Viewpoint: Jonathan Hunter

June 1, 2020

As the UK went under lockdown, it was announced that GSSArchitecture (GSS) had been appointed by Newcastle University to develop the site masterplan for the Campus for Ageing and Vitality – a new mixed-use development on the former Newcastle General Hospital site in the city’s west end. Here, project partner Jonathan Hunter reflects on the task ahead

Tell me a bit about your career and what attracted you to GSS?

I spent a year at GSS while studying architecture and when I qualified in 2001, I successfully applied for a role at the Midlands office. I worked my way up and, in 2009, I was asked to run the new Harrogate office, which we opened on the back of projects and relationships we’d developed in the North East. Our work and relationships continued to grow in the North East and so four years ago, we opened an office at Newcastle’s Hoult’s Yard.
I now divide my week between Harrogate and Newcastle.

How has the practice developed in the 19 years you’ve been there, and how would you describe its ethos?

GSS has been around for more than 140 years and was originally established in the Midlands area. The practice was fairly conservative until the 1980s when it started doing more work in the education sector. During my time at GSS, the practice has expanded nationally. It consolidated its two offices in the Midlands and has opened offices in Milton Keynes, Harrogate and Newcastle.

Our primary strength is our staff. They’re at the heart of everything we do and without the team we’ve built up across the regions, our practice would be nothing at all.

The practice was recently appointed to develop the site masterplan for the Campus for Ageing and Vitality (CAV), a new build, mixed-use urban development located in the centre of Newcastle. What can you tell me about the project?

It is the redevelopment of the former General Hospital site on Westgate Road in Newcastle. Newcastle University recently purchased the land and already has a presence there with research and academic buildings. We’ve been asked to develop a masterplan, key to which will be implementing ways to make people’s later life experience more enjoyable in terms of their health, wealth and wellbeing. We live in a society where most of us can expect to be living much longer.

This development will provide an internationally renowned test bed for innovation, implementation and evaluation of new technologies and lifestyle approaches for the older person. It is about learning from best practice around the world and building on those to drive forward innovative ideas. The vision is to place Newcastle and the North of Tyne region at the forefront of UK and international innovation in healthy ageing.

Apart from Newcastle University, which other partners are involved?

There are several partners involved, including Newcastle University, Newcastle City Council, Newcastle upon Tyne NHS Foundation Trust and Cumbria Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust. The CAV site will be a collaboration between partners and crucial will be aligning the strategic aims and objectives.

Previous plans to develop the former Newcastle General site have not come to fruition. How will GSS ensure the same fate doesn’t befall this masterplan too?

I think what’s different is the collaborative approach behind this scheme. The project has the potential to deliver real benefits for the local community and GSS has approached similar projects through extensive consultation and stakeholder engagement – and we’ll use the same process here.

We’ll take the time to understand the needs of all the interested parties – whether that’s the partners or the local community. Inevitably, we’ll find issues that are not aligned and this will require further levels of dialogue and consultation so that the parties can come together and understand how to make best of the opportunities that are on the site.

You’re obviously at a very early stage of the process. Can you give any indication about what the final site will look like?

There’s still a lot of dialogue, discussion and consultation to be had on this but I think it’s fair to say it’ll be a mixed-use site, which will include some form of multi-generational residential, research and commercial development, as well as health care provision.

GSS delivered the flagship building at Newcastle’s Helix to house the National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA) and the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD). What was the design process behind The Catalyst?

The Catalyst was an interesting project from the outset. We had two national innovation centres that were to occupy the single building, which, on the face of it, had different requirements. The first thing GSS had to do was understand how the building needed to operate.

That meant testing and challenging how the innovation centres wanted to operate. Another important aspect was making it a ‘wow’ building, which captured people’s imagination. As a Government funded project delivered outside of the capital, it really needed to make a statement and fly the flag for the Northern Powerhouse and the Northern agenda.

How will The Catalyst inform the CAV site?

We must leverage the connections, contacts and relationships we built through the development of The Catalyst. The National Innovation Centre for Ageing and VOICE (a large network of UK- based and international citizens who provide public insights to support innovations in ageing) will be key contributors to developing a detailed brief for the CAV site. We are currently engaging with NICA’s director Nic Palmarini, for example, to understand different types of technology that could be used at the CAV site.

What are the next steps for the CAV?

We will continue to develop our initial thoughts and options around how the site might break down into its various usages. This will involve substantial consultation and engagement with all stakeholders but the plan is to get to a point where an outline planning application can be submitted.


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