7 Dec 2014

We are Leeds!

Broadcasting Place 10, Bridgewater Place 0

Leeds is something of a paradox. A sublime city destroyed, if you believe Alan Bennett, whose timbre instantly evokes the city of his childhood, like a foggy November painted by Atkinson Grimshaw. A city with an air of complacency settling for architecture that is second rate, concluded writer and critic Ken Powell, long associated with Leeds’ planning and conservation battles. The ‘Athens of the North’ says Simon Jenkins, ‘a lesson and inspiration to us all’. Which is strange as Leeds certainly lives up to its old slogan ‘Motorway City of the 70s’. Its core is surrounded by a fractured and disconsolate wasteland of motorways and slip roads and littered with utterly dismal, skin-deep ‘Leeds Look’ po-mo offices which, as Owen Hatherley says, makes the place look like Reading, ‘boring enough for southerners to understand’. Not that these are the worst things about a city that was so incontinent about planning before the crash that it ended up with Bridgewater Place, Opal Tower and East Street Gateway, to name just a few of its utterly trashy icons which sum up the hollowness of Leeds’ vision and planning in the Blair boom. Read Douglas Murphy’s wonderful denunciation of a city’s utter dereliction of duty here.

Are we in Reading?

Or the Athens of the North - Park Row

But though I hate to admit it, Simon Jenkins has a point. If you persevere through this ring of dross you find the kernel of Alan Bennett’s remembered city: an exceptionally fine collection of C19th buildings, not unscathed by the C20th but far more coherent than in most cities. Leeds had style and confidence, self satisfied maybe, but with quite a lot to be proud about. ‘Leeds is alright’, is what its citizens would say. But its inheritance and its potential shames its immediate past. Why does Leeds not have a plan? If you read the corporate gibberish it vacuously wants to ‘be the best city in the UK’. Well, it needs to try much harder.

The municipal opulence of Leeds

Leeds likes to boast that, with a population of 750,000, the city is the ‘Capital of the North’, larger than Manchester, Liverpool or Newcastle. But while its rivals are the centres of much larger urban agglomerations, Leeds is the opposite – a compact city with distinctly separate towns like Morley (whose Town Hall rivals Leeds itself) and a hinterland of rolling countryside within its boundaries. Many people driving down the A1 are surprised to be welcomed to the City of Leeds north of Wetherby. The ‘Leeds City Region’ is really a confederation of towns, not a conurbation, but Leeds can claim to be a Northern Powerhouse. Its broadly based economy, with a large financial and professional sector, has made it one of England’s most successful cities although, as the recent Centre for Cities report ‘Fast Track to Growth’ shows, it is the junior partner to Manchester.

The original Northern Powerhouse

The Northern Powerhouse concept is a good one but, like Alsop’s M62 City, over simplistic. The attraction of cities is not all about connectivity, agglomeration and commercial opportunities; the range of its cultural and social facilities, the quality of its institutions, the sense of place and attractiveness of the public realm are what makes cities buzz. And connectivity within cities is as important as between them. A sense of civic responsibility and political and financial freedoms are fundamental to making this happen. Whilst HS3 (really a major upgrading of the existing railway) is definitely a good thing and long overdue, Leeds and the other cities need a lot more than this to compare with major regional cities in Europe.

 Leeds overdosing on highway infrastructure and 'Gateways'

Cities do need better transport infrastructure but Leeds already has far too much of the wrong kind. There are arterial roads everywhere. The M1 was built right to the city centre, and then braids into a bewildering tangle of expressways and convoluted slip roads which destroy the ‘South Bank’ (of the river Aire). Traffic dominates the city streets in a very retro way. Yes, the tight shopping core has pedestrian streets but around this the traffic speeds along a barmy one-way racetrack, the ‘city centre loop’, through City Square, past the Town Hall, Art Gallery, Millennium Square, Museum, St. Anne’s Cathedral, West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Minster then sweeping up The Calls – all places where civilized street life should be axiomatic. However whereas the M1 (now M621) and its spawn are a complete disaster, the inner ring motorway north of the centre did allow for the largely effective conservation of the central core and was intelligently sunk in a cutting.

Welcome to City station - oh dear

That's better, but shame about the cash machines

City station is one of the busiest and most crowded in the country. It is constructed on a fascinating labyrinth of Victorian arches over the Aire but the station itself, rebuilt in 2002, is dour and utilitarian, lacking historical interest or the engineering bravado of, say, Grimshaw’s 1994 Waterloo International. The stylish bit is the 1938 Art Deco North Concourse with wide concrete arch crossbeams; it has been nicely restored, but inevitably degraded by advertising and ephemeral privatised railway tat. The dreary main concourse leads you to a most depressing introduction to Leeds, dominated by Poulson’s 1962 City House, which Betjeman denounced for its impact on City Square. Unfortunately it is being tarted up instead of demolished. The HS3 concept inevitably requires further expansion of City station and there are unsatisfactory plans for a separate HS2 station in the ‘South Bank’ area. Now the Council have sensibly appointed Arup and Jan Gehl to look at options for an integrated station and its environs.

Sensitive and successful regeneration at Granary Wharf

It's grim up North

The railway viaducts and the river Aire make a formidable barrier between the city centre proper and the ‘South Bank’ with its classic regeneration ingredients of water, derelict land and lots of roads. Heseltine imposed a UDC here that left a stunningly banal legacy, notably the Asda Headquarters on the riverside which would disgrace a business park. It is richly symbolic that the former UDC headquarters are now derelict. However the City has taken a more imaginative approach to regeneration of the adjacent Holbeck area, which you access via the amazingly atmospheric ‘dark arches’ under the station. These provide tremendous opportunities for interesting activities, but as yet lack a critical mass. You emerge at Granary Wharf on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, with original gritstone warehouses restored by BDP. Here too are some interesting new buildings. Waterman’s Place is designed by CZWG, who describe it as ‘an eroded geological mass surmounted by a hill town of stepping blocks and riven by a seam of polished copper’, but nevertheless it looks very effective and appropriate. The cylindrical Candle House, picking up the tower motif of nearby Victorian factories, is one of the better efforts of the very many Leeds apartments by Carey Jones.

Tower Works and good new additions

One of Leeds’ big successes has been the Holbeck ‘urban village’ project which has brought new life to some important C19th factories and has incubated 400 new businesses. The Tower Works is an unforgettable Leeds landmark with its distinctive chimneys aping Giotto’s campanile in Florence and Lamberti’s bell tower in Verona. It has been renovated by Bauman Lyons and includes really well conceived new cubic additions in brick which relate very satisfyingly to the campaniles. The Round Foundry is one of a number of other impressive mixed use renovations.

SOS Temple Mills, 1838, but could be 1938

Beyond this however you find the Temple Mills, designed in 1838 by the Egyptologist and curator of the Soane Museum, Joseph Bonomi Junior. It is, as you can imagine, spectacular. The street façade of offices exhibits six beautiful lotus columns. The vast weaving shed behind, unusually, is single storey plus a basement and top-lit with a flat roof insulated with turf. This was reputedly grazed by sheep. Hollow cast iron columns imitate bundled lotus stalks and act as drainage. This is a precocious building of international importance but it is vacant and in very poor condition, owned by the Barclay brothers. There is apparently some prospect of a renovation scheme to provide a new visitor attraction, but one way or another Leeds must save this masterpiece. What is worrying is that the context here is vacant buildings and vast swathes of dereliction with no urban structure to build on – all within 500m of City station. This could be an urban village of medium to low rise houses as a counterweight to the superabundance of shiny residential towers that dominate the approaches to the city centre, but a much more proactive approach by the City is surely required to make this happen rather than leaving it to the market.

Oppressive and witless – Bridgewater Place

The market provided Bridgewater Place – ‘nuff said. Bridgewater Place sums up everything that is wrong about Leeds’ approach to planning and development. It is a stunning eyesore, infamous for creating lethal winds at street level. Apparently Leeds was desperate to have a skyscraper to rival Ian Simpson’s Beetham Tower in Manchester and so scored this spectacular own goal. It is 32 storeys high but looks like a lumpen Dalek, although not really as interesting as that. AEDAS designed, if that is the right word, this ‘mixed use’ development and managed to cram 25% more flats into the shell than originally approved.

Bank sweatshops

Bridgewater Place is the signature building of the South Bank and sets out to draw attention to itself. Most of its companions are just desperately dull, crude, bombastic whilst utterly anonymous. The drive from the motorway into the city centre is a showcase of some of the worst ‘regeneration’ in England. And tucked behind this gross, shiny stuff you find the literally anonymous bank sweatshops with security fencing and turnstile gates like prisons, the dark side of Leeds’ financial services boom. Elsewhere retail and light industrial sheds fill in the spaces between the rampant arterial roads.

The atomised South Bank

Leeds published a new ‘vision’ for the future South Bank in 2012 which talks an ambitious game. The central concept is a new city park along the lines of Birmingham’s commendable Eastside Park, together with a new green axis towards City Square. Leeds, like most ex-industrial cities, has little in the way of green space in its city centre and so far the opportunity to  create a linear park along the Aire has been flunked. A new park would be a very good idea but how is it going to be delivered? The plan sticks doggedly to the ‘let the market decide’ mantra. The City does not control key sites like Asda and even where it does have control, as with the dual carriageways the plan identifies as a major problem, it is remarkably timid on doing anything about this. What is annoying is the hype, like comparing the opportunity to Edinburgh New Town. This demonstrates quite how large the current wasteland is, but also the hopeless dishonesty of the comparison. The New Town was developed to a plan by the Town Council - with enlightenment landowners and aristocratic and professional patrons – none of which is likely to apply in South Bank.

Ramshackle new streets and skyline

Meanwhile developers are currently proposing a £1billion ‘World Trade Center’, note the American spelling, with exhibition and conference centre, a million sq. ft. of offices, 3,000 parking spaces plus hotels, cafes, restaurants, shops etc. in the middle of South Bank. If you have been to Dubai or seen the plans for Liverpool Waters you will have a fair idea of what it would look like. But hopefully this ersatz, alien world will remain a fantasy as the owners, Carlsberg, seem content with the income from a vast temporary car park on the site behind the fine Tetley HQ building, partly re-used as a gallery. From this car park you can survey a solid skyline of new apartments and hotels along the Aire, 10-15 storeys the norm with some reaching 20 storeys. The scale of development certainly impresses but the results are disappointing, although less awful than Bridgewater Place and its environs. This sort of development continues further downstream to Clarence Dock.

The Armouries and lifeless Clarence Dock

Deadly disproportion: the backside of Clarence Dock. 

The centerpiece here is the Royal Armouries Museum of 1995 designed by Derek Walker Associates. Quite why this is in Leeds is not clear – surely it should be in Sheffield? But it is a dignified building with a striking octagonal glass staircase tower at the entrance to the dock from the river. Otherwise it is a sober, largely windowless block in grey brick with vaguely po-mo stone banding. The atrium is impressive and the glass tower displays a kaleidoscope of swords, halberds etc. which turns them into an artwork, deflecting from their true horror. The failures of the scheme are its utterly blank backside to the riverside walk and the terminally dull entrance square. Clarence Dock is full of pleasure craft but the quayside is deserted, even on a sunny lunchtime. Of course it was meant to be served by the new tram system, denied to Leeds by a Whitehall that spent £3 billion on the Jubilee line extension; imagine Canary Wharf without that.

Leeds Bridge: where regeneration should have been centred 

An amazing heritage when given half a chance

More of this please

What seems a wasted opportunity is that this huge quantum of new development, as in Cardiff Bay, pays little or no heed to the qualities of the older townscape along the River Aire. However unlike Cardiff at least many of the older buildings have been renovated, especially along The Calls with its riverside warehouse conversions. This is a very distinctive area with trendy hotels and bars and promised to be quite hip, but didn’t quite take off as sad vacant lots and empty buildings attest. Other good groups of buildings cluster around Crown Point Bridge and particularly Bridge End, with the wonderful ‘flat-iron’ building and the glorious Adelphi pub. Nearly 20 years ago the AJ featured Leeds and publicised plans by the civic architect, John Thorp, to develop ‘civic gateways’ at Crown Point and Bridge End. But nothing happened.

If only there was less of this

The hellmouth

Two fingers to townscape and  pedestrians - Leeds' nadir

What is so sad is the utter isolation of Leeds’ fine Parish Church of 1837, now upgraded to a Minster. It was cut off by the railway viaduct 150 years ago but this could be turned into an asset and the speeding traffic on Kirkgate removed to create a new civic park. Places like Lincoln are planning proactively to knit the historic framework back together but in Leeds there is apparently no such concern. It seems obsessed with big development and brass, not character, townscape quality and identity. Beyond The Minster the townscape completely disintegrates in a disaster zone blitzed by the latest megalomaniac expressway along East Street. Like so much of New Leeds the apartment blocks here are utterly hostile, overbearing and self conscious (or ashamed), like ‘East Street Gateway’ - to what for God’s sake? Leeds is full of these brain dead sentinels. Worse still are the utterly desperate student barracks behind, which Owen Hatherley in ‘Ruins’ rightly captioned ‘Leeds’ nadir’.

Sheffield Crucible or Nottingham Playhouse you are not

The Quarry Hill area is completely cut off by an absurd tangle of expressways. This was the site of the distinctive modernist flats based on the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, which formed a striking composition at the end of the formal axis of The Headrow. Demolition in 1978 was a huge mistake. A Terry Farrell masterplan in 1990 proposed a new cultural quarter here but what materialised was the universally reviled, utterly oppressive and overbearing ‘design and build’ offices, Quarry House. Its immediate context is a wasteland of unmade car parks called Playhouse Square, and here is the West Yorkshire Playhouse, lacking any architectural presence; it could easily be mistaken for a supermarket, sad as this is a company of international standing. Nearby are good new buildings for the BBC, Northern Ballet studios and the College of Music, so there is a cultural quarter of sorts, but isolated and with no presence or vitality, another huge wasted opportunity for Leeds.

Sublime – King Edward St 

So far our tour has mainly reviewed the delusion, denial and lost opportunities of market-led regeneration. But if we start again from City station there is another view of Leeds - most people’s view – that of the fine inherited civic and commercial city centre. What distinguishes Leeds is the compact urban concentration of its core, that it escaped significant war time damage and that the destructive new roads were built around the core, not through it. There are lots of poor post war buildings. Indeed Ken Powell says all of the sixties architecture should be demolished and it is certainly difficult to make a case for the hideously dominant West Riding House or the Merrion Centre. Other shopping centres were equally dismal but none fundamentally changed the structure and dynamics of the town, as they did in Nottingham, for example.

Perhaps the most impressive shopping arcade in the country?

Fantastic detail

Leeds has two great and enduring retail assets – its wonderful arcades and the City Markets at Kirkgate. The extensive network of arcades rivals Cardiff and indeed they are somewhat grander. What is now the Victoria Quarter was designed by Frank Matcham in 1898 as a complex of arcades and shopping streets between Briggate and Vicar Lane. It was restored by Derek Latham in 1990, linking the County and Cross Arcades by glazing over Queen Victoria Street with superb abstract stained glass by Brian Clarke. County Arcade is utterly wonderful with decorations in Burmantofts faience and mosaics, the motifs of oranges recalling the riotous station in Valencia. Matcham’s theatre, destroyed in 1961, has been very satisfactorily rebuilt as Harvey Nichols. So Leeds does posh very well. But further down Vicar Lane is the City Market, allegedly the biggest in Europe, for which superlatives are inadequate. It was designed by Leeming & Leeming in 1904, with an immensely grand Flemish style frontage but Art Nouveau details - shop fronts below, offices above and an extravagant skyline of towers, turrets and chimneys. Behind this amazing façade is an even more striking market hall with clustered cast iron Corinthian columns supporting a glazed clerestory, lantern roofs and a central octagon. Dragons support the balcony; the walls are glazed brick. It is a tremendous tour de force. Beyond this another vast market hall, a simple structure built after a fire in 1975, and beyond that the huge open air market. All this is probably just too big for present demand but contraction needs to be handled very carefully, as the markets are central to Leeds’ tradition and identity.

Perhaps the best set of markets in the country – a must see

The dreaming spires and turrets of Kirkgate Market

Not many trees in Leeds

The shopping area is basically a compact grid of streets and arcades. Briggate is the main north – south street containing most of the chain stores like the striking black marble Egyptian influenced M&S (which began life in the City Markets), and a lovely Deco Debenhams. Near Bridge End older buildings survive behind the frontages, although what purports to be the New King’s Arms of 1692 is actually a fibreglass replica. The wonderful Time Ball building with elaborate clocks, a Leeds landmark, stands next to the dullest of dull Leeds Look offices. But one of the really good things about Leeds is its collection of unspoilt pubs, often tucked away down side alleys as in a market town, like Whitelock’s off Briggate, still in its Victorian finery. Briggate is wide, a bit too wide for the rather basic paving design which could do more to shield you from the truly awful Opal Tower currently terminating the vista. At the north end of this long street is the superb Grand Theatre, restored and extended as the home of Opera North.

Lots of clocks though

Feels like the Strand

Boar Lane heads east from City Square with a fine collection of C19th commercial architecture on the south side, saved from demolition by the bankruptcy of developers in the 1970s. The north side was largely redeveloped as shopping plazas. The new Trinity shopping centre, around Etty’s Holy Trinity of 1721, is a largely successful redevelopment of dreary earlier efforts. The concept is attributed to the late Enric Miralles and was ‘delivered’ by Chapman Taylor. What is good about it is that it continues the Leeds arcade tradition with part open air arcaded streets and knits together a number of traditional pedestrian shopping streets. Most of the elements are fairly standard but infinitely better handled than, say, Trinity Walks in nearby Wakefield. I particularly liked that you can see Holy Trinity spire through the glazed central atrium, although the street frontages to either side of the church are poor.

Unusually Trinity shopping centre works with the townscape 

Provincial tat and metropolitan scale at the top of Headrow

Headrow is the other main east-west street, constructed in the 1920s and intended to be the ‘Regent Street of the North’. The grand, bland, pompous but undoubtedly impressive neo-classical buildings were designed by Blomfield. Lewis’s, begun in the thirties but only completed in the fifties, was the biggest department store outside London. However it did not survive the retail revolution of the late C20th, although the building is still there, unlike that of its rival Schofield’s, replaced by CPMG’s lame, cheap ‘The Core’. But Headrow has been livened up by the conversion and extension of Blomfield’s grand former Leeds Permanent Building for leisure use and a hotel, around another interpretation of the Leeds arcade tradition, by DLG Architects.

Stubborn old Blomfield

Another big development is underway between Eastgate (the continuation of Headrow) and the City Markets. Deferentially called Victoria Gate, the main component is a mega John Lewis which will be clad in white terracotta and red bricks, ‘reinterpreting traditional Leeds materials in a contemporary way’, say architects ACME. New arcades will link this to the Victoria Quarter and it will be fed from the other side by a large car park, to be clad in twisted metal. The retail leviathan’s bulk will be difficult to disguise but, based on the visuals, the design looks, well at least ok, compared with the brutality of JL in Cardiff. The scheme by Hammerson is a sure fire commercial winner and will push Leeds further up the retail rankings; pity Sheffield, recently ditched by the same developers.

Cuthbert Brodrick's masterpiece 

Hats off

At the foot of the building

Full of energy

And there is yet more to the Leeds retail offer. South of the City Markets and Kirkgate is the oval Corn Exchange, designed by Cuthbert Brodrick, architect of the Town Hall, and probably his best building. As Derek Lindstrum said ‘a meticulously detailed, ingenious design which created a major architectural monument out of a commercial building’. Its exterior is faced with strikingly cut diamond pointed local stone. The interior is dominated by the truly stunning dome with cast iron ribs and is just an amazing space. In 1990 it was converted for shopping and leisure use, which involved cutting out a section of the ground floor to make the basement into a restaurant, sadly currently vacant, but the shops on the ground and mezzanine levels are interesting. There are lots of attractive independent shops and cafes in this part of town which has an edgy, creative feel, not too dissimilar to Shoreditch. This is exactly the sort of thing that makes cities genuinely ‘vibrant’ and culturally three dimensional. It creates the ambience which attracts young talent. Surely Leeds should be encouraging this creativity as a key part of its economic strategy. Yet lower Kirkgate is allowed to rot and part of the historic White Cloth Hall has recently been demolished as structurally unsound; civic self harm and a shocking indictment of the city.

A northern Bloomsbury

For human interaction (and not the car)

Nineteenth century commerce and street life

Leeds’ principal office quarter is north of City station. Here are many fine C19th commercial palazzi around Park Row and East Parade. The scale is not Glasgow or Manchester but it is confident metropolitan stuff and at times you could be in Mayfair. However this quality is often overwhelmed by later redevelopments, like the surfeit of po-mo on Park Lane. The designs of the new offices tend to be deferential and formulaic but at least they respect the street structure and the scale is generally right. After so much timidity the Bank of England building on King Street, designed by BDP in 1969 as an inverted ziggurat in grey granite, seems very refreshing. It has a concrete deck for an anticipated upper level walkway that (thankfully) never came to pass. Further down King St is the sumptuous Hotel Metropole of 1897 in what Pevsner calls ‘undisciplined French Loire taste …. Ruabon terracotta with writhing sculptural detail ….’ . Park Square to the west was laid out in 1788 and retains a domestic scale with some notable exceptions particularly the fantastical Hispano-Moorish St Paul’s House with ‘truly Mohammedan cresting’ (Pevsner). The gardens are one of the few green spaces in the city centre.

Contemporary commerce - oblivious to the street

The visual expression of developers rubbing their hands

Wellington Street, which leads west from City Square, starts with some promise of urbanity but quickly descends into a nether-world, part dullest of dull city street and part business park where you could get away with the merest tokens of half hearted design for your miserable 80s offices. John Madin’s Yorkshire Post building has sadly been demolished, so save yourself the trouble of looking for it. Immediately next to the station is Princes Exchange, a sharp 1999 design for offices by Carey Jones on a triangular site, glass with strong horizontal fins and dramatically lit at night. Beyond this, vast new cliffs of flats overlook vast vacant sites with hoardings promising yet more vast stunning developments. Over 12,000 city centre flats were built before the crash and Leeds really got burnt, dubbed the ‘empty flats capital of the North’. There are some good examples of apartment building, notably Granary Wharf and the really excellent development alongside the Corn Exchange, designed by AHMM, showing what real architecture can add to a city by being considered and genuinely contextual. The subtle curve of the low block, the deep reveals and the inspired use of Sicillian lava slabs which graduate from yellow through green to blue make this building memorable and inspiring. But generally the architectural quality of the apartment complexes is best described as grim, with the public realm even grimmer. However, Bourbon-like, the City seems determined to start this cycle again.

Monumental scale (and traffic) 

Post Office glamour - City Square 

City Square shows the civic ambition Leeds once had. It was laid out from 1893 in grand style to celebrate the granting of city status. Around it today is an awkward collection of statement buildings: a characteristic Tanner GPO (converted to a swanky bar); the LMS Queens Hotel in classical Portland stone (which Pevsner calls rather dull but I find stylish); a relatively successful 12 storey post modern office block in expensive black granite and white limestone, replacing and apologising for a reviled 60s predecessor; a 1965 tower with curved podium which Pevsner liked, now unfortunately re-clad as the Park Plaza Hotel. The Victorian layout of the square was swept away by the traffic engineers in the 1960s but remodelled by John Thorp in 2002. The new design is carefully considered and restores something of the original character and elegance, but the swirling traffic still isolates the station, typical of Leeds’ cowardice about traffic management.

"extravagant expenditure ... owed to the rest of the community and posterity" – Dr J. D. Heaton

A study in civic pride 

The Town Hall epitomises Leeds and its profile is used nationally as a symbol of municipal pride and enterprise. Pevsner says ‘Leeds can be proud of its Town Hall …. of the classical buildings of its date no doubt the most successful’. It was designed by the then unknown Cuthbert Brodrick in 1852. Today it is primarily a concert hall, where I recently sat on uncomfortable chairs through the whole of Opera North’s superb Ring Cycle: two magnificently grand C19th achievements brought together. There are imposing steps up to the Town Hall but it faces a wide street (the continuation of Headrow), not a square as you might expect. Across Calverley Street are the richly detailed Municipal Buildings of 1878, built for the municipal gas, water and sanitary companies together with a library, and later extended to provide the City Art Gallery - a telling case study in the sort of civic pride, initiative and independence from Whitehall that Leeds needs today. What is now the café of the Art Gallery has polished granite columns and vaults with the most magnificent, sparkling multi coloured glazed octagonal bricks, recently re-exposed and restored after being hidden behind a utilitarian false ceiling. The Henry Moore Gallery has a dramatic new entrance from Headrow, a bold polished black granite façade attached to a blank terrace gable end with a single very vertical opening. Although modest it is one of most stylish additions to modern Leeds, designed by Dixon Jones in 1980. Across Cookridge Street St Anne’s Cathedral is a wonderful essay in Arts and Crafts Gothic, completed in 1904.

Town Hall and Art Gallery deserve a better civic space 

Chic Henry Moore Institute

The Town Hall and Municipal Buildings are in an awkward relationship with the Civic Hall and the Leeds Institute to the rear. The Institute, again by Cuthbert Brodrick, 1865, now houses the Leeds Museum. The Civic Hall by Vincent Harris, 1931, followed on from Sheffield’s City Hall. ‘As ambitious as the Town Hall but not quite as self confident’ said Pevsner. Lindstrum thought its Portland rather than traditional Yorkshire stone ‘responds to its bland smooth classicism’ but this is relieved by the immensely thin symmetrical spires surmounted with gilded owls, symbol of Leeds.

Vincent Harris and the North 

Leeds has few squares and public spaces. The new Millennium Square between the civic buildings should have been an opportunity for a new civic centrepiece such as Sheffield achieved with the ‘Heart of the City’. However unfortunately the brief was distorted by the lottery’ funding criteria, yet another example of centrist dabbling. This required priority be given to performance space and thus massive underground servicing with John Thorp’s resultant design an unsatisfactory compromise. And, as with other new civic squares like Nottingham’s Old Market Square, the pressure for ever more events, markets etc. means it is difficult to ever see the design as intended. South of the square the conversion and extensions of the Electric Press and Carriage Works by Panter Hudspith to form a new civic theatre is a very considerable success, its subtly curved Portland stone façade a fine compliment to the Civic Hall.

Cars and crass PoMo: the "Leeds Look" 

West of the square is the streamlined moderne Brotherton Wing of Leeds General Infirmary with its tiers of south facing sun balconies. The original buildings on Great George Street from the 1860s are by George Gilbert Scott, very fine, very Gothic and now largely unused, awaiting a new use. Nearby on Westgate is an interesting juxtaposition of confident modelling and brickwork in the pre Leeds Look Combined Courts Centre of 1977, designed by the PSA, with the post modern nervous breakdown of the 1994 Magistrates Courts. Westgate Point, 1987, by David Lyons and which exemplifies the Leeds Look, closes the vista.

Still feels like the future - Chamberlin, Powell and Bon

That Barbican feeling

In vogue: brutalism and allotment gardening

The vast LGI campus stretches above the inner ring motorway towards the attractive suburbs of Little Woodhouse and Hyde Park. However the campus itself creates as much of a barrier as the sunken motorway that divides Millennium Square from that other great civic enterprise, Leeds University. Lanchester and Lodge’s great Portland stone Parkinson Building, completed in 1950, dominates Woodhouse Lane and has tremendous presence, with the magnificent Brotherton Library behind. But the unifying factor of the sprawling campus is the grid of structures by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. These are quite thrilling, like walking though a sculpture, a wonderful futuristic epic, at times almost a modernist factory - easily the best post war buildings in Leeds. Later alterations, like painting the concrete and jolly landscaping demean but don’t diminish their impact. What is unforgivable is the partial demolition of their striking Accrington brick Charles Morris Halls, especially given the utter worthlessness of the innumerable barrack towers by Unite et al. However the University’s new ‘Central Village Residences’ next to the motorway bridge are actually quite good, well proportioned with quality materials and a general clarity and sobriety. Undoubtedly the best new building in Leeds is Broadcasting Place by Fielden Clegg Bradley, for the other university, which has confusingly changed its name to Leeds Beckett. Here is a tower whose shape and proportions really are interesting, not contrived, and one clad in weathering Corten steel, not cheap shiny stuff. You just want to keep looking at it.

Broadcasting Place: impressive context 

Leeds can build tall buildings well (if it really wants to)

The two campuses are divided by the motorway in a cutting that, in theory, retains the connectivity of the traditional streets above. But you are crossing a chasm of traffic noise, dodging convoluted slip roads and counter-intuitive traffic systems. And the scale of the demolitions, not just for the motorway but of the inner city streets themselves, in reality creates a total disconnect. In Hamburg long sections of the urban motorway are being decked over to reconnect the dislocated city and transform the local environment. This could be done here too, with the road system simplified to create an urban grain of city streets and squares, releasing development sites and enabling new green spaces. This would transform the stunted, mean cityscape of today, helping to make Leeds ‘the best city in the UK’. It is possible, just needs vision … and money and quality design and determination…. but the vision comes first.

The best part of Quarry Hill

The failure to realise the Farrell masterplan for Quarry Hill seems to have resulted in a reluctance to have any real vision or over-arching plan for the city at all. In the revealing 2007 TV programme ‘Building Britain’ Linda Barker interviews the then City Architect, John Thorp. He says ‘Leeds is growing too fast for a masterplan’. Ironically the walls of his office were plastered with plans allegedly intended to guide developers towards producing ‘beautiful buildings’. Well we have seen the results. Leeds with its commercial attractiveness and all its assets and potential should have done a hell of a lot better than it did. And to do better the city needs to shake off its smug complacency and develop an ambitious new plan for the city centre.

Very retro: Leeds needs to visit Sheffield

The key thing that Leeds needs in order realise its ambitions to be a ‘northern powerhouse’ is a radically different transport strategy. At present its potential for a more sustainable future, a high quality of environment and vibrant city life, is massively constrained by the legacy of the ‘motorway city of the 70s’. It is hugely reliant on the car – nearly 60% of city centre workers are car commuters clogging up the motorways and the approach roads and ruining the environment of the city streets. It should be focusing on public transport, pedestrians, cycling, the quality of its streetscape and promoting real connectivity and attractive environments. To do this it needs to redesign and reduce the capacity on its absurdly over dominant roads.

New coffee table book coming soon: Pedestrian Guardrails of Leeds

Leeds desperately lacks an integrated public transport system such as you would find in virtually all of its European regional city peers. A really positive component of ‘DevoManc’ is the commitment to TfL style regulation and integration, which could finally give England’s second city the sort of public transport system Germany’s second city (Hamburg) has had since 1965. But, whereas Manchester has an expanding Metrolink tram and will eventually have the Northern Hub (which could be as good as the S Bahn), the government rejected the ‘economic case’ for Leeds’ modest plans for a tram system. Which must be crazy as Sheffield and Nottingham, both smaller cities, managed to tick the mandarins’ boxes. And while this debacle of Whitehall’s micro-management and centralised control has been going on, bus commuting into the city centre has fallen by 30%. Leeds is pushing ahead with a trolley bus line instead, a defiant political statement. Quiet and pollution-free, trolleybuses are certainly a lot better than anything Firstbus has to offer, but are clearly not enough by themselves for a city like Leeds. In Lyon, for example, trolleybuses are part of a high quality public transport network alongside metros, trams and integrated low emission buses. This is the sort of public transport infrastructure Leeds should be empowered to achieve. No point in HS3 if it takes you longer to get to City station than it does to get from there to Manchester.

Compact city, full of life

Smart move: the arena is not in a retail park

The thing that makes Leeds work so well as a place is its very compact city centre. This urban concentration makes for an exciting city with lots of people, lots of activities and facilities all mixed up together. It makes it a potentially sustainable place too, easily served by public transport, and it could be easy to walk and cycle. The concept of the dense city surely points the right direction for its future development. In this context, plans for a major extension of the commercial centre as a ‘South Bank New Town’ seem like a fatal distraction. This risks undermining the very qualities that make the city special. Rather than Edinburgh New Town it is much more likely to end up as another Cardiff Bay; vast anonymous, lacking city life – in fact more of what has been delivered already along Victoria Road and around Clarence Dock. Leeds got it right with the location of its new Arena behind the Merrion Centre. The light green circular design is a bit like a spaceship, or a Chartreuse cake, but the venue and the location work well; this is definitely the right place – not out at Elland Road. Similarly a conference and exhibition centre and the proposed new concert hall need to be fitted into the fabric of the city centre, not shifted out to some regeneration wilderness, as happened in Glasgow and Cardiff, for example.

Just imagine the city you could build

So why does Leeds look like this?

When the domination of roads and traffic in Leeds is tackled there are plenty of opportunities for development that will expand the central core and help stitch the city centre and the fractured inner city back together. This can help build on distinctiveness and diversity rather than just adding more and more of the same, which is the danger with the current laissez faire market driven ‘non-plan’. And there is opportunity to create a network of public spaces and parks to make Leeds more than just a commercial city. The catalyst for the new approach to transport planning, city planning and making Leeds the ‘happy city’ that it so desperately needs to be could be the Arup/Jan Gehl study of the options around City station but the cynic in me fears that Gehl’s name will be used as window dressing and radical thinking will be quietly dropped. I hope Leeds proves me wrong.

Build on your strengths – Crown St


Thanks to Ken Powell, Chris Hammond, Robin Machell and Kevin Grady, Chief Executive of the Leeds Civic Trust, for sharing their knowledge and insights of Leeds.

The Leeds Pevsner Architectural Guide by Susan Wrathmell is invaluable and I have quoted freely from it.

Owen Hatherley’s ‘Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain’ is a must-read on Leeds and West Yorkshire.

Douglas Murphy’s blog on Leeds and Bradford ‘Unbuilding Britain’ is also essential reading

Achitects’ Journal special issues on Leeds edited by Ken Powell dated 25 April 1990 and 22 May 1997 provide excellent background.

Derek Lindstrum’s West Yorkshire – Architects and Architecture has a wonderful feel for the place.

Elain Harwood’s Twentieth Century Architects series book on Chamberlin, Powell and Bon is invaluable.


phil said...

Great piece. I've been saying the same thing for years. You are a bit wrong about Temple Works though - it's hardly vacant. We've been running a cultural program from the building for about 6 years (we had a big event Friday night) and I do 2 or 3 tours of the place a week. Next time you are in Leeds give me a shout and I'll show you around.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this, it confirms what many of us have concluded from the lack of civic art, the opportunism in the absence of a clear plan, and the woeful lack of car restraint. Leeds is loved by so many, in spite of the miles of guard rail and severance by overcapacity roads. Will it have the guts to stop being a slave to car parking and connect and densify the centre, or continue to drift between opportunistic development and crass compromises.

Matt said...

"..This would transform the stunted, mean cityscape of today, helping to make Leeds ‘the best city in the UK’. It is possible, just needs vision … and money and quality design and determination…. but the vision comes first."

The town hall seems certainly talk the talk, though I fear you may hit the nail on the head when you say:

"and even where [the city] does have control, as with the dual carriageways the plan identifies as a major problem, it is remarkably timid on doing anything about this. What is annoying is the hype.."

It's this timid approach and lack of vision that won't get Leeds the integrated public transport system found everywhere else in Europe in a city of its size or seriously tackle the significant problems caused by the dominant highway infrastructure that strangles the city.

I like your ideas for the Minster and Kirkgate area (one of the very few areas with some trees in the city centre):

What is so sad is the utter isolation of Leeds’ fine Parish Church of 1837, now upgraded to a Minster. It was cut off by the railway viaduct 150 years ago but this could be turned into an asset and the speeding traffic on Kirkgate removed to create a new civic park. Places like Lincoln are planning proactively to knit the historic framework back together but in Leeds there is apparently no such concern. It seems obsessed with big development and brass, not character, townscape quality and identity.

Though again, it seems the legacy of the 70's ambitions and the continued failure to tackle the over-reliance on the motor car will always prevent such bold ideas from ever happening.

There is a lot to be positive about in Leeds, and your post describes much to proud of. However, I've also read the 'corporate gibberish' from the council wanting ‘be the best city in the UK’ and I agree, it needs to try much harder.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely excellent and comprehensive account. Re Temple Mill: the comment above is too optimistic. It's good that the building is being colonised for arts uses but it needs major repair and a clear vision for its future I don't think this will come from the present owners...

Charles Jenks said...

A fair article, if a bit negative. I think Leeds has got far more going for it than many other cities in the UK and this is reflected in its growth and success. Your comments about the city being compact are correct, but in actual fact south bank was actually part of the city centre until it was all demolished for the motorway city so the city centre was actually twice the size previously.

I disagree that the NGT will be the saviour of the public transport as it will destroy our only remaining inner city communities and fell over 400 trees. Not a sustainable move.

As for vision, well i dont think John Thorp was the mastermind he is often made out to be, his coloured plans were far too open for interpretation and although the vision was actually there it was dropped like a bad habit as soon as a developer protested...based on your article this would seem to explain alot.

The city park is also a contrived, hard to understand plan that will again be diluted to the city's detriment. Perhaps the Kirkgate park would work better but it needs a total reconfigure in order to get surrounding built form to ensure its a nice and safe place.

Does Leeds then need a vision...yes...ofcourse it does. But it is only just beginning to realise that the city should not be about shopping and drinking and cars as previous (and some current) leaders have been happy to promote, but it needs to be about creating a truly liveable sustianable, green, cultural city. Thats what the vision should be and anything that fails that test should be out.

Igor Belanov said...

Leeds City Centre compares favourably to most similar cities in Britain, and some of its 'corners' are excellent, in particular the Park Square area, the 'Civic Quarter' around the Town Hall, Civic Hall, Library and LGI, and the arcades. Unfortunately Leeds is obsessed with premium shopping, and the effect of two massive shopping malls in the city centre will only be to further marginalise independent and 'budget' establishments and make some of the older shopping streets barren.

I find that the worst facet of Leeds is the hideousness of most of the inner ring surrounding the centre. Almost every arterial road leading to the centre has suffered horribly in the post-war period, through excessive road-building, ugly light-industry and warehouse zones, public housing that turns its back on major thoroughfares, and the tacky yuppie flats and office developments that present no interaction with the street. The one major exception, the A660 corridor, is about to be mauled by the anachronistic trolley-bus.

What Leeds badly needs is to incorporate diversity into its planning and to realise that the less-wealthy are not to be ashamed of.

Anonymous said...

Great article and a fascinating read. However, the relentless negativity of the first half was annoying.

Anonymous said...

A very comprehensive article, but very negative, and that does not reflect the feel of central Leeds at all!

Many of the negative views are short sighted in my opinion, in that they are detatched from reality: we are not able to borrow London's magic wand, and so will always have to make do with scraps thrown to us by Westminster and commercial lead development, unless we do get some meaningful level of funding devolution from central government - but until then, perhaps making do with what we get is what Yorkshire folk a proudly good at.

Anonymous said...

The article’s author doesn’t seem to like many contemporary buildings, its like reading a leaf out HRH Prince Charles' book, but Leeds centre is fairly well populated with tall modern buildings which is mainly what makes it look and feel like a thriving modern city. I agree the historic and characterful core is an invaluable asset to Leeds, but that alone wouldn’t push Leeds forward as a large thriving city. With the odd exception, I for one really like the Leeds skyline, and feel it projects the right image for a city of Leeds’ growing stature.

Igor Belanov said...

The bits of Leeds that 'look and feel' thriving are largely the older Victorian/Edwardian areas, the markets, the arcades etc. The environment around many of the 'tall modern buildings' such as Bridgewater Place, the Opal towers and the East St area is sterile, dull, and devoid of people.
That isn't to criticise 'modern architecture' carte blanche, but the formulaic reproduction of bland multi-storey offices is basically a parody of the modern city and a rather childish desire to 'catch up' with other conurbations. Leeds is not Dubai, thank god.

David said...

Fantastic piece. I might quibble with a few of the verdicts on individual buildings. Bridgewater Place looks okay from a distance and it terminates the vistas of certain streets (the Calls) quite nicely, though I agree that the way it interacts with the city around it at surface level is abysmal, like many other recent tall developments. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that many of the big developments of the last boom were second rate. The appraisal of the city's urban structure is very perceptive. Leeds is indeed hamstrung by decades of road building which decimated much of the centre and inner city and continue to blight it today. These roads are preventing Leeds from fulfilling its true potential. This particularly evident in the North Street, East Street, Mabgate, Woodhouse Lane, Hunslet Road and Westgate areas. Here, new buildings have been slotted into the gaps between fast roads and intersections, which makes for a very poor public realm. Space for road vehicles (roads and parking) takes up far too much urban land. The city needs more imaginative, bold and decisive planning to serve the public good and particularly the needs of pedestrians and cyclists. There is also a desperate need for more green and open space in the centre. Improvements to the city's urban realm should be a priority and it does need to look to Sheffield, Camden, Greenwich et al. It is absolutely correct to say that building a first rate public transport system is essential if these problems are to be resolved. The form that this should take is perhaps better debated elsewhere, but buses, rail and some form of light rail (in the right place) will have to play a role.
So, on the whole, the negative tone of the opening is justified as there is much to be sad about. However, the city also has a lot to be proud of in architectural and planning terms. I was pleased to see the piece appreciates the good things that have happened in the city in the last few decades (pedestrianisation, effective conservation and refurbishment of older buildings, the revitalisation of the river, new public space) as well as the more obviously awesome legacy of the C19th and early C20th. I particularly approve of the glowing remarks on some of the highly successful infill building, which slot elegantly into the urban fabric such as the mixed use Crown Street Buildings. New developments like Granary Wharf are to be applauded and the more imaginative, attractive towers deserve praise, specially Broadcasting Tower and Candle House).
I'm also excited about the potential for the future growth of the centre. Thus, I don't share the pessimism expressed here about plans for the southward expansion of the city centre, into the so-called South Bank (a re-branded area taking in Hunslet and Holbeck). I think this area offers an excellent opportunity for the expansion the truly urban, dense part of the city; over the next few decades the South Bank could become a vibrant and interesting mixed use district to complement the centre. Some of the early forays into the South Bank, such as New Dock and Holbeck Urban Village, are currently under-performing (though, in both areas, things are improving) but they stand to benefit from more people, activity and business in the area. Yes, development here needs to be done right with decent public transport, open space and a pleasant urban realm. True, cutting the highway network down to size is a considerable obstacle and the experience of the last 15 years gives cause for pessimism here. But it could be done. I don't think Leeds should focus solely on its traditional city centre (though of course it shouldn't neglect it either). Leeds has been too suburban for too long and the bigger the dense, exciting, dynamic urban core becomes, the more the city will look, feel and behave like a major European city (we are one already, statistically speaking, but that isn't always apparent on the ground).

David said...

[With apologies for the double post]

One thing the piece skirts over is that the development of apartment blocks since the late 1980s (which peaked in the mid-2000s and is slowly beginning again) has had a transformative social and cultural effect on the life of the city centre by giving it a large residential population for the first time in 60 years. We are starting to reap the rewards of this in terms of vitality, cultural diversity and independent business. Whilst the form "city living" has taken leaves much to be desired (it is skewed towards young people without dependents, rather than families and the elderly; many apartments are too small; some developments are stranded in semi-derelict areas) the problems could be remedied in future developments. If "city living" can be spread to more of the outer core and inner city and diversified so that a broader range of people come to live in the centre, so much the better.

If anyone Leeds-based would like to meet for a chat on any of these issues, do contact me on davidinwrofy (at) gmail.com

Martin Wainwright said...

Thanks for an interesting visit but maybe fewer 'utterly's and more exploration (eg of central green space) would be good next time. Also perhaps a closer look at how buildings you dismiss actually work; the gibe at the Playhouse is an example. It is hugely successful in the roles for which it was intended. That applies more generally in Leeds than you suggest. As for appearance, affection for buildings requires something which too many architectural and planning critics lack. Time.

Igor Belanov said...

That is a good point, I do find the Playhouse to be aesthetically dull, but it isn't really a 'statement' building like Quarry House, and is partially hidden away in the hillside. The internal design and main auditorium of the Playhouse are excellent, but some of the sightlines in the smaller theatre are poor.

Anonymous said...

Whilst Broadcasting Place is an impressive building from the outside once you get beyond the large atrium, as I found on a visit, it is miserably cramped and poorly laid out. Sadly, a too common problem with showcase buildings.