Dunston Staiths: Industry as Art in the Landscape of the Tyne
By Jill Payne
As part of their Newcastle trip in June, the Power and Water team walked through Riverside Park to Dunston Staiths with Dr Angela Connelly from the Jetty Project and David Fraser, industrial heritage researcher.
Does energy infrastructure have to be redundant before it can be accepted as integral to the landscape?
Dunston Staiths is an iconic window into the age when coal was king on Tyneside. Built in the 1890s and finally closed in 1980, it’s a towering wooden structure that facilitated faster coal loading onto the ships that lined the Tyne at Gateshead before hurrying their cargoes to London and other industrialising centres hungry for fuel. In 2013, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded nearly £420,000 to the Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust as part of an ongoing restoration plan for the Staiths that includes improved public access and enhanced engagement with Newcastle’s coal heritage. The funding also envisions the ‘reconnection of the Staiths with the surrounding saltmarsh and wider natural heritage’.
The Staiths, of course, has been connected to the riverscape that it looms over ever since its construction; it’s us onlookers who need to be shown how to see it that way. On the whole, energy infrastructure tends to be too large-scale and, well, industrial, for many of us to view it as anything more than non-natural and detached from nature – and quite often, nowadays, detached from people and communities too.
Dunston Staiths, now a scheduled monument and Grade II-listed building, reminds us that today’s ‘eyesore’ energy infrastructure may be tomorrow’s cultural heritage site. Some 35 years after the Staiths’ working life ended, it’s not difficult to view it as a grand addition to the public art dotting Riverside Park as it spools out from the centre of Newcastle. Here, works like Andrew McKeown’s ‘Riverside Rivets’ (2010) – giant rivets strewn alongside the path – anticipate the Staiths further upriver and remind us that people were working the riverbank long before we relaxed along it.
As energy production methods change, the redundant infrastructure of past technologies – so often super-sized and out of scale – builds up around us. The more structurally viable of these constructions can be reinterpreted to excellent effect: viz the stunning spaces of Tate Modern, formerly London’s oil-fired Bankside Power Station. Others are more challenging: the cooling towers of Richborough Power Station in Kent were demolished in 2012, although not without debate and commemoration.
As heritage technology, we can deal with energy infrastructure – celebrate it, even. If it must be demolished, there is likely to be at least some concern expressed for the loss of landmarks and historical markers. Over the years, layers of meaning can be attached to any physical presence; time and socio-cultural associations can help us to smooth over the disconnection between us and the energy structures that have sustained us. However, over and above the comfort engendered by familiarity, it seems that we may be more accepting of energy structures as integral to our communities and our landscapes once they are no longer fit for their original purpose. Are we better able to appreciate them once they are presented to us outside of their original, workaday context? What, then, does this say about our responses to the infrastructure that currently supports us – solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors – or, like fracking mechanism – may do so in the future?
More about Dr Angela Connelly’s Riverside Art Walk with the Power and Water team and David Fraser here.