Queensgate Market - one of the great sights of Modernist Britain
A generation ago Ian Nairn refereed an architectural and townscape match between Huddersfield Town and close rivals Halifax. His final score was 5-2 to Halifax. Huddersfield’s goals were for its magnificent station and the extraordinary but now threatened 1970 Queensgate market hall. Halifax scored with the Piece Hall (obviously), its Victorian market hall and the spaceship-like Halifax Building Society HQ which had then only just landed. But Nairn awarded two extra goals to Halifax for the ‘way it still expresses itself’. Yer wot ref, are you blind? Huddersfield too expresses a strong character, maybe rather more understated than Halifax and it too has a fine refurbished Victorian market hall. So the result should be a score draw. But wait – Nairn was actually talking about planning. Does Huddersfield express its true character in what it is planning today? Well, not really.
Pennine townscape - Fitzwilliam Street
Huddersfield’s situation is spectacular, nestling in the heart of the Pennines along the Colne and Holme valleys. From everywhere you look there are views of the surrounding moors, which is very exhilarating. The approaches across the moors are dramatic, even from the M62 which has inevitably somewhat tamed the Pennine wilderness. Pevsner talks of ‘the view of the smoking mills from the hills… impressive if bleak’. The chimneys are no longer smoking and most have fallen victim to Fred Dibnah, rather diminishing the modern prospect although the Victorian folly on Castle Hill adds piquancy.
Scottish baronial Yorkshire - towards Station Street
Huddersfield is blessed by its magnificent setting and by two other factors. The easy availability of good quality sandstone means that, as well as the fine commercial and public buildings, most of the pre1914 housing is of handsome, warm looking stone. The other fortune was the foresight of the Ramsden Estate in laying out the ‘New Town’ between the Station and the parish church and maintaining such high standards in its development. The enlightened and informed developer is now rare indeed, although not completely extinct. Planning once aspired to take this role but was given a good kicking for its presumption by the political pals of ‘the free market’.
Huddersfield - Berlin
Huddersfield was a small straggly township until the end of the C18th. Its expansion to a great woollen manufacturing town superimposed a grid of much grander streets. But this is an irregular grid and the railway slashes across it. Post war planning inevitably required a tight inner ring road; an oval that radically disrupts the grid and as always is a huge obstacle to legibility and pedestrian movement. In 1968 it was billed as a vital redevelopment to ensure that "the car becomes the servant and not the master". Forty years later and the car is certainly the master of Huddersfield. The overall impact is that the town centre is sometimes quite disorientating for the visitor.
Huddersfield - Rome
It is also disconcerting that the metropolitan district of Huddersfield, a town of some 150,000 people, is called Kirklees - a confusing amalgam of quite distinct boroughs mackled together in 1974. Kirklees should be called Huddersfield but this would piss off Dewsbury.
Lessons in townscape - towards Huddersfield Station
The Station is magnificent – says it all about the confidence of Huddersfield at the time (1847). It is by Pritchett, responsible for a number of buildings in Victorian Huddersfield and his work adds to the town’s classical consistency. Nairn describes it as ‘more of a palace than a station …. a stately home with trains in’. Pure Georgian, it has a massive six column portico with pediment and outer wings as Corinthian colonnades. From the platforms your first impression might actually be of the massive and atypically brick St George’s warehouse north of the station. It is only when you emerge into St George’s Square that you can fully appreciate this is one of the very best stations in the country. Needless to say BR wanted to get rid of it but Huddersfield purchased the station in order to save it. That is civic leadership.
Bring me sunshine
Around the Square are some very grand buildings. The George Hotel is late Classical and opposite is the ornate Italianate Britannia Buildings with 1920s shop fronts including exotic Egyptian and Aztec motifs. The Lion Building surmounted with its Coade stone lion is emblematic of Huddersfield. The Square itself, large and irregular, provides a fine view of the Station but is otherwise a bit unsure of its purpose. It has recently been splendidly repaved to designs by Whitelaw Turkington and includes fun fountains but is not really a place you would want to linger. In the centre is a very jolly statue of local lad Harold Wilson looking as if he might be Morecombe or Wise, sculpted by Ian Walters and unveiled by the Rev Blair.
2 for1 - quality covered markets in Huddersfield
The surrounding streets of the New Town were laid out after 1850 with Tite in overall charge of design. The results are exceptional. It reminds you of Grainger and Dobson – the streets are that good. The early buildings are Classical but along Station Street the Ramsden Estate Office is fairly wild Gothic Revival, designed by Crossland (of Rochdale Town Hall) in 1880. The dignified John William Street, which could be in Buxton, has fine views to the hills. Down Brook Street is the cast iron and glass former wholesale market splendidly restored as an open market. This is well positioned next to Tesco but the supermarket itself has no shame and doesn’t bother to pretend to any architecture. Its servicing backside looks like an abandoned Soviet arms dump – and it does matter because it faces onto Viaduct Street and the immensely long 1840s stone viaduct which is one of the glories of Huddersfield.
Just waiting for fashion to catch up with it - YMCA
Northumberland Street leads east towards the pompous Post Office of 1914. The 1960s extension to the rear is much sparkier. Opposite this is a really interesting early post war brick building, St Peters House, now vacant but formerly the YMCA. This has very clever and satisfying massing relating well to three street frontages and with an exciting tower rising in the middle. The fenestration and brick detailing are very accomplished. The elevation to Northumberland Street is stunning with its powerful blank brick between narrow slit windows above the shop front and below the cornice. Fortunately the recession has saved this building from planned demolition as part of the ‘Huddersfield Renaissance’ regeneration plan.
The City of Huddersfield? Kirkgate Buildings, Byram St
Opposite the handsome Mechanics Institute has been cleverly converted to provide a Media Centre. The recent extension by Ash Sakula, a 5 storey double skinned glassy block retaining parts of the former buildings, looks very effective on the otherwise bleak inner ring road. Back along Byram Street is the parish church of St Peter’s, rebuilt cheaply in the 1830s and not much to write home about. However the churchyard is an attractive open space with the Kirkgate Buildings by Crossland in a mixture of Renaissance styles facing onto it.
Westgate joy and experimentation
Kirkgate and Westgate are the east-west axis of the town and are rather a mixed bag of noble buildings and dross. Particularly interesting is the Byram Arcade of 1880, in a vaguely Hanseatic style with excellent wrought ironwork in the arcade. Opposite is Westgate House, the frontage rebuilt in 1923 with steel frame, bronze cladding and lots of glass in a quasi-Modernist composition.
Muscular modernism - Police HQ
To the south is the post war civic centre girdled by the gross inner ring road. It includes the bus station with quite sculptural car park decks above, although no Preston. Bus stations tell us a lot about the class system in England – compare and contrast the abysmal small plaza in front of the working class bus station with the fine paving at the railway station. The 60s civic buildings are a disappointment except for the very handsome and carefully considered Magistrates’ Court, which begs the question: what if Mies van der Rohe had been a Yorkshireman? A security guard politely asked me why I was taking pictures, and seemed interested if surprised at my admiration of the building. Next door the West Yorkshire Police HQ is appropriately muscular.
Brilliant and empty - Co-op, New Street
The ring road brutally severs the town centre from its hinterland and its disastrous consequences are nowhere better seen than at the bottom of New Street, the main shopping street. Across the chasm of traffic you can glimpse the lovely Edwardian white faience facade of the Grand Picture Theatre, now no more than a disguise for a Lidl. On New Street the Co-op department store is empty, its fine 1936 Modernist extension echoing Mendelsohn is vacant. The retention of its façade is promised in a new shopping centre which also threatens the Queensgate market (see below).
The rise of northern Victorian Municipality
Huddersfield was clearly still a pretty gutsy place in the 60s and there was a surprising amount of redevelopment. Much of it fits well into the grid/block structure although little regarded today. Between New Street and the civic centre there is a very literate group with a powerful rhythm of concrete facades, a cross arcade with interesting reliefs and Buxton House which is a decent Eric Lyons / Basil Spence style tower block by Bernard Engle & Partners. Nearby is the majestic Victorian Town Hall whose composure and scale is a reminder of the stubborn civic independence of nineteenth century West Yorkshire, its grand concert hall ‘vibrating to the Huddersfield Choral Society’s Messiah’ (Nairn).
"Commerce", by Fritz Steller - Queensgate Market interior
Across Peel Street, although not immediately apparent, is the most spectacular of Huddersfield’s new buildings - the Queensgate market designed by the Seymour Harris Partnership and completed in 1970. It occupies a difficult sloping site facing the ring road to which it presents the most amazingly unexpected elevation with a dramatic roof of hyberbolic paraboloid shells of varying heights. The façade is adorned with the most extraordinary sculpted panels designed by Fritz Steller, possibly African in inspiration – anyway a hell of a shock. Nairn calls it ‘a bit of glam’ but it is more than that. Inside he says ‘the architect really went to town and did Huddersfield proud. The concrete mushroom columns are not a gimmick but are used to define spaces, to relate them and bring light from the top so you are at one with the building. It is a marvellous human space –the opposite of most shopping centres.’ Thirty years later it was listed to save it from just such a crass shopping centre (see below), thanks to the C20th Society and Huddersfield Civic Society.
Art integrating with architecture - Queensgate Market
The shopping centre scheme is called ‘Queensgate Revival’ and its objectives are basically sensible. It aims to provide a better choice of shops for the town centre threatened by competition both from the White Rose and Meadowhall motorway based shopping malls and more local retail parks. It would provide a better balance of shops within the town centre and could create some townscape coherence in the very ragged area behind the old Co-op store and the ring road. That said the actual proposals compromise the integrity and quality of the really important buildings, the market and the Co-op, and are basically very dull, standard stuff. In other words they do not express Huddersfield’s character. Fortunately the listing of the market and the recession has given Huddersfield at least a temporary reprieve.
Under threat: Literature and Art - Huddersfield Library
The extremely severe stripped classical 1940 Library and Art Gallery across Ramsden Street from the Town Hall was also to be demolished as part of Queensgate Revival. However it was listed as a ‘well-executed and well preserved example of early C20th civic architecture’. To either side of the entrance are figures by James Woodford ‘representing the youthful spirits of Literature and Art’. The Council think the building is ‘not fit for purpose’ and a new library and gallery are planned in the Queensgate Revival. This is clearly one for Piloti as the real problem is chronic lack of maintenance. The grumpy caretaker and tatty website don't help either. The current civic leaders clearly haven’t been to the art history section recently.
A Yorkshire Coventry - Ramdsen House
The idiosyncratic modernist Colne Valley fables in the library show that this wasn’t always so; Reginald Napier taught at the local art college and clearly knew his subject with West Yorkshire folklore depicted as a Stanley Spencer / William Roberts / Pieter Bruegel jolly knees up. The gallery is noted for a largely twentieth century collection, including works by Max Bill, Josef Albers and Paul Feiler. With colourful murals and abstract reliefs dotted around the town centre Huddersfield is partly a Yorkshire Coventry, or more precisely an example of “art integrating with architecture”. The Fritz Steller works are a master class of this lost modernist ideal but there are others worthy of note; the book illustrator Harold Blackburn’s local historical murals on Ramsden House, and Richard Fletcher’s abstract “systematic sequence in light and shade” in a court off New Street. It would be a backward step not to make use of this.
Systematic sequence of light and shade - Buxton House
The main shopping streets like New Street and King Street are unremarkable but contain some good buildings like the Boot and Shoe Hotel, sadly defaced by the worst of some really crude fascias – in this case advertising that old bastard Col. Sanders. The paving is poor and the clutter and signs are worse, but you can do something about that and those ignorant fascias. Up Cloth Hall Street the Halifax BS offices are a sort of miniature homage to their great HQ building. The Kingsgate Centre hides behind older buildings on Cross Church Street but has the usual banal drum announcing its entrance. Internally it is completely standard. It expresses its bulk and car parking backside very prominently to the ring road faced in ‘appropriate’ sandstone - so that’s all right then.
Students often forget where they are
From the entrance to the Kingsgate Centre the vista down the very handsome Queen Street is terminated by the dramatic spire of St Paul’s Church. The accomplished Classical style Queen Street Chapel (1819) is now a theatre and St Paul’s, designed by local architect John Oates in 1829, has been converted to a concert hall. It provides an elegant threshold to the University campus which is across the inner ring road from the market hall. The campus is dominated by the bulk of a 70s building designed by Wilson and Womersley and clad in buff brick to fit in with the sandstone tradition, allegedly. It looks like as if it could be a tax office and feels the need for huge signs proclaiming ‘University’ in case you are uncertain. However it does have quite striking geometry especially from the canalside view. There is some clarity to the layout of the campus from St Paul’s down to the canal but the various recent buildings look like a random off the shelf selection. The Technology Building clad in planks is particularly poor and weathering badly.
Slow down motorists and admire this town
The University is cut off from the town centre by the inner ring road here called Queensgate, although this could be an attractive space. There are many good buildings including St Paul’s, the Gothic style former Technical School, the market hall elevation, Queen Street and the unusual Zetland Hotel. But it is not considered as a street at all, just a race track. The retrogressive solution of Queensgate Revival is a pedestrian bridge. Thanks but no thanks.
This could be great
The Kingsgate Centre blanks off the main entrance to the town from Wakefield Road but remnants of the old street network survive at the junction of the ring road with Kirkgate, leading to the parish church and the New Town. This is a key ‘threshold’ between the town centre and Aspley Basin on the Huddersfield Canal with the riverside beyond. This zone of de-industrialisation stretching to Huddersfield Town's Gulpharm Stadium is the focus of regeneration dreams thankfully yet to materialise. It is a ramshackle mess and badly needs sorting out, but the promoted solution – you guessed it, a vibrant mixed use waterside regeneration fantasy - is yesterday’s mashed potatoes, wrong headed and lacking in credibility. Saved by the recession, Huddersfield deserves and is capable off much better than this.
The car economy - a vast obstacle to pedestrian movement
The starting point must be re-imagining the inner ring road (here called Southgate) as a true street. This is perfectly feasible given vision and determination and would re-establish the relationship between Aspley Basin and the historic town. The principles of the development of the C19th New Town – legibility, connectivity, focus on the streets and spaces and managing the quality of the buildings provide an excellent template for the creation of a New Town for the C21st on the waterside site.
A soft spot for those sandstone suburbs (pre 1914 anyway)
The ring road continues its destructive way north of the town centre, here masquerading as a motorway with grade separation, corkscrews and slip roads eviscerating the attractive townscape. If you can find your way across this engineering acid trip you will find the extraordinarily attractive C19th suburbs along New North Road with stone villas, houses, terraces and sylvan parks – you would love to live here. There are some Art Nouveauish houses by Manchester’s remarkable architect Edgar Wood, a founder of the Northern Art Workers Guild in 1896. He also designed the clock tower in Lindley, a folly with a pagoda roof and ‘so wilful that connections with Mackintosh and Glasgow must be considered’, says Pevsner. Scottish connections must also be considered with the Infirmary (1831 by Oates) with its imposing Greek Doric portico, now part of Huddersfield College. The nearby original college building of 1840 is in rather weak Tudor Gothic. In Huddersfield Classicism ruled OK.
The inscription reads: "for the benefit of the inhabitants"
So then – a surprising and an impressive place, well worth the trip. The New Town is really outstanding, the 1936 Co-op department store is a neglected gem and much of the 60s stuff is very impressive, most especially the market hall. Huddersfield is at heart a self confident, self reliant place, unusual for Yorkshire in being quite reticent. What it needs in planning for its future is to keep calm in the face of the economic storm and show a vision which expresses the real character of an exceptional place. Come on you Terriers – express yourselves!
N. Pevsner: Yorkshire West Riding
I. Nairn: Football Towns (Listener 1975)
D. Lindstrum : West Yorkshire Architects and Architecture
D. Wyles: The Buildings of Huddersfield
Queensgate Revivial: Design and Access Statement
Huddersfield Gem website
L. F. Pearson, Public Art Since 1950
L. F. Pearson, Postwar Murals Database
J. Abse, The Art Galleries of Britain and Ireland
K. Gibson and A. Booth, The Buildings of Huddersfield Research Notes