31 May 2015

Stockport, Cheshire

Stockport, Cheshire. Well actually Greater Manchester for the last 40 years, although to historians, estate agents and most of its inhabitants it will always be Cheshire. But the town is not situated on the verdant, pastoral Cheshire plain with its winding lanes, white painted metal fences and sudden valleys of bubbling brooks that you see from your ‘awesomely’ expensive Virgin train to Manchester. It is not Cranford, where Miss Matty’s successors enthusiastically vote for George Osborne and the new workhouse. Rather it is the edge of the Peak District. Lyme Park, where Mr Darcy thrilled part of the nation with his televisual wet shirt dip in the lake, is just beyond the boundaries of the borough. Stockport’s hills and dramatic changes of level as it tumbles down to the Mersey are the essence of the special character of the town.

An ancient market town

A varied topography

But the Borough of some 300,000 people also embraces large tracts of another kind of Cheshire, Manchester’s Cheshire suburbs such as Cheadle Hulme and Bramhall, where I was married. These have little relationship with Stockport and, being 10 miles or so from Manchester city centre, were always a largely separate world, a sort of northern Surrey. Today they are ever more like exurbs, with an economy and society revolving around motorway junctions, Manchester Airport and John Lewis and its acolytes on the A34 bypass rather than connected to the vibrant life of the metropolis.

The old view – Hillgate

The view everybody knows – Wellington Road

Stockport is one of the satellite industrial towns to Cottonopolis as much as Lancashirian Bolton, Oldham or Rochdale but in places it also has the feel of an agricultural county town. If you drive through the town centre along the A6 Wellington Road, a C19th turnpike improvement, you miss all this. Stockport looks pretty ordinary and quite Southern with lots of very undistinguished office blocks and run of the mill commercial buildings, relieved by a blustering Edwardian Town Hall and some decent C19th public buildings. But if you follow the old road, Hillgate, you find some of the most unusual and rewarding townscape in England. It is rather like manyItalian towns with the old  town set above on the hill with the modern, less interesting bits down in the valley below.

The 1840s and the 1970s

The M60 thunders along the Mersey valley north of the centre and from it the view of the town’s backside is dismal. The prospect is enlivened by impressive sandstone outcrops and a bizarre pyramidal Co-op office block (originally several were planned). You also get superb views of the famous railway viaduct built in 1840. It strides across the valley on 27 brick arches with that wonderfully satisfying engineering simplicity. The frequent trains add excitement, at least for an ex train spotter, but it is a pity that the catenary gantrys bolted to this elegant structure are so clunkily inelegant. The viaduct straddles the earlier Wear Mill on the bank of the river.

The spectacular and the banal

Stockport Station – the dispiriting welcome

With Stockport you have to persevere beyond initial poor impressions. It is well served by intercity trains and its station has recently been revamped with a glassy circular entrance hall. Unfortunately the approach to the station from Wellington Road must take the prize for the most goddam-awful in the country. You have to run the gauntlet of a tawdry, tenth rate leisure complex where McDonald’s Drive Thru sets the standard. How any town could ever have thought this was an acceptable ‘gateway’ beggars belief. It speaks volumes of the lack of ambition, and power, of planning, which is all terribly depressing. A new public space with offices and an hotel is promised as part of Stockport’s new regeneration masterplan but don’t get your hopes up. The bus station provides an equally unprepossessing entrance to the town, basically rows of bus shelters in the shadow of the magnificent railway viaduct. But the location is convenient for the main shops and a new grander Interchange is to be built which would also accommodate future Metrolink extensions. It also promises to ‘improve’ the (non-existent) links with the railway station but how is not clear, which usually means this is an aspiration rather than a practical plan. Surely extending Metrolink from East Didsbury to Stockport Station is the answer.

The Mersey: could be a more spectacular farewell 

A heritage and community success story

Mersey Square, across Wellington Road from the bus station, continues your underwhelming introduction to the town. But this large space fronting the Merseyway Centre is more interesting than it initially looks. The Mersey actually flows underneath it, culverted in the 1930s, but you can still see it under Wellington Road, which begins to rise on a viaduct making interesting visual play with the magnificent railway viaduct beyond. Across the main road is the Hat Works Museum in an archetypal North Western mill with grand chimney – Stockport vied with Luton for that trade. Then the buildings rise up on the sandstone cliff behind the square, with municipal baroque steps leading upwards. Next to this is the Plaza, actually built into the cliff. It was designed in 1929 by the Manchester architect William Thornley and is one of the best preserved ‘super-cinemas’ of that period, creating a fantastical environment of neo-classical, Egyptian, Moorish and art deco motifs. The stepped art deco grey faience façade scarcely hints at the amazing interior. Closed as a cinema in 1965 it became a bingo hall but since 2000 it has been restored by the Stockport Plaza Trust which provides an enterprising programme of films and entertainments. A visit to the 1932 café-lounge is highly recommended.

Mersey Square...

.... is not really doing it

The Merseyway Centre opens up

Despite these positive elements Mersey Square is a bland place, certainly not helped by the horizontal blankness of the Merseyway Centre facades. The space is fragmented by confusing bus lanes which could surely be removed as part of the new Interchange. The Square desperately needs pulling together with a bold new landscape design, possibly opening up the Mersey again, and certainly introducing lots of greenery to what is a very bleak place. However although the Merseyway Centre is dull towards the Square, Ian Nairn with typical iconoclastic insight admired the way it was ‘plugged in’ to the streets around, and how well the vertical circulation worked. Designed by Bernard Engle in 1965 it has subsequently been extended, partly roofed over and generally dumbed down with superfluous tat supposedly to jolly it up, but you can still see why Nairn appreciated it.

Bridging Stockport – continuing the tradition

A street in the sky (and a nice old department store below)

Form, grid and tessellation 

Plugged in to the old fabric

The precinct was slotted in between the older streets, which largely retain their traditional buildings, and so it seems part of the wider town. Many elements of the original design were handled well: the lift and stair tower is an elegant campanile, the car park façade is interestingly modelled, the car park access bridges evoke the Stockport tradition of bridges and positively enhance the townscape. Even the service entrances are composed to provide interest to the street scene and are not just some yawning hole the architect has given up on. Originally the larger stores had entrances onto both the precinct and the street but many of the street entrances and shop windows have been closed, which would disappoint Nairn. This is especially unfortunate for the inter-war Baroque department store on Chestergate with its terracota, nice iron work and clock tower, now standing forlornly idle. The principles of integrating new with old can also be seen in later retail development along Warren Street, this time in that crude, quasi-industrial vernacular of loud brick, but although the details are poor the overall attempt to recreate a traditional street is reasonably successful, at least until it morphs into a giant ASDA with a brain dead retail park beyond. Some buildings are used to bridge the changes of levels between streets so you can take the escalator through Sports Direct and emerge in the Market Place above.

Urban surprise and anticipation – St Petersgate Bridge

A wonderful jumble

Townscape fun

The relationship between the market and the parish church of St Mary on the hill and the Underbanks area below is one of great townscape drama. The pièce de résistance is the iron bridge in St Peter’s Gate across the roofs of Little Underbank, quite a staggering sight from above and below. What are also spectacular are the stairs and ginnels up and down, which provide real excitement. Chestergate and Great Underbank, at the lower level and parallel to St Peter’s Gate, contain some of the best buildings including the Elizabethan timber framed Underbank Hall together with what Pevsner calls ‘bogus’ black and white buildings. Sadly the lavish Edwardian White Lion on the corner of Deanery Way, which the Buildings of England calls ‘a benevolent monster of a Jacobean pub’, is empty and boarded up. The architecture of Little Underbank is modest three storey Victorian with the odd flamboyant pub. The main event is the bridge and those dramatic flights of steps upwards. The Market Place is largely occupied by the 1861 iron and glass market – ‘nothing special’ said a sniffy Pevsner - well very special to Stockport. There is an earlier Produce Market opposite with a narrow but grand classical frontage. Around the square there is a pleasing variety of the sort of late Georgian and Victorian commercial buildings such as you might find in a prosperous market town. Behind the C19th brick façade of Staircase House are buildings of extensive earlier burgage plot development, all restored as a museum in 2005.

The White Lion – in a sad state

Another street in the sky – been doing it for years

Everything so well placed

Are we in Suffolk?

The exciting interplay of levels continues south of St Mary’s, between Churchgate, Lower Hillgate and High Street (which is a misnomer). The drama is accentuated by the towers and gables of Robinson’s Unicorn Brewery down on Hillgate, seen in wonderful juxtaposition with the tower of the parish church. Alleyways and stairs run up and down the hillside. This is an area of enormous character and potential, but much of it is very run down and clearly needing major intervention. More broadly this applies to Stockport’s shopping centre as a whole. On market day it seems reasonably lively but allegedly it has one of the highest levels of retail vacancy in the country. The Old Town area around the market was chosen as one of Mary Portas’s High Street Pilots with a small scale programme of improvement initiatives funded by Mr Pickles. However vacancy has subsequently gone up, but far from showing that Portas was wrong this rather exposes how dishonest and cynical the government has been about planning and regeneration, and what a disastrous Secretary of State Pickles was, the most damaging since Ridley. The main thrust of the Portas review has been ignored because dealing with declining high streets requires not token but substantive funding; not capitulation to the lowest common denominator of the markets but proactive planning, which is of course anathema. So places like Stockport, in the shadow of Manchester and struggling with competition from the motorway-based Trafford Centre and out of town John Lewis, as well as the internet shopping revolution, are left in a downward spiral.

Little Underbank – more intimate than Manchester

There are many ways ....

...  to climb this town

Civic Stockport continued – St Peter's Square

The Borough is trying to improve the area through some handsome street paving schemes and there is a free bus linking the Old Town with the station and bus station. St Peter’s Square has been intelligently redesigned, using all the standard ingredients – stone, fountains, trees, planting, street furniture and lighting but in a confidently low key way, reflecting the fact that this is always going to be a quiet space, which is just what is needed. The cantilevered seats are particularly elegant.

Municipal pride on Wellington Road

Very Barbican – Stopford House 

When you picked the wrong paint tin – Stockport College

St Thomas's Church – deserves more care

Stockport lacks a civic centre but its main public buildings can be seen on Wellington Road. The white stone Town Hall of 1904, in a somewhat unbalanced ‘free William and Mary’ style (Pevsner) is possibly more interesting internally than externally. The large extension ‘of uncompromisingly Brutalist design in mud coloured concrete’ is impressive, laid out around a grand gesture of open space (above the car park) with massive stairs and lush planters cascading down. Hardly used, the space has a sense of ruined grandeur (although actually well maintained) but for some reason the bureaucracy go to extraordinary lengths to stop skateboards and roller bladers, who might animate the place. Opposite the Town Hall is the Infirmary of 1832 with a long Ashlar front and Greek Doric portico and pediment, which ‘makes the Town Hall look very bumptious’ (Pevsner). Nearby is the ‘very free William and Mary’ Central Library of 1912, which reasserts some dignity against the McDonald golden arches opposite. On the corner of Greek Street is the classical War Memorial Art Gallery of 1925, most notable for its grand flight of steps. Opposite the dull, dolled up blocks of Stockport College is the picturesque St Thomas’s church, designed by George Basevi in 1822. Its west tower ends an attractive vista from Wellington Road but the surprise is the grand portico at the east end with fluted Ionic columns. Further south along the A6 is St George’s, the grandest church in Stockport with an extraordinary spire designed by Austin and Paley in 1896 and ‘even nationally speaking a masterpiece of the latest historicism’.

Nineteenth century suburbs – near Hillgate

Postwar high-rises their architect would no longer recognise, Lancashire Hill

South of St George’s lie the rich Cheshire suburbs, a very different world from industrial Stockport. Here big detached houses hide in larger gardens protected by automatic gates. Of course it is not all like this; we are not yet in the bling of footballers’ Alderley Edge or Prestbury, although George Best started this trend with his modernist pad in Bramhall, now much altered. Mrs Jonestheplanner, brought up in Cheadle Hulme, recalls an almost idyllic childhood of Famous Five adventures where comfortable suburbia quickly gave way to no-man’s-land fringes of countryside. These ragged edges have since been largely filled with standard builders’ estates and some of the grander houses have been replaced with blocks of flats The ‘village’ shops (which included the Bramhall shopping precinct wittily nicknamed ‘Lenin’s Tomb’) are now largely estate agents, café bars or beauticians. It is all very aspirational, smart and prosperous, a model for Tory Britain. But this suburbia is inevitably intensely anti-urban and unsustainable. Everything revolves around the car and there is no real alternative. From Bramhall there is only one train an hour into Manchester. The Stagecoach bus runs every half hour, takes an hour, and get this, in the evening is run by First which won’t accept Stagecoach tickets. There is a Waitrose near Cheadle Hulme station but John Lewis, Sainsbury, Tesco and M&S are all on the A34 bypass with the only public transport an hourly bus from Stockport.

That John Lewis slogan (again)

How we live today

However, instead of learning from these mistakes and planning for a more sustainable future, Stockport (and Manchester) seem determined to promote more decentralisation and suburban sprawl. Manchester’s big thing is the development of ‘Airport City’, an £800m Chinese investment in offices, leisure, warehouses and factories. So the airport, already served by rail from across the north of England, by Metrolink, the M56 and the M60 now apparently requires a new ‘relief road’. This will run through the fragile rural fringe of suburbia linking the M56 to the A6 in the Peak District. The business case is amusing, including creating 5,000 jobs, supporting lower carbon travel and providing shorter journey times for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users! And I’m a Dutchman, but our austerity government has of course funded it as ‘vital infrastructure’.

The belly of the place – To Let

The attraction of the Cheshire suburbs is obvious and development pressures on the rural fringe will become even more intense if the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ materialises. Meanwhile Stockport town centre declines; the market rules OK. What is lacking is a forward looking framework to shape a more sustainable future, the sort of thing Greater Manchester Metropolitan Council used to be quite good at, until Mrs Thatcher abolished it.

My ancient Pevsner is fairly perfunctory about Stockport. The revised Buildings of England for Cheshire by Clare Hartwell  and Matthew Hyde gives much fuller attention to the town and, published in 2011, is pretty up to date.

26 Apr 2015

Bradford Impresses

A classical civilisation

Bradford impresses. Here, unexpectedly and nestling in the most glorious countryside, is one of the grandest and most distinctive of English cities, a city of fine honey coloured sandstone buildings, thrilling views and exciting juxtapositions. This may not be the usual take on a city coruscated for economic decline and social problems, one of Gavin Stamp’s ‘Lost Cities’ willfully vandalised by planning, but prepare to be surprised.

Bradford: good at corners and chimneys – Kirkgate

Bradford is a Victorian city, indeed a Victorian phenomenon and arguably it was already in decline before she died. Now in the shadow of Leeds, in its heyday it was very much the equal of its larger neighbour, if always very distinct from it. It is a Pennine town, an out of the way place off main transport routes, but became the centre of the huge worsted woollen industry. This trade was massively developed by an influx of entrepreneurial German Jews in the mid C19th. The results of these two factors, as the Bradfordian J.B Priestley noted in English Journey, were very curious - Bradford became at once one of the most provincial and yet one of the most cosmopolitan of English cities. Its huge enterprise and prosperity for a time eclipsed Leeds, but Bradford relied on one industry whereas its rival’s economy was always more broadly based.

Rise and fall – Dale St

Bradford Metropolitan District Council – Britannia House

A fundamental characteristic of the West Riding towns is their jealously guarded separateness and their strong relationship to the countryside. Bradford lies in a bowl between the hills with a saddleback ridge at its centre, steep valleys to either side that make for superb townscape and great views. Priestley (unfairly and disloyally) thought Bradford ‘a city entirely without charm, though not altogether ugly … but has the good fortune to be on the edge of some of the most enchanting countryside in England. A sharp walk ….. will bring you to the moors, wild virgin highland …. and the whole city forgotten’. Maybe less so today. Asa Briggs in Victorian Cities comments ‘the Pennine towns are not at one with their surrounding country, they are one with it’.

The Story of Wool by William Mitchell (1968), Ilkley

It's as if the station had just been ripped out – Forster Square

The strong relationship of town and country is expressed today in the boundaries of the City of Bradford which extend over the moors and dales to include towns like Shipley, Bingley, Keighley, even Ilkley and the Bronté’s Haworth. With a population of about half a million it can claim to be the fifth largest city in England but the economic reality is different. Not one of the ‘core cities’, it has instead been dragooned into the ‘Leeds City Region’. That the fortunes of these cities have continued to diverge is evident from a train journey. As you approach Leeds Station, one of the busiest, most crowded stations on the rail network, you get a salutary view of the scale of development in recent decades (much of it horribly bad it is true, but note Bauman Lyon’s excellent extension to Tower Works near the tracks). The local train from here to Bradford ends in the pathetically truncated Forster Square terminus. There is hardly anyone about. The real station was destroyed in the 1960s, leaving Trubshaw’s grand Midland Hotel at the front with a gaping townscape void of car parks, retail parks and blankly gormless new offices behind. Same happened to Exchange Station, which had double train sheds almost as wide as King’s Cross, now replaced by the Crown Courts, in ashlar sandstone that the Buildings of England calls expensive-looking and facetiously detailed. Fragments of the massive station walls survive but the Great Victoria station hotel is horribly exposed. Trains now arrive at Interchange, effectively a large bus station, the more impressive 1970s original concept reduced in scale and dumbed down for our century.

Bradford – Paris (The Midland Hotel)

Bradford – Glasgow (Upper Piccadilly) 

City scale on Manor Road

However our arrival at Forster Square was fortuitous. We emerged from what now passes as a station into a space defined by vast arches and retaining walls, above which rears a great stone warehouse. Eight storeys high and dated 1892, derelict, it is nothing special by Bradford standards but somehow encapsulating what we were going to see, a great city fallen on hard times. Instinctively we turned north up the hill of Cheapside towards the derelict colossus rather than going directly to the city centre, so had a very different introduction to Bradford. Cheapside is impressive in its scale and the consistent use of local sandstone, but the buildings are restrained, workaday, somewhat dour at times. There is an echo of Presbyterian Glasgow. The earlier wool warehouses on the parallel Piccadilly are smaller in scale, plain but accomplished. The vista along Upper Piccadilly is terminated by the refined Italianate Register Office of 1877, a superb piece of townscape.

Friendly and informal

Does anyone still do this? Fun on North Parade. 

The Yorkshire Penny Bank (not penny pinching bankers)

North Parade has a laid back fin-de-siècle vibe, an interesting street of shops and cafes with some fabulous architectural flourishes. This includes some really striking Art Nouveau iron and glass. At its apex is the 1895 Yorkshire Penny Bank, where paradoxically sobriety and caution are thrown to the winds in what the Buildings of England calls ‘gorgeously exuberant Free Renaissance’, the best of many fine banks in the city. North of this fun masterpiece the townscape is eviscerated by the inner ring road, reinforced by a monstrous retail park that raises two fingers to everything, including the topography and some lovely if run down stone terraces behind. That’s how Thatcher put the Great back in Britain. Along the ring road the imposing lead-domed Central Mosque could do with a more dignified setting.

Building Societies (not HSBC) – Highpoint

On the foothills of the Pennines  

Sunny Sunbridge Road

The townscape of Goitside, on the other edge of the saddleback ridge, is more industrial and if anything even more stunning. Along Sunbridge Road you see muscular steel-framed Edwardian warehouses with great round arched windows and stone banding like La Plata House, and many other buildings with names evoking the extent of Bradford’s trade. Views down the steep side streets across the Goit valley are magnificent, especially looking towards the university, but you also see the utterly witless Bradford College with its silly crumpled roof line aping Zaha, and a big ‘B’ logo. Actually I would say it was a fail. Some of the warehouses are still in marginal use and others have been converted to flats but sadly many are derelict and open car parks now seem to be the biggest industry around here. Above, on Grattan Road, is more dramatic townscape like the Woolston Warehouse. Opposite this are early council house tenements from the 1900s, two storey in brick and render, recently renovated and with some new infill trying hard (and quite successfully) to be a good neighbour. You could not say that of Highpoint, a beyond-Brutalist office block sitting atop the ridge. Owen Hatherley (approvingly I think) says it is ‘utterly freakish, the severed head of some Japanese giant robot clad in a West Riding stone aggregate, glaring out at the city through blood red windows, the strangest urban artifact in a city which does not lack for architectural interest’.

The impressive Wool Exchange

Where civic elders meet

Hustlergate – ancient and lively

Bradford’s more conventional architectural interest cascades down the ridge from Highpoint towards the Town Hall, a tight and confusing pattern of streets which is the commercial heart of the city. Apart from Ivegate, which is one of the oldest streets and a market town muddle, and the obligatory Waterhouse terracotta Prudential together with  mid C20th chain store typologies, the architecture is consistently restrained sandstone commercial buildings of the second half of the C19th and early years of the C20th. They are generally three to six storeys, sometimes higher and nearly all have been cleaned to reveal their warm honey colour and articulate detailing. A few remain in the soot blackened state which no doubt had much to do with their lack of appreciation in the mid C20th. These buildings are confident but unshowy, mostly Italianate but sometimes exploding into Gothic extravagance. The often acute angles of the streets add a lot to townscape opportunities with good corners to exploit, some almost of Flatiron slenderness. This is undoubtedly one of the finest and most extensive architectural ensembles in the country. The piece-de-resistance is the Wool Exchange of 1867, symbol of Bradford’s great trade and built in Venetian Gothic, ‘freely treated’ according to Pevsner: maybe not original but suitably sumptuous for a boom town. The Exchange is on a triangular site and part of the elevation to Hustlergate has been rebuilt in glass, fairly savage surgery to facilitate the conversion of its central hall to Waterstone’s. This was probably a price worth paying allowing you to enjoy the interior as well as the gorgeous facades. On adjacent streets, including appropriately Bank Street, are a great number of splendid banks, the Art Deco classical Lloyds of 1920 being the grandest.

Very metropolitan – Lloyds Bank

Kirkgate: the previous shopping centre mistake ... 

... but it's not without external form and texture

Given this superfluity of fine buildings you may wonder where the ‘Lost Cities’ bit comes in, but I have glossed over the Kirkgate Centre. Whereas the destruction of Bradford’s fine stations was something done to it, the demolition of Kirkgate Market, an early glass and iron market hall by the city’s ubiquitous architects, Lockwood and Mawson, was a self inflicted wound and one which will never heal for older Bradfordians. The Kirkgate Centre which replaced it was designed by John Brunton and Partners, also responsible for Highpoint, but whereas that is dramatic, if hated, the 1975 shopping centre is just depressing with a deadening impact on the streets. ‘Brutally out of scale in dingily Brutalist pre-cast concrete’ is what the Buildings of England says. The Rawson Market to the north was also destroyed although the façade remains. Another cause célèbre was the destruction of the Swan Arcade opposite the Exchange, replaced by John Graham’s 1965 Arndale House, which at least has quite a lot to commend it as architecture of its time. An empty shop below the office tower is called ‘The Emporium of Dreams’. The exciting International Modern style former Co-operative department store on Godwin Street is also empty – the sad denouement of other dreams.

Global capitalism affronts Little Germany

Bradford’s latest dream is the Westfield shopping centre, much delayed but currently under construction on what was for years the huge ‘Wastefield’ hole in the heart of the city. It is difficult to share the enthusiasm of the Council for this project, intended to re-boot Bradford as a shopping destination. The problem is that all it offers is the usual malls and the standard range of retailers many of whom, like M&S, will relocate from the existing shopping streets hastening their decline. The development is deliberately inward looking, not wanting a relationship to the outside world and looks set to become another sort of hole; an urban black hole. The elevations are piss poor, so puny and desperate to be inoffensive as to be really offensive. And this matters as their backsides are right up against the Cathedral and Little Germany, effectively barricading real Bradford off. The contrast between the architecture to either side of Well Street and what was Forster Square is truly shocking. And Bradford has promoted this scheme - but the outcomes are an expression of relative power of the developer and the city. In their formulaic, cynical and exploitative ethos, shopping centres like this diminish rather than regenerate cities, which have little option but to acquiesce to the tyranny of global developers like Westfield.

Bet Westfield don't do this – Bradford Cathedral

The provincial village which became an industrial city

Bradford Cathedral is essentially a C15th parish church and even pre-Westfield somewhat isolated. Unfortunately plans to create a museum in the former Tanner GPO on Forster Square with a new connection to the churchyard behind were shortsightedly dropped. Across Church Bank is Little Germany, the finest concentration of warehouses in the city and possibly England, as spectacular and specific to Bradford as Westfield is banal and anonymous. The tall sandstone buildings crowd narrow hilly streets like Vicar Lane, great canyons of architectural invention and detail - skylines, chimneys, turrets, corners, angles, curves, metalwork, arches, doorcases, windows surrounds, astragals – a townscape of delight. Relative isolation probably saved Little Germany from the iconoclasm of the 1950s which destroyed the similarly grand warehouses nearer the city centre. Much has been done to conserve and renovate the area in recent decades and with a fair amount of success. Buildings have been cleaned and repaired, new uses found including creative industries and apartments. There are few gap sites and few dilapidated buildings but lots of empty and ‘To Let’ buildings. The area is hardly buzzing with life - few people on the streets, little evidence of the hip cafés, trendy shops and restaurants that might signal gentrification. Like the similar if smaller and brick-built Lace Market in Nottingham, the conservation of Little Germany looks like a Forth Bridge job.

Still has international quality – Little Germany

Among the best townscape experiences in the country

Thrilling details

In good nick but ... 

A more animated part of Little Germany is approached along Leeds Road, in itself just about the vilest street in Bradford, urbanity and townscape blown away by the City Engineer and the deadliest new buildings. But on the north side, between the terminal blandness of Westfield and the comparative interest of the strange curved black glass po-mo effort in the distance, the real city re-asserts itself with the Well Street warehouses, the superb Eastbrook House. At the corner of Chapel Street is the Bradford Playhouse and Film Theatre. With its strong Priestley associations this is a Bradford institution but seems to lack the financial support it needs, which is short-sighted as it is clearly injecting some much needed life into the area.

.... lacking in activity

Well there is an election on – Leeds Road

Crikey, there's loads of this stuff – Eastbrook Hall

Of course Leeds Road doesn’t have to be this dreadful. What on earth is the expressway for anyway? It should be redesigned as an urban promenade linking Little Germany to City Park. City Park is a bit of a misnomer, but is what actually emerged from the eccentric Alsop masterplan for the city centre. It is an extraordinary indictment of the state of the provincial political economy that a city like Bradford should be so lacking in self confidence as to pursue such headline-making fantasies. But Alsop’s analysis was not altogether wrong. Bradford had suffered little wartime damage but was determined to reshape itself with an ambitious redevelopment in Portland stone and dual carriageways of a large zone south of the Town Hall. This fragmented, impersonal townscape of large, mostly pompous and public buildings set in a labyrinth of traffic and subways could not be more different form the tight streets and (at the time soot blackened) Victorian sandstone buildings which previously characterised the town. By the 70s Bradford’s relative decline had become absolute, and it got worse. The Alsop masterplan was an expression of desperation for change, for investment and recognition. He was right to reimagine post war Bradford without all the bloody roads,and to see the potential for green space instead. But knock down all the 'concrete monstrosities' (hiss, boo) for a lake surrounded by a liquorish allsorts collection of wacky shapes and garish cladding??? Well it attracted attention which was really the point.

Great pool, but lacking in greenery and pleasant enclosure

Northern civic pride – Town Hall & St George's Hall

Town Hall – fantastic which ever way you look at it

The problem is what happens after that, a dumbed down, cost engineered palimpsest of the wild imaginings of the auteur. That is City Park. The lake has become a mirror pool, quite an impressive paddling pool and fun fountains with a causeway up the middle. On a sunny school holiday afternoon it is heaving with young kids and smiling parents, very popular and democratic and must be rated a success. But April is the cruellest month and in the biting wind of a sullen schoolday its deficiencies are obvious. The Town Hall is exceptional by any standards, the original 1870 building, again by Lockwood and Mawson, in a C13th Gothic style with ideas ‘borrowed’ from Burges’s design for the London Law Courts. The 1905 extension by Norman Shaw is in a clever mixture of styles. The great feature, and symbol of Bradford, is the tall, slim, Tuscan campanile. The Town Hall is a spectacular building but its relationships are awkward and its qualities are not best served by the open spaces created around it. City Park now engulfs it and it is not so much a park as an entertainments plaza. Curving around the mirror pool is a horribly misconceived parade of eateries and bars surprisingly designed by Panter Hudspith. Although there is a whisper of good design in the colonnade, it ends up low, mean and boorish. An idiot screen pours out the inanities of daytime television. If you look hard you will notice that the new structure also incorporates a library and art gallery, but these have no presence and are overwhelmed by the food and drink ‘offer’ which spills out into the ‘park’. Horrible. And there is hardly any greenery – City Park is a very hard space.

The Magistrates Court – designed by the city architect

This is not Trespa – The Magistrates Court 

If only Alsop’s green cartoon had come to pass, sweeping away the idiotic dual carriageways, the Police HQ et al to create an urban forest. But no – in the small print of his plan Alsop came up with the concept of an ‘Office Forest’. So the creepy Police HQ is coming down not for a park but for prestige offices. Bradford has something of an obsession with prestige offices. For years the HCA pursued the redevelopment of the Odeon, across the dual carriageway, for iconic (sic) Carey Jones designed offices. That scheme has been abandoned because of public resistance, a rare success against the property-led regeneration juggernaut. The 1930 Odeon, last of Bradford’s great cinema leviathans, is more an example of public memory and affection than architectural value, its grand interior wholly altered and the main feature being two domes. These echo the adjacent Alhambra Theatre, originally built in 1914 and modified and enlarged by Renton Howard Wood Levine in 1986. Beyond this again is the National Media Museum, originally built as a theatre by Seifert and Partners in 1965 and extended in 1999 by Austin Smith Lord. It is an offshoot of the Science Museum and an important asset for Bradford which ought to have a better setting and a clearer relationship with the city centre. J.B Priestley stands in the shrubbery in front of it. Next to him is the impressive Central Library, again 60s Portland stone, apparently considered too boring for the yoof, so now shorn of its main function which has been transferred to compete with Nando’s and THE Chinese Buffet. At least the original building is being refurbished for other civic functions.

Manchester Road Brutalism, under threat of demolition

Britain 2015: Priestly overlooks an unnecessary inner ring road

The constellation of these important cultural and civic facilities west of Prince’s Way should surely have suggested a different approach to City Park, one which was genuinely about the public realm and the quality of the environment, not gimcrack gimmicks. If Alsop’s original vision had been more honestly followed through there could have been a real park, getting rid of the dual carriageway and the Police Station which blocks both views and desire lines, to create a coherent and dignified relationship between the Town Hall (and the old commercial quarter) and Bradford’s main cultural facilities with the University beyond.

At the university: it's all downhill from here – College Old Building

The Hockney Building

Colours of Bradford

Cladding ruins the integrity of the Richmond Building

Great Horton Road which leads to the University has some good buildings, including the 1880 Bradford College, described by the Buildngs of England as ‘fine and fulsome Italianate’. We had already seen the ginormous new David Hockney building from across the valley but from Great Horton Road it looks somewhat better. There is even one elevation that eschews garish cladding and has a go at fenestration, which is quite a relief on the eye. The University is ‘not one of the more memorable campuses architecturally’, says the Buildings of England, which is something of an understatement. The main 13 storey block dating from 1965, originally faced with sandstone has been most horribly over-clad in blue and white panels in the most ignorant way. At least the ceramics decorating the protruding lecture theatre have been retained. There is not much else to say about this lacklustre campus. Bradford University is a disappointment, not just architecturally but in its lack of impact on the city. Whereas in Sheffield, a similar sized city, the universities have a very obvious and very profound impact on the economy and city life, in Bradford you just don’t get that impression at all. Which is a pity, given the many underused assets of the place which a vibrant university could exploit and enhance.

Perfect planning and the social ruins of Thatcherism

Aspley Crescent – if this was in London etc etc

The extensive prospects towards the northern hills are dominated by Lister’s Manningham Mill and that amazing chimney. Manningham was the premier suburb of the city and is stuffed full of what should be delightful stone villas and terraces. The problem is that it is fractured from the centre, although some very fine buildings do remain along Manningham Lane. When you reach more coherent Victorian suburbia what initially looks very picturesque often turns out to be run down and badly cared for, like Aspley Crescent with its subtle enclosure or the set piece views towards St Paul’s, reminiscent of Blackheath. There is litter and rubbish everywhere, walls broken down, period details crudely altered. Local authority cutbacks seem too glib an excuse for neglect which is squandering the city’s assets.

Manningham Mills

Disconnected from the neighbourhood 

Manningham Mills dating from 1873 are vast in scale and ambition, an integrated silk mill in ‘robust if slightly impure Italianate style’ covering an astonishing 6.5 hectares. That chimney is 75m high, ‘the most direct Italianate reference, an industrialized sandstone version of the campanile of St Mark’s in Venice’ (Buildings of England). It has partly been converted to residential by Urban Splash, with penthouse pods protruding above Heaton Road. Overall the external impact of conversion is minimal, just a few splashes of colour at side entrances. And there is little activity, the community centre says it is closing down. The yard between the two converted wing is open to the public but highly uninviting with deterrent paving, although there is a boardwalk promenade above basement car parking. No one is about; it is all kind of eerie. The rear wings of the complex remain pretty damn derelict. Although obviously great that parts of the mill have renovated, this regeneration scheme has not had the impact on the locale that might have been hoped for.

Chimney and obelisk

Conscientious philanthropists: visiting Saltaire since 1850

Says it all really

Saltaire is a similarly grand project, here not just the great mills but a utopian industrial settlement based on Robert Owen’s New Lanark. Titus Salt located this vast integrated worsted works away from Bradford in the rural Aire valley although now engulfed by Shipley. Begun in 1850 and designed by Lockwood and Mawson it is ‘ground breaking in its emphatic architectural presence …. and the clarity and logic of its plan’ (Buildings of England). The 165m spinning mill is situated on a narrow site between the railway and the canal and you approach from the west side, so don’t always fully appreciate the scale. Textile production stopped in 1986 and the mill has subsequently found an impressive range of new uses, largely through an inspired and unconventional 'developer', Jonathan Silver. This has been done generally with minimal adaption to the buildings, and none of the standard regeneration tat of ‘enabling uses’. New uses include an electronics manufacturer, some excellent specialist retailing, the 1853 Gallery with a large Hockney collection and even a Health Centre as well as flats.

Lessons in townscape

Lessons in housing

The successful reuse of the mills has got quite a lot to do with Saltaire itself. The planned town of well designed largely terraced stone houses on a grid which rises up the side of the valley is remarkably well preserved. The neat planning recalls the urban qualities of small Scottish towns, no doubt the New Lanark influence. The United Reformed Church with its semi circular and Corinthian columns and circular tower above is very fine but somehow un-English. Saltaire could teach house builders and planners today a lot about place-making, economy of layout, how to handle corner buildings, and provide social and cultural facilities, although originally no pubs or pawn shops were allowed. Now the streets have a laid back feel, almost like Hebden Bridge, a sort of old hippy, U3A demographic, always alive to the opportunities of an interesting day out. What is noticeable is how well maintained everything is here compared to the conservation areas of Manningham. Saltaire is undoubtedly a big success story.

An impressive city centre ... 

...  full of streets like this

The problem for Bradford is how to reinvent itself like Saltaire, but on a much, much bigger scale. But if Saltaire’s success is based on its architectural quality and its environmental ambience, well at least Bradford has the former. Bradford impresses, but it also disappoints in how it is dealing with the latter. Long economic decline, and slipping out of the big league of English cities inevitably makes it difficult to be confident and ambitious about the future. But the sort of Alsop gimmickry is a real distraction from what it should be doing, which is capitalizing on its exceptional architectural assets within a new green, sustainable framework. To hell with icons – you’ve got them already but UK plc needs to use them.

Alsop can't compete with Little Germany

The Buildings of England for Yorkshire West Riding covering Bradford is especially useful as it has been recently revised, updated and much expanded by Peter Leach. Yale University Press 2009

Owen Hatherley's Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain has particularly good insights on Bradford, aided by photographer and Bradfordian Joel Anderson. Verso 2010

Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities says much about Bradford in the Leeds chapter. Pelican

John Ayers, Architecture in Bradford provides a good illustrated catalogue up to circa 1970. Bradford Civic Society

Christopher Hammond, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for the Bradford BPT 2006 is an excellent critique of Bradford's developments

Gavin Stamp, Britain's Lost Cities has good photographs. Arum 2007

Jim Greenhalf, Salt and Silver gives interesting analysis on Saltaire and its transformation. Bradford Libraries

J.B.Priestley, English Journey has much to say about the character and characters of the city in the 30s but little about its architecture.