The definite article, or lines written on the opening of a former brewery headquarters as contemporary art gallery

These past few years have been tough on Tetley’s disembodied headquarters.

First came the loss of the purpose for which it was built in the depths of 1930s depression – a human-scale head office for a family firm. The directors’ boardroom was relegated to an outpost of the Carlsberg empire. Lutheran rectitude became the order of the day in the by-all-accounts once riotous in-house bar.

In time the booze stopped flowing altogether. They closed the brewery and levelled the surrounding buildings, which had cosseted the headquarters from the elements and perfumed it with their distinctive whiff. Whether you loved or loathed it, South Leeds will never smell the same again.

Standing alone, lacking a flashy boom-time facade, the headquarters building was denied heritage status by English Heritage on myopic grounds, apparently based only on photographs:

“Technological innovation and machinery: it has no special interest in terms of technological innovation or machinery.

Wider industrial context, regional factors and an integrated site: these are linked and can be dealt with together. While the brewing industry was of importance in Yorkshire, and Tetley’s a major brewer, the region was not pre-eminent nationally. More significantly, the headquarters building is a small part of a much larger complex, and one that has already been judged not to be of special interest in a national context and not recommended for designation. In terms of industrial process, those parts of the site that were involved in the physical brewing would potentially have been of greater interest than the offices.

Architectural interest: the building is, as the applicants suggest, solid 1930s. The same architects were responsible for some of the buildings on the north side of Eastgate in Leeds, and there are similarities in both materials and style. The Eastgate buildings were based on designs earlier drawn up by Sir Reginald Blomfield and were already rather old-fashioned by the time they were executed. The surviving original internal features are attractive but not unusual, with the possible exception of the lift which has good contemporary styling including sun-burst motif decoration.”

Thus did the protectors of our heritage abandon a Leeds landmark, distinctive rooftop lettering and all. They left its fate to the whim of the self-same cold-blooded multi-national executives who had just ended 189 years of mass-scale brewing in our city. They might as well have ground every last brick to dust for a few more £3 a day parking bays.

But then it turned out those Danes had a soft side. They had been here before, as it were, with Carlsberg’s own factory turned cultural quarter on the edge of Copenhagen. Tetley’s headquarters had the fortune to fall into the hands of the persuasive, entrepreneurial artists who created and ran Project Space Leeds. Doubly lucky, this happened just as the impetus ran out on pointless, statement regeneration, new-build modernism. The artists could see things the bean counters and bureaucrats had missed.

That this building still stands, with much of its relatively understated interior intact, is testament to the place’s quiet strength of character, born of a solid sense of purpose and multi-generational commitment to the business. Despite all the indignities, it demanded a future as well as a past. That future begins today as The Tetley.

The Tetley. #thetetley. Roll that around for a bit and savour the de rigeur hashtag. For the first time in its four score years this place bears the mark of a lone survivor: its own definite article.

PSL and their architects have taken advantage of the site’s unlisted status to insert a massive new wall down the middle of the building. But they have also done the hard and unglamorous work required to open up the internal stairwell and the lift that even English Heritage had to grudgingly admit showed some merit. They have cleaned the place up, but not too much.

Stairwell and lift

At a bloggers’ preview last week I was heartened to hear director Pippa Hale talk about the way artists would be encouraged to engage with all the building’s rich heritage. The Joshua Tetley Association of former staff have been consulted and involved. Items left behind by the departing workforce will be incorporated into works of art. Among the most striking of these, giant letters from a lost rooftop lie scattered across a panelled former office.

Tetley interior with letters

There will be interventions outside The Tetley too. Mass industrialisation rendered the edges of many English cities impermeable. Gigantic works and goods yards cut off ancient rights of way. They enclosed the pre-industrial public realm and made new secret spaces that were only open to employees, and the occasional cheeky interloper. We post-industrials have a chance to reclaim that commons. The old Hunslet Lane – severed for years by Tetley’s security barriers – will re-open to pedestrians, with a little pocket of grass and promises of a bigger South Leeds park to come.

All of which will soon go to show just how wrong-headed it has been to evaluate industrial heritage like The Tetley in terms of machinery, manufacturing and stylistic merit. Like the chain of pubs administered from its offices, The Tetley was always a social place. I can’t wait to see those social qualities revived by the PSL crew and the artists they commission to work there.

A railway that runs on coal and love

Culture Vulture Emma challenges us all to see our home town anew through the eyes of a tourist. My contribution is over on the Culture Vulture blog: A railway that runs on coal and love

And if you liked that, you might also like this: Good Engines a 12-page black-and-white newspaper telling the tale of James Watt Junior and his feud with rival engine-maker Matthew Murray.

Corn and Grit: Notes from a talk at Bettakultcha VII

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.

Here’s the result, “Corn and Grit”. The video is on the Bettakultcha blog, or in text form below…

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 critic Jonathan Meades describes Brodrick as:

“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.

Now look up!

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.

Some more reading:

A bath, a clock and a giant walking robot – it’s Heritage Open Days this weekend

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.

Like every year I’m spoiled for choice with stuff to see. There are more than 75 things to do in Leeds alone.

Seven of my personal favourites:

A Walk around the 18th Century Claremont Estate at Little Woodhouse – looking at the original estate and its development into Denison Hall, Hanover and Woodhouse Squares, the Claremont streets, Park Lane College and Joseph’s Well (the former Barron’s Mill).

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.)

Holbeck: Cradle of the Industrial Revolution – Civic Trust experts lead a walk through the urban village.

St Aidan’s Walking Dragline – a rare piece of our mining heritage lovingly cared for by volunteers, and, what more can I say, it’s a Giant Walking Robot!

Temple Works – if you live in Leeds and you don’t know Temple Works, now’s your chance. One of the city’s most remarkable buildings, cruelly neglected but now slowly coming back to life.

The Bath House – a miraculous survival from the days when 17th Century aristocrats bathed in the fresh spring waters of Gledhow Valley.

Town Hall & Clock Tower Tours – Cuthbert Brodrick’s masterpiece, as seen on TV!

And if those are not enough, there’s more on Alex’s brilliant new blog, Exploring Leeds, and some additional suggestions on the Leeds Guide website.

You wouldn’t burn a book, or some reflections on narrative capital

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.

Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me There Was A Giant Walking Robot?

A few weeks ago Imran Ali tweeted a modest proposal that  Leeds’ Temple Works needs a giant robot. As a fan of Miyazaki’s Laputa, I thought this sounded quite cool.

What I didn’t realise until today is that Leeds already has a giant walking robot. If you’re in the area for one of its rare openings to the public I strongly recommend you go and see it.

Meet Oddball, a US-made Bucyrus Erie 1150, which worked the open cast coal mine at St Aidan’s, Swillington, near Leeds, until 1983.

Its sheer scale is impressive enough: the largest preserved walking dragline excavator in Western Europe, 1200 tons, the size of 60 double decker buses, apparently.

But the thing is, it walked, the whole thing, backwards, a metre per earth-shaking step, up to a maximum speed of half a mile per hour. Imagine that.

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Temple Works 3.0 Alpha

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.

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