Wellbeing and Mental Health Matters: nostalgic architecture

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In our regular spot where we chat about mental health and wellbeing, a few words on the places around us, and finding the good in the bad.

Hello and welcome to Wednesday, and a little spot to sit back, have a chill and think about something old, something new, something spotted, from a comfy pew. Sorry, that was dreadful…

Over on Twitter I’ve been chatting nostalgic architecture and spaces. Reminiscing about the brutalist nature of many of 70s and 80s children’s playgrounds, laughing about the first places where we worked, the physical aspects to the cities and spaces that formed our everyday worlds.

As a kid, it was customary to have concrete playgrounds. Metal slides that spiralled up into the sky, all slippy steps and long chutes that headed straight towards a cement carpet. Swings had heavy metal chains and cracked wooden benches, frames that you could bounce your feet back and forth on at high speed. Roundabouts were amazing wooden creations that gathered pace as you pushed your feet on the ground, clinging to the rail to make the thing shift. Ponderous at first, they gathered speed at such a pace you risked a broken ankle if you didn’t retract it in time.

I walk past playgrounds today, with their foam landings, short chutes and deep, soft wood chippings. Much safer. Much less likely to lose traction on the slide in the rain and zip onto the concrete carpet, ripping skin from your legs as you tore across the surface.

Our local shopping precinct had the oddest play contraption. Open ended square blocks made from the obligatory concrete, piled haphazardly on one another, with just enough dodgy angles that if you slipped climbing it, you’d be lucky to get off with a bitten tongue and bruised chin. Many limbs were broken in my youth. In my case, I only broke my front teeth, falling face down on concrete pretending to be a horse. More donkey. Not my finest moment.

I started work at 16 in a chain store selling newspapers, records and computer consoles, in a newly constructed shopping mall. It’s strange to look back and think of what a novel concept the mall was back in the mid 80s. Such an American idea, with my impression being wholly formed at that point by Tiffany videos.

There was no dancing round the aisle in my shop. Only small children, one of whom vomited all over my Formica counter as I was selling video games. I was in hell. But hell had a softer side. The centre of the mall had wide open spaces with wish fountains and myriad bushes and plants around them. Wandering through to the bus station, the place closed to the public, a very different life appeared. Birds, so many birds, emerging from the plants to drink at the fountains and play, dart about in the glass atrium, filling the space with a hidden wildness that I would stop and watch with wonder.

That landscape changed from day to night, and the wonder of it caught me as a starry-eyed teenager. It taught me to look for those hidden beauties in an overtly ugly structure. Clearly the mall management disagreed, because they stripped the fountains out and replaced them with hard tiles.

A few years in, and I found myself at the marvel known as a National Garden Festival, working 70 hours a week in what was basically a teenage snog pit. It’s hard to believe that was 30 years ago. I revisited old photographs of the place. There was so much I had forgotten. It sought to be a beacon to the future, which I guess was the thinking behind the Doctor Who themed bright yellow caterpillar-shaped monorail, the likes of which had never been witnessed before in deepest Gateshead.

The novel delights of the German Beer Garden. A butterfly house that remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been to Switzerland, which is pretty hard to beat on the beauty front.

I recall standing in the snow on a plague burial pit in Newcastle, waiting for a bus as the cold hands of the shades snaked around my ankles. Walking on a city of ghosts. Eating in the pizza restaurant that was once a public health laboratory where my Dad worked, and where he had a small incident with a test tube of botulism and a drain. A place where they would stack the bodies of unfortunates drowned in the river on a weekend. Extra olives please!

Pretending to be Anneka Rice in Newcastle’s rather titchy castle. Being thrown out of said castle for being Anneka Rice. Touching the breeze block walls of my university hall cell of a bedroom, that would imprint on my memory forever.

Physical places shape us. They can confine us; they can injure us. They can give us a bleak outlook on life. But they can also spark the imagination, a sense of what the actual flippery and just how did that get past the planners? Dunston Rocket, another 70s concrete monstrosity and backdrop to that teenage Monorail, I’m thinking about you!

We can return to places and cities, towns and fields, playgrounds and beer gardens. Remember first kisses, flirtations, achievements and heartbreaks as if they had just happened in the blink of an eye. We can laugh about visiting a swimming pool, whose outdoor segment landed you in a car showroom carpark, visible for all to see as you merrily bumbled around in your giant inflated inner tube, ass to the world.

I’m many years beyond that skinny little shop girl with the wide eyes and hideous uniform. But I still carry that sense of wonder she found, when walking through a deserted mall at night, watching those birds swooping and playing. I still carry the scars from falling from the top of that lethal slide, when my dog Brilliant Ben decided to come up with me, and shoved me over in his haste to slide down.

Now at the Castle, I see the clever graffiti around its base, the dipping shadows of the empty moat. It tells me different stories, these days. When all this lockdown is done, I’d love nothing more than to shuck of its shackles, and race once more around my city, Anneka Rice’ing once more. Just for the hell of it. The legs may be stouter, the gait may be slower, but that view from the battlements cannot be rivalled for taking your breath away. I’ll just try not to fall on the concrete!

Thanks for reading, and have fun wandering down the pathways in your own mind. May they lead you to happy places.

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