The announcement that the National Glass Centre in Sunderland is to be mothballed because of construction defects is a blow to the region. The centre was opened in 1998 by the then Prince Charles no less and attracts more than 230,000 visitors a year. But a study by GSS architecture warned that work was required to prevent further corrosion and “partial collapse” of rusted metalwork.
I have been involved with the restoration and maintenance of a modern concrete structure in Peterlee – the Apollo Pavilion – and know that they require considerable maintenance – to make sure that the metal supports do not corrode and become unstable. Put simply modern buildings are expensive to maintain. Architects do not always appreciate this. It is ironic that not far from the Glass Centre stands St Peter’s church which is more or less intact after over a thousand years.
What ever the issues questions have to be asked as to why a building erected less than thirty years ago is in such a bad state now. There is the question of compensation if the builders have not gone bust by now. But the immediate issue is what should happen to the centre now.
The significance of glass making in Sunderland
People do not always appreciate how significant glass and glass making is for Sunderland. Benedict Biscop brought glass makers and stone masons from France to help construct his twin churches of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow in 674AD They were keen on making ties with Europe then. After this time glass making became established in Sunderland.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth century Sunderland became a major industrial centre. Most people know about the ship building, but less well-known is the fact that twenty glass making companies operated as well. Sunderland was an important centre for the industry.
Glass making is an important part of Sunderland’s cultural heritage and should be celebrated. In fact, strangely enough, the closure has come at an opportune time.
Readers are aware that regional government is coming to the North East. There is a popular assumption that Newcastle is the natural centre and that is where the new authority will be run from. Jamie Driscoll, the current mayor of North of Tyne certainly seems to think so. But people seem unaware about the progress Sunderland has made in recent years. Ambitious plans for a new film studio have been announced which it is hoped will start this year and could create up to 8000 jobs. The North East is no longer an appendage of Newcastle. Sunderland and County Durham will now be big players.
Tourism is now becoming a bigger industry in the North East. People have always assumed that this will be centred on Durham, Newcastle and Northumberland. Now Sunderland is staking a claim to be a cultural centre with a more modern emphasis.
The Glass Centre
This is where the Glass Centre comes in. This should be a bigger attraction than it now is. The old Vaux site in the centre of Sunderland is now being developed, and the first thing which strikes you about the new City Hall is its minimalist décor and acres of glass. The idea, I believe is that there is no need for pictures and other decorations when you have magnificent views of the river, Stadium of Light and the city. But to me it celebrates glass.
What better place to put a new glass centre than in the middle of the city in an area which is going to exhibit vast amounts of glass? It would be right next to the new railway station and easy for people to get to.
Yes, there is the small matter of funds. The Lottery Fund stumped up for the other one. But if levelling up means anything it is exactly the sort of project they should contribute to. Not just to level up the country but the North East as well.