Project 2010
Nicholas John Peters
Newcastle University | UK
The Bensham Grove Community Centre was a very real project, in a Ward of Gateshead that had very real community problems. These ranged from integration issues between the large Jewish, Asian and British communities that reside there, to general deprivation and unemployment. As it once stood the Community Centre was hidden behind a wall and isolated from Bensham by a main road. It was clear that the wall must be breached in order for the centre to open up and reach out. Site Analysis revealed that the now thoroughfare that is Bensham Rd, which runs past the centre out of Gateshead, had once been lined with shops and was very much the centre of communal activity.

The final scheme used a set of modular ‘tubes’ that wedged/pierced and sat on the existing wall, which had once made this public building introspected. These elements sit perpendicular to the road providing a strong relationship to Bensham and creating a new geometry from the existing building. As the tubes interact with the wall the result is a glazed termination of the spaces onto the road, culminating in a very open, public display of activity. This was drawn from the ‘Shop Window’ concept in an attempt to reanimate the road as once before. The largest of the shop windows is located where the existing house meets the road. The existing house was an important factor in the public’s affection for the site and heritage of Gateshead; therefore it was to become the centre of all activity. By limiting public access to the existing building, it became a point of contact, a place to pause or gather, and also from which all circulation stemmed.

The scheme sets out to create a focal point in the area where the people of Gateshead can express themselves. It is the public representation of the community essentially reflected back onto itself, which will confront the fear of the unknown within the community.

Nicholas John Peters

Located in Gateshead, this project was based in and around an existing Adult Education and Community provision. Offering students an opportunity to engage with a complex social and site condition, the project also challenged many common preconceptions about education- requiring them to question what it might mean to ‘belong’.

Bensham Grove is a product of the late 19th Century Settlement Movement, founded on principles of social change and self-improvement through education, and the philanthropic endeavours of the founding family, together with the continuing efforts of the staff over many years, have ensured that the provision continues to be held in real affection by the surrounding community. Responding to the existing domestic and homely environment, whilst positing a fresh new identity and integrating a significant new-build provision, lay at the heart of the project.

Students were encouraged to refine and reinterpret a multi-layered brief, integrating teaching and learning facilities alongside, or within, broader community focused spaces. Art as a catalyst for change was maintained as a strong theme throughout the project, reflecting strong historic associations to the Arts and Crafts Movement through Morris, the Pre- Raphaelites and the work of the ‘Pitmen Painters’.

The existing context of historic villa and mature walled garden, located at the convergence of traditional ‘Tyneside flats’ and a more refined suburban context, offered an intriguing social and physical complexity with which to wrestle and necessitated a close reading and particular personal response, explored using a diverse mix of communication techniques.

Nick responded to the problem with a design focussed on the reinterpretation of ‘shopfront’. This was a clear attempt to halt the decay in street life where once there existed a vibrant ‘high street’ environment. The approach offered multiple opportunities for viewing into the new facilities: literally a shopfront for the centres wares. In addition, using the existing garden wall as datum, the practical development of the proposal provided a mechanism for a heirachy of facilities to emerge - below, on, in and above the wall. This was a very well concluded proposal - well scaled, refined and responsive to both programme and site.


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