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Preview: Dan Cruickshank at South Shields Customs House



Dan Cruickshank
South Shields Customs House
Saturday 8th July 2017

Writer and television presenter Dan Cruickshank will give a potted history on 5,000 years of architecture in a talk at The Customs House this weekend.

Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank
The architectural historian will explore some of the world’s most inspirational and characterful buildings, from the ancient Egyptian pyramids to the soaring skyscrapers of Manhattan.

His selection – based on his book, A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings – includes buildings that represent key pioneering moments in architectural history, such as the Pantheon in Rome and the Taj Mahal in Agra.

He also presents less obvious, more surprising structures.

Mr Cruickshank, who is a regular presenter on the BBC, said: “My talk touches on buildings around the world stretching back 5,000 years and into the 21st century. It will offer a history of architecture, touching on how mankind builds and on the message buildings can carry and on their varied meanings and function – shelter, defence, conquest, trade, the expressions of pride and identity, poetic monuments to faith, explanations of the mysteries of life, death and afterlife.

“This is a big story because any history of architecture is a history of the world, embracing art, science, technology, economics and politics. And architecture is all-important in our lives – we all have to live with it – it defines our physical world whether we like it or not. It is too important to be left to the building professionals and politicians. The better informed we are, the better able we will be to engage in a productive debate about the architectural world we inhabit, about what to conserve and how new buildings should be designed.

“Although the scope of the talk is broad – in time and space – and the examples discussed come from around the world the issues raised are applicable on the most local scale. Indeed the buildings of South Tyneside have significant lessons to teach and offer much to reflect upon.”

Dan Cruickshank’s verdict on some of South Tyneside’s architectural marvels:

The Customs House is a fine mid-19thcentury commercial building of classical design that was calculated to express the virtues of strength and solidity. The historic styles of architect and ornament were, at the time, seen as a vital attribute of modern design. The building also tells a story about the ways in which old buildings can make a positive contribution to the modern age. The building became redundant but was saved and adapted to serve a productive new use, giving a sense of continuity with the past and adding delight to our daily lives.

South Shields Town Hall – a splendid classical building completed in 1910 yet rooted in the English Baroque traditions of the early 18th century - is another example of the way in which history was – in the past – used to ennoble and dignify our lives, and to carry a message about the virtues of a democratic society with its ideals rooted in the world of ancient Greece.

Souter Lighthouse If 1871 is a wonderful monument to inspired, 19th century engineered design. It was pioneering – the first lighthouse to be purpose built to incorporate electricity – but it’s also a reminder of the fact that is was heroic Victorian engineers like James Douglass who built the modern world.

Arbela Roman Fort raises fascinating issues. The recreation of lost buildings has never been more topical, given the shocking destruction we have seen during the last two years in the Middle East – notably at the 2,000 year old city of Palmyra in Syria and at Nimrud and Mosul in Iraq. Can the dead be brought back to life, can reconstructions have purpose and meaning? Arbela suggests very forcefully that they can, that they can help us understand the past, inspire, educate and delight. And, in uncanny fashion, it is known that a merchant from Palmyra operated at Arbela and it’s likely that mercenaries from Mesopotamia – now Iraq – were based there. It is a most relevant example when discussing the plight of these culturally rich nations.

The Word, National Centre for the Written Word, reveals the potential – and the challenges – offered by contemporary design. It no doubt fulfils its function well – is fit for purpose, perhaps indeed in its boldness offers a sense of local pride and identity. But does it feel distinct and of the place? Does it make a contribution to the established local architectural character? Perhaps the Word is no more or no less alien than the Town Hall was when it was completed over 100 years ago. Lots to discuss.

Dan Cruickshank: A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings starts at 7.30pm on Saturday, July 8, at The Customs House, Mill Dam, South Shields.
Tickets, priced £14 or £12 for Friends of the Customs House, are available from the box office on (0191) 454 1234 or online at

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