Hobby Room: Spatial and Social Infrastructures for Collective Urban Space

James Longfield

Published in MONU #27 Small Urbanism. October 2017

Byker's hobby rooms are a form of small urbanism par-excellence, domestic in scale - with most the size of a single bedroom - nevertheless they were intended to play a key social role in an integrated urban redevelopment strategy.

The Byker redevelopment in Newcastle upon Tyne where these hobby rooms were realised was designed by Anglo-Swedish architect Ralph Erskine with a team of locally situated architects during the 1970s. One of the central aims of the redevelopment design that the architects pursued was the retention of the social ties of a close-knit working class community. This intention drove the creation of what Erskine termed an ‘integrated environment’ - informed by his experiments with designs for a self-sufficient Arctic town and fascination with mediaeval Swedish towns - that saw the retention of existing social buildings of particular import, and the incorporation new civic space.

A unique feature of the redevelopment was the provision of a series of small hobby rooms as a new site for civic engagement. Designed as an interpretation of the domestic spaces of informal hobby activity - sheds, garages and spare rooms - it is in part due to their sheer number - between 66-88 in an area of 2010 homes - that they were able to take on an urban role spatially and socially, generating a critical mass that provided them with the potential to break loose of the domestic sphere of their origins.

This paper explores the origins of the hobby rooms, and traces their subsequent use, neglect dereliction, and some recent refurbishment, to draw out lessons for similar micro public space intended for social and collective activity. My exploration interweaves a cultural history of these spaces with reportage of my own direct engagement with them as a resident of Byker realising a set of furniture scale designs and interventions that aim to unpick the underlying issues of their use and speculate on a potential future.

Though hobby space is common within the private domestic sphere, the realisation of hobby rooms in Byker as public space is a unique phenomenon in the U.K. and was informed by both Erskine’s experience of Swedish co-operatively managed space - a result of approaches to housing design and development in Sweden the in the early and mid Twentieth Century - and a more local tradition of hobby activity prevalent amongst the British working classes in industrial cities.

In this paper I argue that a key issue underpinning their present lack of use extends not from the diminished popularity of hobby-type pursuits, but rather from the ambiguity of the social model governing and structuring their use that resulted from the intermingling of the two ideas that influenced Erskine. I conclude with the proposition that equal emphasis needs to be given to the civic institutions and forms of social infrastructure that underpin the use of communal public space as to the physical form of such space, and that a socially embedded role for the architect can serve to support this development of these two aspects in conjunction.