There is a lot to like about Wakefield and a lot to admire, but a visit there will also make you despair about the impotence of planning and architecture in the face of the unbridled power of over-mighty business to dictate the future of our cities. The Hepworth Gallery and thoughtful renovation such as Crown Court may give you hope but by the malls of the recently-built Trinity Walk shopping centre you sit down and weep.
Not a backwater
Few people realise that Wakefield is one of England’s dozen or so largest cities, with a population of 325,000. But this is because the West Riding of Yorkshire is about the only part of the country where cities have sensible boundaries, incorporating their natural hinterlands. So Wakefield’s population includes towns like Castleford and Pontefract and many other smaller places. Wakefield proper, the former county town and cathedral city, is really a much smaller place with a population more similar to Lincoln or Exeter. It resembles these, most especially in its lively market town feel and the strong visual relationship with the surrounding countryside. Today Wakefield has been conscripted into the ‘Leeds City Region’ which attempts to reinvent a sub-regional structure for the West Yorkshire Metropolitan County that Mrs Thatcher abolished in order to centralise power in Westminster. But Wakefield is not part of the Leeds conurbation and, like the other big West Riding towns, is very much a place with its own identity. Its skyline, dominated by the spires of its cathedral and civic buildings, is quite unlike the prospect of Leeds’ towers of Mammon.
Glad about Kirkgate renovation but pub needs to be on the 'to do' list too
A smart new station
Metro tiles return to the railways (after Homebase)
Wakefield has two stations but if you arrive at Kirkgate, close to the Hepworth gallery, you will wonder where the hell you have come to. The train service is appalling - those awful Pacers especially reserved for Northern Rail. Londoners could not conceive of how slow, rattley and uncomfortable they are, and of course they don’t have to. Kirkgate station is more desolate than you can imagine, although the impressive frontage buildings of the 1860s are , finally and commendably, being renovated. However the approach to the city centre remains utterly dismal. Westgate Station is on the main London line and has recently been rebuilt. The new station building is quite smart in a flashy way, a sleek black and glass box above a long, sinuous frontage. This faces a small green square which incorporates a jolly art work representing local landmarks stuck on poles. There is a covered bike park by the entrance (good) and (not so good) a ginormous new car park clad in shades of grey Trespa with a bit of yellow. However this looks sensitive and considered compared to what we will see later.
Well planned but poor finish
Opposite the station is Merchant Gate, a mixed use development by the English Cities Fund to a master plan by Carey Jones and landscape architects Camlin Lonsdale. It is then an example from an almost forgotten era when public agencies sought to promote the reshaping of cities along the general lines of Towards an Urban Renaissance. It half works; there is a recognisably urban structure with clear pedestrian routes and new public spaces; the scale is right and works well with surviving older buildings. What goes wrong is that the buildings are mostly executed cheaply and crudely, no doubt reflecting realities of provincial property values. Almost worse, the intended active uses of the ground floors, that shibboleth of New Urbanism, have just not materialised and anyway the units would only be suitable for the usual chain suspects. It is sad to visit Burgage Square, a reference to the ancient burgage plots of the medieval town, meant to evoke the distinctive characteristic of the adjacent urban grain. The masterplan promises it will provide ‘the setting for the public life of the new mixed-use quarter and conceived to offer a broad range of leisure opportunities akin to a river, where the backwaters and eddies provide refuge from the main flow of movement’. When I visited it was deserted apart from a few office smokers.
City sensibilities - the Civic Justice Centre
The Art House – a bit of a let down
Nearby the Civic Justice Centre, actually a spec office building by Carey Jones, is less pretentious but more successful. It is fortunate in being able to respond to a curve of the highway engineers’ new road, and to the Georgian chapel and graveyard behind. It is a modest building employing brickwork and a good rhythm of fenestration, and all the better for that. It contrasts with Allen Tod’s strident, over mannered pattern of cream and red brick for the new Art House opposite; this apparently at the behest of English Heritage. Given the number of characterful buildings in the city centre crying out for a new use, commissioning a fairly banal new building as art studios seems like a strange decision. The dignified old library on Drury Lane is being converted to studios, and nearby too is the Regency Orangery converted to a gallery.
Wakefield One – mixed feelings
The largest element of Merchant Gate is Wakefield One, new offices and library for the City Council, sitting behind the magnificent County Offices. Wakefield One is fusion architecture, taking up the more sober style and classic proportions emerging in the architecture of Austerity Britain, but unable to resist show-off Alsopesque playfulness. So below a severe palazzo cornice the fenestration arrangement is tricksy and window reveals are from a Dulux catalogue, although the cladding is from the sober end of the Trespa range. The large recessing windows at the foyer entrances display the names of all the constituent towns and districts of the borough – a nice touch, but the flat imprinted civic crest is horribly mean – even in Osborne’s Britain cities have a right to a bit of civic pride, surely. Internally the atrium is underwhelming but the building does deal effectively with the sloping site, something the private sector can’t manage any more, as we shall see.
Northern Civic – Coronation Gardens
Beside the Town Hall
Wakefield’s civic buildings, reflecting its historic county town importance, are its glory, and they make a fine ensemble along Wood Street as it gently rises up the hill. The original Town Hall is on Crown Court, a handsomely repaved and landscaped little square off the street behind the Mechanics Institute. The Mechanics is in that restrained and self confident Grecian style of the 1820s. Up the street the Town Hall of 1877 speaks eloquently of confidence and civic pride; the architect also designed the façades of London’s Savoy Hotel. Pevsner calls the style ‘free Tudor’. The front is symmetrical, but the great spectacle of the building is the asymmetrically placed tower crowned with a pyramid roof. Next to this are the severely classical Courts of 1810 with grand Greek Doric portico and pediment.
Townscape and brutalism
West Riding County Offices at the brow of Wood Street are the most flamboyant, designed in 1894 in opulent metropolitan style, which Pevsner calls ‘a very effective composition with a polygonal corner tower crowned by a dome, the third main accent of the Wakefield skyline after the Cathedral and Town Hall’. But the setting of the County Offices is a disappointment: what should be a square is a strange space, Coronation Gardens – not sure whose coronation but there is a vicious statue of Queen Victoria and a war memorial with recent paving and landscaping. Around the space are a hotch-potch of buildings: a Regency terrace, a concrete multi-storey car park (not a candidate for listing) and an interesting 60s office tower, designed by the County Architect, and, highly unusually with a Civic Society plaque on it. The tower is faceted and stone faced with banding to Bond Street and has a nicely detailed entrance; unfortunately it is less interesting towards the gardens. To the north are the hulking volumes of dumb cladding in strident colours which everywhere signify ‘tertiary college plc’, in this case Wakefield College, complete with enrolment hype.
St John's Regency
St John's North - half way between Spitalfields and Leith
Wakefield was the centre of the Yorkshire clothing trade in the C18th but was quickly overtaken by Leeds and Bradford. Behind the Courts is the Tammy (Cloth) Hall of 1777, later converted to a police station with a Peeler’s head as key stone. The city’s early prosperity shows in the grandeur of its parish church, which has the tallest spire in the county and in the many Georgian buildings often stranded by later developments. There is no Georgian quarter but good Georgian terraces can be found at South Parade and around St John’s Church of 1795. In places like Westgate the eighteenth century town with verdant countryside close at hand can still be conjured. Wakefield sits on a low hill above the broad valley of the River Calder, and that relationship and the slope of the land is important to its townscape qualities. The three main historic streets, Westgate, Northgate and Kirkgate provide a fairly clear structure to the town although the plan becomes complex and confusing where they meet at the cathedral, which still looks like the parish church it used to be until 1888.
Wakefield is fun
Westgate is the most interesting street, an eclectic mix of Georgian survivals, unpretentious 19th century market town, the splendid later Victoriana and Edwardiana of grand banks, commercial buildings, music halls and exuberant pubs like the Elephant and Castle but let down by run of the mill 20th century shopping parades. Today Westgate has a somewhat sleazy, run down feel, the grand buildings given over to vertical drinking and its follow-on vices, but the Opera House has been renovated as a theatre and the Co-operative Society is being restored, the building at least. What makes Westgate really attractive despite the hideous dominance of traffic is the view down the hill to the nearby countryside beyond, reminiscent of Exeter. The other great thing about it is the courts and alleys to either side of the street, one of the most interesting features of the city. The group of narrow tightly packed streets including Cheapside and King Street are highly distinctive and almost Genoese in their urban intensity, despite a lot of gap sites. Although run down they are full of interest, a real ‘creative quarter’ if ever I saw one. They don’t need the heavy hand of ‘regeneration’ but a conservation strategy would be sensible.
King Street creativity
Happy streets and poorly dogs
Dutch inspiration - paving and planting at the Bull Ring
A network of friendly small shopping streets north of the Cathedral leads to the irregularly shaped Bull Ring. What should be a lively market is largely given over to ‘shared space’; a half hearted effort in depressing grey paving. The Dutch who originated the concept would have done it so much better. Close by is David Adjaye’s ill-starred market building which the Council plans to demolish after only a few years, allegedly because the punters hate it. I assume Adjaye’s building is the token decent bit of architecture, the shame-faced price of planning permission for DLA’s abhorrent Trinity Walk shopping centre which expunged the old market. It is certainly striking in its grey rectitude and clearly was very carefully considered. But it is over-controlling for a market, which needs a vibrant anarchy. The open section under the grand roof works better than the enclosed market hall which, despite many empty stalls, seems claustrophobic, cluttered and confused, not big or open enough. Of course markets everywhere are struggling and it’s mostly not because of the buildings but the consequence of juggernaut retailers. But some of the most successful markets are actually the simplest, like Birmingham’s sheds. Adjaye’s building is a heroic failure.
Heroic failure – Adjaye's Market
The wrong trousers
Trinity Walk by contrast is a shameful commercial success. I have drawn comparisons between Wakefield and Exeter but sadly this does not extend to their new shopping centres. Whereas Exeter’s Princesshay intelligently provides for the retail demands of the chain stores within a context that respects the historic city centre and makes a virtue of this relationship, what you get at Trinity Walk is a complex that has just been thrust (that's the polite term) into the urban fabric. It is one huge box which capitulates to the crudest demands for standardised retail units and anodyne mallscape without any intelligence or design creativity. And because malls are only interested in their own plastic internal world and can’t do changes of level, you get the crassest relationship with the outside world – great fat backsides hanging out and forced into ridiculous combinations of cladding, alternately trying to be very jolly or not to be noticed at all – some hope of that!
Following the street layout (through gritted teeth)
With your face like a group hug ... like a world weary onion
The sad reality beyond the facade
What is so utterly depressing is that Trinity Walk represents the new norm. There is a nod to urban design nostrums – one mall is an open street and the main drag is a glazed arcade, so it’s ‘permeable’ and that makes it ok, right? Well no, actually it makes it worse as it exposes the utter banality, cheapness and poverty of architecture of these new ‘streets’. Compare and contrast with the interest of the streets around, now overpowered by this hulking brute. This is not just the fault of the architects or the planners. It represents something which we should all be very ashamed of, cowardice in the face of market bullying and our failure to shape civilised cities.
The towers originally had more integrity - see here
South of the Cathedral is The Ridings, which was the first under-cover shopping centre in Yorkshire and is a bit of a period piece with its ‘exciting’ glass lift and food court. The Ridings is tucked away behind Kirkgate and more like an arcade on two levels – in fact an extremely long arcade and a bit claustrophobic. In part it is an extension of the high street shops on Kirkgate but it does have its backside of servicing and car parks; the car park above the newish Morrisons is, strangely, designed as a brick warehouse ruin. There had been much rebuilding of the shopping streets around the Cathedral in the 30s, 50s and 60s. Most of this is very standard, although occasionally interesting like the moderne Boots, and all employ more finesse and provide much more interest than you’ll find in Trinity Walk today. What makes this area attractive is the Cathedral, sitting right there opposite M&S on Kirkgate. Internally it is not exciting (unless you like Kempe’s stained glass windows, which I do), but its close relationship to the bustling street, the spire soaring above you, provides wonderful townscape and reassuring urban continuity.
Cathedral meets pedestrianisation – Upper Kirkgate
Upper Kirkgate (near the Cathedral) is pedestrianised with a promenade of trees and seating, almost as though it was on the Mediterranean although the weather did not oblige on my visit. Lower Kirkgate is long and gets progressively more run down. It is dominated by unusual tower blocks with groups of projecting floors making the towers look precariously balanced. And of course all Wakefield’s tower blocks are now jazzed up with silly hats and jolly colours, which makes them look sad. Along the street beneath the towers are continuous serrated shops with canopies. It is a striking ensemble which would not be out of place in, say, Minsk. Opposite are the pleasing lines of a Deco cinema, but held behind netting indicating terminal stages of dereliction.
The fall of civilisation – (Lower) Kirkgate
It is a long and unrewarding walk down Kirkgate to the Hepworth Gallery. The road becomes completely traffic-dominated and hostile, but it could be redesigned to provide a broad landscaped sidewalk – not the Ramblas but you know what I mean. This could be extended to some sort of decent approach to Kirkgate station but seems unlikely to happen.
Uplifting, powerful and sober – a must see
One of the best new galleries in the country
The Hepworth Gallery is a world unto itself, beyond even the last fringes of the city centre, under the railway bridge and across the ring road gyratory, next to the River Calder. But it is the interesting world of boatyards with the drama of the water and the weir. The wider context of the area is light industrial sheds and Chipperfield’s concept seems particularly apt and honest for this location. After all the horrid shiny cladding we had seen in Wakefield, trying to make ugly-sister volumes look acceptable - FUN even - the light grey concrete geometric form of the Hepworth looks miraculous, well considered, calm and austere. It is monolithic but so carefully (and appropriately) sculpted; it rises from the water in the most dramatic way. The approach across the pedestrian bridge is a fine visual sequence, everything so carefully detailed - the external seating, the signage; minimalist but perfect. Internally the galleries provide excellent exhibition space, and the particularly fine Hepworth sculpture collection has a superb room with a window onto the weir. 5 stars.
Not a bad a start – Wakefield Waterside
Riverside character and potential
Behind the Hepworth is a vast brick-built Victorian mill complex which is evidently intended to become further exhibition and art space, The Calder. Optimistically inviting you to see ‘What’s Inside?’ the answer seems to be nothing much yet but clearly it has enormous potential for the future. Next to this is Waterfront Wakefield, ‘a dazzling new waterfront destination’. Indeed, the waterfront of the broad Calder Navigation, with its grand locks to bypass the weir and the Hepworth, is impressive. The new development, which incorporates the renovation of the stone Navigation Warehouse, is a fairly standard mix of offices and apartments in brick, render, wood and assorted cladding. It’s not bad by waterfront regeneration standards, but evidently not the destination it was hoped to be as, like Burgage Square, none of the restaurant and bar units are let. The problem here is that the complex is just too isolated from the city centre, cut off by horrendously over-engineered roads. Pedestrians don’t stand a chance. Which is a pity as this is an interesting area, including the original medieval Calder bridge with its magnificent Bridge Chapel, one of the finest of the few survivals of such medieval chapels, albeit very heavily restored. The bridge alas leads nowhere except to a light industrial estate, beyond which you can pick your way to Kirkgate Station to ponder on the wasted opportunity whilst you wait for your train. Surely there is the potential to create a new urban park here which could draw together these important elements of Wakefield’s infrastructure, history and character in an environment of which the city could be proud?
Glimmers of hope beside the Calder
Better than the Shard
From its urban centre Wakefield surveys its green contrada. You can see the stupendous, listed, Emley Moor TV tower built in 1971 and, at 330m taller than the Shard, more iconic and much more useful. The West Riding moors are glorious countryside and here below Emley Moor you find the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the grounds of Bretton Hall. The YSP is genius, the interface of grazing sheep with Hepworth, Moore, Goldsworthy etc. It has rightly been voted Museum of the Year. The discreet visitor centre by Fielden Clegg Bradley leads to the striking Underground Gallery, not exactly underground but built into the slope with great south facing windows and a green roof (with robotic lawnmowers). This stages excellent exhibitions and there are smaller converted galleries nearby. Exhibitions are also held in the sober stone chapel of 1744 – currently a thoughtful Ai Weiwei collection of Chinese chairs. A mile or so across the valley is the Longside gallery, modern barns simply converted by Bauman Lyons, a masterstroke. The walk to them is through superb countryside.
After visiting Hepworth why not see The Yorkshire Sculpture Park?
Discreet Visitor Centre
Erm, excuse me, don't you think this is really good?
Get on the Bretton Hall College case C20!
Thanks to Patrick Nixon for photos of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Bretton Hall College