London has Christopher Wren, Barcelona Antonio Gaudi, and Leeds, well Leeds has Cuthbert Brodrick, the Victorian architect who left us just a handful of public buildings including the amazing, elipitical Corn Exchange.
So when the organisers of Bettakultcha, the most fun you’ll ever have with Microsoft Office, secured it as the venue for their latest event I didn’t take much persuading. I wanted to give people a little context to the building, why it came to be here, what went on in it, and what might happen there in the future.
Only last month the French Agriculture Minister warned that rising food prices risked sparking riots in cities around the world. But it is hard for us to understand just how important corn, or wheat, was to people in the industrial cities of the 19th Century. At Peterloo in Manchester in 1819, troops massacred a crowd protesting against trade restrictions, the Corn Laws, which kept prices artificially high. When those Corn Laws were finally repealed they split the Tory Party and pushed half of them into coalition with the Liberals.
Leeds sits at the boundary between Yorkshire’s industrial west and agricultural east. In the old corn exchange at the top of Briggate the farmers and corn traders (or “factors”) would bargain and make deals. The outcome of these deals governed whether the poor of the town, crammed into yards just a short walk from the corn exchange, could feed themselves and their families.
By the start of the 1860s Leeds needed a bigger space for these deals to be done. For the design, like the corn, the city fathers looked east, to the Hull-born architect Cuthbert Brodrick. Brodrick was already well-known to Leeds. At the age of 29, he designed the Town Hall, the acme of municipal magnificance. He also left us the Mechanics’ Institute, now the City Museum, and the Oriental Baths, now sadly demolished.
“the greatest French architect to be born and to work in the Département of Yorkshire.”
For the Leeds Corn Exchange, he certainly took his inspiration from Paris. Here’s the Halle au Blé in 1838.
Even today the Corn Exchange looks like an alien arrival, this Parisian form in the middle of Leeds, an agricultural incursion in an industrial city.
But it’s not wholly alien, because Brodrick was working in local stone, the millstone grit quarried from West Leeds. And millstone grit, like Brodrick, does not do subtle. Every external surface is decorated, including many agricultural motifs in keeping with the building’s purpose.
The inside is plainer but all the more striking for it. The space makes me want to fill it with jelly and lift off the lid.
And it’s an egalitarian space. The offices around the upper floor are carefully arranged so that all their doors have the same status. In an oval building, no one gets a corner office.
After its opening in 1864, the journal ‘The Architect’ found:
“No roof that it has ever been our fortune to see has impressed us more then this one, as a work of original genius and thorough practical utility, and the degree of dignity and spaciousness which it confers upon a very simple interior is hardly to be believed without being seen.”
The farmers and corn factors were less complimentary. Despite the amazing roof light they complained that it was too dark:
“We are assured, and we regret to have to state it, that the unanimous opinion of those present was, that, in order to judge of samples, those who frequent the market will find it necessary to go outside the building.”
The traders made their peace with the Corn Exchange. More glass was added to the roof. On this board we can see the names of the companies that frequented the Corn Exchange, East and North Yorkshire firms prominent among them.
And here they are at work on market day. Samples would be places on the tables for inspection, prices haggled over, and deals done.
In preparing this talk, Louise, the Corn Exchange manager, dug out a list of Bye-laws for me. I love a ruleset like this because we can learn so much about what went on here from all the things that were not allowed.
Inside, only authorised persons could engage in shewing, exhibiting, soliciting and touting. Outside we might find others hawking, loitering, smoking and with dogs.
But rules are there to be bent. Here’s a dog show inside the Corn Exchange, because the building was always used for a multitude of things. I talked to several people who grew up in Leeds in the 1970s and 80s who remember coming here for model railway shows and the like.
“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” – Jane Jacobs
Which brings us to the Corn Exchange today. It’s still a place for shewing, exhibiting, soliciting and touting. Tonight, Bettakultcha turns it into a place for exchanging stories.
It’s Heritage Open Days from 9-12 September, a once-a-year chance of free access to properties that are usually closed to the public or charge for admission. Buildings all over England will be open, except in London where you have to wait a week for Open House on 18-19 September.
Heritage at Risk Exhibition – photos on display at the Leeds Civic Trust on Wharf Street. See the shocking state of some of the city’s most significant buildings now at risk through neglect. (Disclosure – my wife Caroline is one of the volunteers who have done a brilliant job on updating and documenting the Heritage At Risk Register.)
As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I moved offices in Leeds earlier this year from Holbeck Urban Village to Clarence Dock. The stark contrast between the two areas has set me thinking about a city’s built environment and how it can make a difference to people’s lives.
First some context for those who don’t know Leeds so well. Both districts are to the south of the city centre. Both played important roles in the city’s commercial past. Holbeck, at the terminus of the Leeds to Liverpool Canal, was a manufacturing district rich in textiles, engineering and pin-making. Clarence Dock was, from 1843, the city’s main dock. By dock I do not mean a place to charge your iPod but rather, in the archaic sense of the word, a big basin of water in which ships stopped to unload and take on goods.
Both areas have been developed in the past 15 years. Therein lies the difference.
The designers of Holbeck Urban Village have deliberately reused as much as they can, breathing new life into even the humblest old buildings. Where new build has been more practical it follows original street patterns to create small, interlinked public spaces with pubs and cafes. New media businesses pump pixels in the Round Foundry complex where once Matthew Murray‘s men cast steam engines.
Across the road, Grade I listed Temple Works is at the start of an exciting revitalisation. The amazing Tower Works site will be next so long as the promised funding comes through.
Holbeck was a magical place for a historian to work in a high-tech business. I self-indulgently imagined that the world-changing importance of Industrial Revolution pioneers like Murray, his mentor the flax magnate John Marshall, and pin king Colonel Thomas Harding could rub off on my own work as a spinner of mobile internets. I was not alone. In the last few years Holbeck has inspired many others to create art and literature based on its multi-layered history. Granary Wharf now boasts Candle House, one of the best of the rash of new tall buildings, not to mention its own urban storyteller.
A mile down the River Aire, Clarence Dock is a different story. Cleared for redevelopment earlier in the Nineties but only recently completed, it seems there is literally nothing of the Dock’s historic fabric left above ground level, though occasional warning signs hint at something more interesting below the waterline. Compelling though it is on the inside, the Royal Armouries Museum is an alien arrival. Before it came to Leeds, it was meant to go to Sheffield where its magnificent Hall of Steel would presumably have had more resonance.
Clarence Dock is all bread and circuses, the ultimate blank canvas for the retail spectacle. I took the boys down there a couple of weeks ago for a canter round the Armouries and to watch the Dragon Boat races where teams of workmates rowed for charity in vessels emblazoned with their logos. A good time was had by all, and in a good cause, yet there was a randomness, disconnected from any sense of why the water was there, or how it played a part in the life of the city.
The history of the Dock is acknowledged – literally beneath the visitors’ feet - on dockside flagstones. These words seem to add insult to injury, like sticking plasters applied to a gaping wound of the collective memory. A paving slab that says “20 Tonne Crane” is not the same as a 20 tonne crane.
I don’t mean to knock everything that’s happening at Clarence Dock. The “ghost town” tag seems overblown. And I don’t know enough of the back-story. Maybe not a single building was fit for reuse. Maybe every crane had rusted beyond repair, even as a heritage totem pole. But it seems to me that at Clarence Dock, Leeds has squandered a huge amount of its narrative capital.
By narrative capital I mean this. When a building is first made it belongs to the builder, the architect and their paymasters. They alone can tell stories about why and how it came into being in its pristine form. But over time, the balance tips in favour of the place’s users, its neighbours and even to passers-by. Their stories become the building’s stories and the building’s stories become inspirations, symbolic of the city’s authentic character. Past achievements become our achievements to be equalled and bettered. Shared memories of past sins and humiliations can be just as valuable.
In the part of the city where I live, there is a Victorian police station. A few years ago the police sensibly moved out to a corrugated fortress with ample car parking. Local residents came together to campaign to turn the redundant building into a community centre. They lost the battle but got a half-happy ending when some new-build flats were developed nearby with a space for community arts. The new-built space is great, yet a world away from what would have been had they won the old police station. It would have been less convenient, messier, but more truly owned by the community from day one. The old police station had accumulated narrative capital which the new arts space will take years to put by.
Just about the most shocking offence against cultural life is the burning of books. Totalitarian regimes burn books to erase traces of dissent, not just to prevent transmission but to deny the existence of inconvenient ideas. To destroy a book is to destroy a story and to destroy a story is to rob human life of a little piece of its meaning. I know that buildings are not books. For one thing they take up more space. But I do believe there’s a parallel that should give us pause for thought before destroying places high in narrative capital. It’s not the long-dead architect’s freedom of expression that’s impoverished but the story-telling and meaning-carrying capacity of the whole community.
A rich environmental fabric makes a city resilient. By all means tug at loose threads, patch it up and reuse it as has happened in Holbeck. But it seems a wanton waste for any city to cut a clean swathe as big as Clarence Dock.
In December I blogged about the perilous state of Leeds’ Temple Works. Neglected for several years, this Grade I-listed building had suffered a partial collapse, blocking the road outside with shattered masonry and opening up a gaping hole in the roof where sheep once grazed on a covering of grass. Six months on, I’m pleased to report that things are looking up. Repairs are underway and plans afoot for reuse of the building. Last week, thanks to Culture Vulture Emma, I was privileged to get a peek inside.
Here in the heart of the world’s first industrial nation, it’s not unusual to see old places learn to serve new purposes in response to peoples’ changing needs. As traditional manufacturing has moved offshore, countless mills, factories and warehouses have been regenerated as offices, retail, flats and hotels. At Salt’s Mill, Bradford, you can find art and electronics under one roof.
Yet Temple Works stands out from the crowd for so many reasons. At first sight there’s the weighty Egyptian facade, modelled on the Temple of Horus at Edfu, looming incongruously over edge-of-town Holbeck. Inside, you can appreciate the sheer scale of the place; once it was reputedly the largest room in the world. And in its stripped-out state the innovative construction is easily visible. The sun streams in through 66 65 circular skylights.
Scratch the surface for something still more fascinating: in two distinct incarnations Temple Works tells the story of the past 160 years of working life, and with a third it poses tantilising questions about where we go next.
My name is Matt Edgar and this is my personal blog. I'm also at mattedgar.com, where you can find out about my work as an independent service design & innovation consultant. Email matt at mattedgar dot com.