Friday, 18 March 2011

Trying to Say Nice Things About Leeds

A Walk around Holbeck

The centre of Leeds initially induced a kind of horror in me – a Manchester without the civic pride or the pop and radical history, an oversized Reading with a chip on its shoulder, a 'bosses city' of lawyers and stockbrokers, a city where hep property developers couldn't even invoke pop precedent for their Brazilifications of council estates (having lamentably ignored my slogan suggestion – 'Saxton – at Home You'll Feel Like A Tourist!'). There's little doubt that there's more to it than that, obviously. There's a lot here to like, if you can duck down into the ring road away from the regen and the 'Leeds look' – the Arcades, several rudely Ruskinian warehouses, Cuthbert Brodrick's astonishing town hall, Chamberlin Powell and Bon's University buildings; and it's also the last major city in the UK to have had a City Architect, John Thorp, who retired last year. He was not, however, replaced.

I must admit I was initially hard pressed to see how a city which had made so many enormous architectural blunders as Leeds, with its numerous wobbly roofed, terracotta-clad towers, could have passed through the inquiring eye of a Civic watchdog of some sort, except on the most superficial level – the use of red brick, terracotta and trespa to keep it 'in keeping'. However! The recently completed Granary Wharf scheme in Holbeck won a few architectural awards, and was widely recognised as some sort of valediction for Thorp on the eve of his retirement, so on a recent visit to the city the first thing I wanted to do was have a look.

Holbeck is at the back of the train station, reached by a labyrinthine route down steps, across canals and under arches. On the way, you see the work of Leeds' major 20th and 21st century architects, and it is not especially flattering. Here's John Poulson, whose one decent building, the Leeds International Pool, was recently flattened.

Lots of what at first seem to be the worst recent Leeds buildings turn out to be reclads and extensions of its worst 1960s towers. If there's a lesson in this aside from 'you can't polish a turd', it's that no convincing aesthetic of retrofitting has yet emerged, aside from cladding either in 'local materials' or brightly coloured plastic, and most heinous of all, adding on top the jolly regen wavy roof that Joel Anderson christened the 'Blair hat'. Surely this tower awaits both, although nobody will lament it when it occurs.

Then there's Carey Jones, who have stamped their, hmm, 'identity' on the city, and much of the rest of the North, in a mostly lamentable fashion, especially through the unforgivable Sky Plaza for Unite – though this car park is very far from their worst, being as aggressive and inhuman as the function necessitates. It's also a better bit of townscape than the yawning surface car park next to it. Leeds – 'Motorway City of the 70s' (!) is almost as much a motorcity as Birmingham, and its that hostility to pedestrians (outside the ring road) that helps make it so obnoxious. The best thing about the car park is this frankly unexpected Bugsy Malone ground floor. Marvellous.

And finally Aedas, a firm that began in Huddersfield before eventually becoming an Anglo-Chinese behemoth. Aside from the terracotta, it's hard to work out what makes their work specifically Northern – and maybe a Modernist argument could be made for this. It's an International Style, so why shouldn't Leeds look like a lower-rise, lower-density Hong Kong? Because it's boring, mainly. Bridgewater Place – 'the Dalek', as it is known – is inescapable here. It does have a bit of a futurist dash as a tower, a silvery tube of steel and glass – it'll be the kitsch of the 2020s or 2030s, and I suspect when its time comes, as it will, we'll all be trying to save it - but around the back the way it extends itself grimly along the street is particularly dispiriting.

There's nothing in principle wrong with Leeds' encouragement of towers, nothing at all – when cities impose height limits it merely results in lumpen, squished office blocks, and the more enlightened contextualist will note that Leeds has a tower tradition, from the Town Hall to the Tower Works. The latter, a series of three Italianate chimneys for a steel pin factory, is exactly equidistant from Bridgewater Place and Granary Wharf. It's a nice example of the Victorian need to accompany the terrifyingly new with the familiar and antiquarian, a 'future shock absorber', in Kodwo Eshun's invaluable phrase – although the sheer surrealism of these games of make-believe are part of what make them enjoyable.

Top Loiner Alan Bennett once suggested that, had Leeds conserved rather than demolished so much of its Victorian heritage, it might have become a tourist destination, like the Italian Renaissance towns which its architects used as a copybook. That's a little improbable – partly, because what is so much fun about the likes of Tower Works is the sheer coarseness, the references to elegant precedent necessarily being executed in rough red brick, and detailed by proletarians, not craftsmen, like these 'Brickwork' boys below. And if you want a Northern Industrial Renaissance city mostly undamaged by planners, it's only ten minutes on the train to Bradford. Not many tourists there.

The first interesting thing about Granary Wharf is that it has somehow managed to avoid certain contemporary clichés despite being designed by the very architects responsible for perpetrating them elsewhere. The bridge that leads to it, for instance, is not a white-painted Calatravan skeleton or a Wilkinsonian arch, but a Corten steel construction of sombre elegance. There's more of that to come.

The main architects of Granary Wharf are Carey Jones themselves, but everyone I spoke to in Leeds put its success down to John Thorp's direct involvement and an unusually enlightened developer. Certainly you can see the strictures of the Civic Architect here – a palette of brown Corten steel balconies and dark brick infill (into the usual concrete frame, obviously), and a form apparently dictated by an industrial building formerly on the site; but it's the absence of the Blair Hats and the bloody terracotta which are especially welcome.

The tower is very impressive – the irregular windows don't make a fuss of themselves, the cylinder is eye-catching, even -yech- 'iconic', if we must – without being egotistically Fosterian or cheaply Aedasish. So here, given that we have exactly the same architects – Messrs Carey Jones – and the same clients, in principle – these are luxury City Centre Apartments, in a city with plenty of empty new flats - the main question is: what went right? This is not a facetious question. Up the road is Carey Jones ' horrendously shoddy and drab Clarence Dock, which has bits falling off it already. But here, even the detailing is good, for God's sake. You could almost be in a country which took its architecture seriously.

The conclusion is partly depressing and partly encouraging. In the latter case, well – the City Architect triumphs, hurrah! - imposing coherence, urban order and proper design upon some usually pretty shoddy persons and places. This is especially pleasing. Recently Nick Johnson of Urban Splash answered a question at a RIBA event about whether or not Municipal Architects should return, thusly: 'I would no more trust a council architect to design me a house than a council hairdresser to cut my hair'. Leaving aside the chutzpah of saying this when you've bought up and sold as luxury apartments no less than four council estates, one of them in Leeds, this scheme is a fine rejoinder. And maybe, just maybe, the new City Architects could be designing the council housing that the 5 million people on the waiting list are waiting for. The other conclusion, which it would seem is a more popular one among architects, is that architecture is only as good as its developers, and hence we should be wishing for more enlightened property speculators to save us all.

After Granary Wharf, this bit of Holbeck need not detain us further, as it's mostly full of the 'Leeds Look'. This, an 80s movement to use local materials, pitched roofs and classical tripartite divisions in (mostly) spec office blocks, is in fact a great example of how design control can't stop godawful design by itself. Here, it means lots of business park buildings and lots of car parks. Hence, the problem with the area – which markets itself, take note, as 'Holbeck Urban Village' – is much more apparent. There's some good individual buildings, sure, but as planning the place is awful. The pedestrian faces innumerable nasty subtopian obstacles, like this delightful bit of counterintuitive barbed wire.

The real problem is twofold. Partly there's the sheer obstructiveness to pedestrians, with what are already baffling even by English standards lines of movement made worse by plenty of impassable surface car parks – three times I had to clamber over fences just to get from A to B, and I'm really not an athletic sort. Also, this is Leeds' industrial heartland, and the recent past, pre-City Centre Living, clearly still zoned it as industrial. There's nothing wrong with that, if we take – and why not? - the line, common to both Ian Nairn and Jane Jacobs, that the zoning out of industry has a deleterious effect on cities. But industry in the late 20th century meant the car, and more than that, it meant the lorry; and that means virtually no chance for density or urban coherence. So there's a lot of typically exurban 80s-90s industry/post-industry around, from light factory units to strip malls and car showrooms, which sit strangely with derelict mills here and mills-as-apartments-or-offices there.

So the light industrial units above are immediately facing...this.

OK, I'll concede - so here Leeds has something that neither Manchester nor Sheffield nor Bradford can match – the truly unbelievable Temple Works, a flax mill designed as an Egyptian Temple. In lesser hands this could be merely showy fluff, as those familiar with the Tobacco Factory, Mornington Crescent will know. Temple Works is an epoch away from that sort of Hollywood Egyptian. Here, at an earlier stage of the industrial revolution, Walter Benjamin's claim that the future carries with it the archaic can be seen at its most uncanny, and most physically arresting. It is all done with total conviction; the grey stone, the strong, aggressive detail, the sense of looming, compacted power. The birth of civilisation as the aesthetic for the birth of industrial civilisation, and both hungry for sacrifice. As a place to work in it must have been terrifying.

This overwhelming impression is from only part of the building – the roof recently collapsed, and it's currently undergoing emergency repairs. There's parts of it missing anyway - Temple Works originally had a obelisk chimney and a grass roof on which sheep were encouraged to graze: neither, sadly is there any more. There are plenty of other factories, though, with grass growing out of them, if you venture just a little bit further from the waterside regen part of the 'Urban Village'. Smashed windows and rot awaiting the next property boom. This area was the city's red light district for years, and just round the back of the City Centre Apartments is one of Leeds' poorest areas.

There's plenty of remains from the last boom along the Aire. BREAM 'Very Good'! Save 30% of Your Occupational Costs! There's a real desperation about the signs along here, with the trespa-as-stone delight of No 1 Leeds being especially keen...

Then you end up at a gigantic, alarmingly dense and domineering Carey Jones thing, then the centre. This one is in the real 21st Century Leeds vernacular, with the full vocabulary of bulk ineptly offset by metal balconies and terracotta cladding, which in this case apparently is a reclad of the local Post Office HQ. After making my way past it, I turn round to see what it looks like from the 'front'. I've been here before, and the wasteland from two years ago remains unfilled.


  1. Owen,
    Great post but not sure why you should want to be nice to Leeds. It deserves a good kicking. If you think Bristol is complacent (which it is) then Leeds is positively oozing self satisfaction. And Simon Jenkins thinks it is the model for the future. John Thorp is a good guy but basically has been sidelined whilst the Economic Development spivs have taken the lead. It is very much the same as in Coventry re Jerde, Birmingham, Cardiff Bay (my next blog)etc, etc. Architects and planners don't really get a look in - Granary Wharf the exception to the rule.

  2. really enjoyed reading these articles. Came across them when looking for the second part of an article on The Fall circa Dragnet. Are you the same author?

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