The people of Northern England believe in angels—or at least in the Angel of the North, which appeared on a hillside near Newcastle in 1998. Standing 65 feet high, with a wingspan wider than that of a Boeing 757, it is the largest sculpture in Britain and already one of the most famous. Locals were initially skeptical, complaining that the work, by British sculptor Antony Gormley, was big and ugly, and worrying that it would interfere with TV reception. But the Angel quickly won over the public to become a symbol of the region—and its ambition to be a capital of the arts.
Though it's one of the poorest parts of the United Kingdom, the Newcastle area is attempting to redefine itself by replacing the largely vanished coal-mining and shipbuilding industries with an economy based on culture and tourism. This summer, the Baltic, a $72 million contemporary art gallery, opened in an abandoned flour warehouse in Gateshead, Newcastle's sister city just across the river Tyne. A few hundred yards away, the Sage Gateshead, a music center designed by Lord Norman Foster, is scheduled to debut in 2004. Public art projects, the Angel among them, are transforming the landscape. And since September 2001, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian walkway designed by London architects Wilkinson Eyre, has arched gracefully over the Tyne, pivoting upward to let boats pass underneath. In October it was awarded the Stirling Prize, Britain's top architectural honor.
"Art and architecture can feed people with an optimism and a pride that are definitely needed here," says Sune Nordgren, the Baltic's director, who arrived from Sweden in 1998. "The last thirty years in Europe have shown that art can actually generate business and interest in an area."
Indeed, Newcastle is taking its cue from such architecture capitals as Rotterdam, Berlin, and Bilbao. "The Guggenheim Effect" is how Neil Rami, chief executive of the nonprofit Newcastle-Gateshead Initiative, describes the ongoing revitalization. Like Bilbao before it, Newcastle is a working-class, down-at-the-heels town pinning its fortunes on a curvaceous, metal-clad cultural center designed by a famous architect (Foster in this case, Frank Gehry in Bilbao's). But do nifty buildings and public art constitute a surefire remedy for the post-industrial blues?
I worked in Newcastle in 1994. The city was depressing: the decline of its traditional industries had robbed the region of its identity. Coals really are taken to Newcastle these days, because all the pits have shut down. Tyneside—the collective name used for Newcastle, Gateshead, and the surrounding area—generates the lowest per capita income in the United Kingdom, graduates the highest proportion of high school students who fail the national exams, and has the worst health record. It also has the third-greatest concentration of landmarked buildings in the country, after Bath and London, but when I was there its architectural heritage was falling apart. Trees grew out of the upper floors of Georgian town houses in the city center.
Today, the atmosphere is startlingly different. Ugly 1970's high-rise blocks are being torn down. Those Georgian buildings have been restored, their upper floors converted into luxury apartments. The once-decrepit Newcastle quayside has been gentrified; the waterfront is dotted with sculptures, a slew of bistros and wine bars, and a trendy Malmaison Hotel that's packed on weekends with visitors enjoying the town's famously raucous nightlife. ("Right now Newcastle is very much the party city of the U.K.," says the hotel's general manager, Nick Halliday.)