Having established himself as a TV personality with his shows Build A New Life and The Home Show, Sunderland supporter George Clarke is looking to bring his architectural talents back to Wearside and help regenerate the city. With another season of Premiership football on the horizon, Andrew Dipper caught up with George to talk about his love for Sunderland AFC, his passion for architecture and the future of the city of Sunderland.
VITALSUNDERLAND: Hi George, was it always your ambition to become an architect?
GC: Yeah, definitely. First and foremost I wanted to be a Sunderland footballer, but that was never going to happen. When I realised I wasn`t good enough, architecture was a close second. I went to my first game when I was 11, and just got obsessed with the club from then on. I went every fortnight to the old ground, Roker Park and it was brilliant. But architecture was always something I`d really wanted to do, really. I can just remember when I first started comprehensive school, I was thinking ‘what do I want to be?` and when I thought about buildings and all the drawings I used to do, I realised I want to be an architect. My granddad bought me some books on architecture from a Sunderland library book sale – I think he saw that I had an interest in buildings – and after that I never looked back. It was brilliant, I was quite focussed then. The comprehensive school realised that was what I wanted to do and they arranged some work experience to a local architect`s place, when I was like 14/15. I didn`t want to do anything else.
VITALSUNDERLAND: You mentioned Roker Park, can you remember your first game?
GC: I can. I can`t remember what the score was – I think we got beat and I`ve blocked out the memory – but I think it was against Norwich at home. I was in the Clock Stand, because that was more of a family area, and my Uncle Johnny took me to my first match, and he took me to every game after that. My Nana lived up at Fulwell, and I used to have my dinner there and then walk up to the ground with Johnny. I can`t remember the exact date of the game, but it was the end of October in 1985. It was the year we`d been relegated down to the old division two, after we`d lost in the Milk Cup final. It was when Lawrie McMenemy started as manager – the terrible years. It was painful, man. From 1985 to 1987, it was desperate. When we went down to the third division in 1987, which was tragic, it was just starting to turn around under Denis Smith. As bad as the recent 19 and 15 point seasons were, it was much worse. We had some alright players at the time as well – Eric Gates, George Burley, people who are now decent managers, or commentators, were all good players for us at the time. McMenemy was just shocking though; I think he was the highest paid manager in Britain at the time and he was just terrible. It was the worst two years of football I`ve watched. Though relegation to the third division was terrible, it kick-started the generation of football that I loved. We had Gabbiadini and Gates – it was lower league football but it was exciting. I think for me, at that time, in 1987 when Denis Smith took over, I was thirteen and I was playing loads of football for Sunday league teams and stuff like that, and it only cost you £1.50 to get into Roker Park. It was great, and after watching McMenemy for two years, which was a terrible introduction to live football, the Denis Smith years and the Gabbiadini and Gates years were great, really.
VITALSUNDERLAND: So would you say that era is your lasting memory as a Sunderland fan?
GC: I`ve got loads of lasting memories of Sunderland, much more recent. The Kevin Phillips days stick out, obviously, and watching us play at Wembley in 1992 against Liverpool. To be honest, that feels like five minutes ago to me, but it was nearly 20 years ago since I travelled down from Sunderland for that game. I think getting to the FA Cup final was a huge one, it was brilliant. It was just a great run. I think one of the games that sticks in my head more than any was against Chelsea in the cup run. It was one of the first times I`d travelled to a proper away game – we drew 1-1 in the first leg and Johnny Byrne was scoring like you`d never believe in the cup. He was scoring in every round. Then we brought them up to Roker Park and we never thought we`d beat them, but we beat them 2-1. It was the atmosphere that sticks in my head from that game – there were 36,000 I think in Roker Park, it was packed. You couldn`t get one more person in that ground; it was just an amazing game. I thought the stand was going to collapse, to be honest, everyone just went mad. I remember everybody beeping their horns around the streets of Sunderland: you would have thought we`d won the FA Cup that night. Obviously we then got to the final against Liverpool and got whipped. Ian Rush demolished us that day. But there have been some great memories – even Roy Keane recently getting us promoted in that first season. That was a hell of a season, we were all thinking of survival that year. To win the championship, go up and stay up was brilliant. Keane, for that period of time, was great for us. It was a shame when it got to the end, but he was fantastic. I just think he wasn`t very good at man management, to be perfectly honest. He was a clever footballer, and probably a clever tactician, but he`s got some funny views.
VITALSUNDERLAND: Obviously you live in London now, was it difficult moving from the North-East?
GC: I moved down to London at the second stage of my studies, because I did my first degree at Newcastle. To be an architect you have to do a post-graduate degree, so I came to London for that. It was tricky at first – it took a while to get used to the city – but it was the right thing to do. I`d been in the North-East all my life, and I`d been offered a really good job down here so I came down and worked for a practice down in London: I worked for Terry Farrell and Partners. Terry`s from the North-East too, actually. Then I met my girlfriend, and now I`ve got kids down here. For my wife and kids, London is their home. I love London, to be honest. I know there are a lot of people in the North-East find London quite tough and don`t want to live there, but I find it an amazing city for all the galleries, and the architecture, all the stuff I love. London has become my new home, but there`s nothing like coming back to Sunderland. That`s where my heart is; my family all still live within walking distance from the Stadium of Light. I`m coming back up in a couple of weeks for business, getting involved with some architectural projects up there, and some property development. I`m doing some joint ventures with some guys up there, and hopefully getting some planning permission through for some really interesting schemes so I can start making my mark at home.
VITALSUNDERLAND: Have you been involved in architectural projects in Sunderland before?
GC: When I was training to be an architect when I was 16/18, I worked for a little practice in Washington called David Johnson Architect. Funnily enough, I worked on the old Roker Park. I started working there in 1990, and obviously after the Bradford Fire, and then Hillsborough, all the new laws came in with regards to terracing. We didn`t put seats in, but we took all the barriers out, putting in new toilets, putting new emergency staircases in. That was one of my first jobs, working on Roker Park, which was unbelievable really. It doesn`t sound glamorous but I was working on the drawings for the old toilet blocks, and the stair cases. Even back then there was talk of a new stadium – Bob Murray was talking about it back in 1990 – I remember working a long weekend putting together a scheme to build a new Roker Park on the old shipyard site, further up the river. Those drawings will still be around in David Johnson`s office, I would have thought, but it was quite amazing getting involved in stadium design after being so in love with the club. It was fantastic. I haven`t build anything up there since I`ve had my own practice [clarke:desai] but there certainly will be in the next couple of years, there`s no doubt about that.
VITALSUNDERLAND: The VAUX site has been empty for around 10 years now. You mentioned becoming more involved in the development of Sunderland as a city, what would you suggest with regards to the site?
GC: First of all, I`d build some really affordable residential. That would be great, getting some fantastic houses, or apartments overlooking the river. It`s such an important site; I think it needs to be mixed use. I think some commercial could be on there, maybe some hotels. There`s not many good hotels in Sunderland and, with fans travelling from all over the country to see the club, they need somewhere to stay. For me, it would be an iconic site; something that would really jump out on the Sunderland landscape. It would be like an urban design challenge, trying to stitch that part of the city back to the city centre. Or you could have just the most amazing public building on that site. In Gateshead they have The Sage, and I think Sunderland needs something like that. Not like the Newcastle arena, that`s just a big ugly shed, but The Sage and The Baltic – both are which are Gateshead projects – are great examples. I think the city needs an amazing public building, with a bit of mixed use. For example, a fantastic auditorium, or an opera house; something that was an amazing civic, building where great music or public events could happen; something that was really cultural and starts to put Sunderland on the map. I`ve never been asked this question before but, to cut to the chase, I`d suggest something really iconic, beautiful and something that would make a huge cultural impact on the city, either through music, performance or art. You just have to look at the Stadium of Light, which was used for the huge Take That and Oasis gigs, and it`s really, to be honest, the only building in the whole city that puts Sunderland on the map. That`s not right. You look at other cities around Britain, including Newcastle – I say that with kind of gritted teeth – have amazing cultural things going on. I think Tesco building a shopping centre on the VAUX site is a complete waste of time. You can build Tesco`s anywhere. I`ve heard rumours that a legal court is to be built there, which is also a waste of time. Sunderland doesn`t want to be proud of having a fantastic court, it makes it sound like a criminal city. Sunderland`s an incredibly friendly, open city and everyone I speak to in London about Sunderland always say, “The people in the North-East – Sunderland in particular – are friendly, fantastic people.” So why can`t the people have an amazing building? Why can`t there be a piece of architecture there that plays to the strengths of the people that we have in the area? There`s something about Sunderland people, we`re so proud of being born in Sunderland, and I think there needs to be a big, beautiful public building on that site that we can all be proud of, that promotes culture and art and the city. I hate criticising my home town, but Sunderland hasn`t created the things it needs to be able to sell itself as an amazing city. I`m actually involved with other land on that side of the river – not the Tesco site – that I`d like to redesign to try and link the Stadium of Light back to the city – link those strips of land back to the main heart of the city. I`m not going to go into detail about what it is, but I`m already looking at schemes and projects now to try and help promote the city. If you stand on the VAUX site, it is probably the most fantastic site in all of Sunderland. It`s the heart of Sunderland. If you look one way, you`ve got the bridge, another way you`ve got the old shipyard and building sites, you`ve got the Stadium of Light ahead of you, the city royal behind you. It`s probably the most important strip in the whole city, and the fact it`s been sat there doing nothing for ten years is an absolute disgrace. It`s shocking, to be honest. But I think there`s a real opportunity, along that strip of river, to put Sunderland on the map and for Sunderland to, at least, say that they had a city to be proud of.
VITALSUNDERLAND: You`ve mentioned you`re a big Sunderland fan, what did you think of this season?
GC: Well, I think we`ve had a turbulent few years, really, with Keane going. Sbragia came in and, in fairness, did a very good job with the level of experience he had. You could tell he didn`t even want the job, but he loved the club and wanted to help. But we`ve got Steve Bruce in now; we can`t continue being one of those teams that are hanging around the bottom of the Premiership, looking over our shoulders all the time. I think Niall Quinn is the person who has turned the club around, he deserves all the recognition you could possibly imagine. He`s the one who`s made it happen. If Bob Murray was still there, and we were under the old ownership – there`s no way we`d be a Premiership club. Quinn came in quickly, we done a brilliant job to get promoted in that first year, but last season wasn`t good enough. We should have done so much better. But Quinn`s got a new owner of the club; we`ve got one of the best English managers around with Bruce, and I think this season has been fantastic. In the past we`ve had players like Whitehead, but they`re never going to push the club on. When Keane was here I don`t think he spent the money as wisely as he should have, but hopefully Bruce will be the man. What we need from Bruce is longevity, we don`t want him staying for a year and leaving. You want him to stay for five or six years, and really build up the club. That`s the faith you`ve got to put in him. He`s got the finances there, and I think he`s the right person to do it. He`s got a great standing, he`s fantastic at bringing on average players, and he`s tremendous at picking out good buys in the market. The signings of Bent, Campbell and Da Silva have been fantastic. I think from a footballing point of view, the city is starting to look brilliant. As I mentioned before though, I think from an architectural point of view it needs a big kick up the backside.
VITALSUNDERLAND: Finally, if you have any tips on how to restore the VitalSunderland office, what would they be?
GC: Well in most of my Home Show projects I paint everything white, but you`d have to paint everything red and white. Get the pots of paint out and make it look beautiful. Just like the Stadium of Light, you want it to be as light and bright as possible.
VITALSUNDERLAND: I`ll get on to that. Thanks George.
GC: Cheers mate, take care.