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.

Temple Works 1.0 was a flax spinning mill, built by John Marshall, just as British manufacturing powered into the Victorian Age. Marshall’s first mills had been functional red-brick boxes constructed rapidly to house the innovative spinning frames that made his fortune. Joseph Bonomi’s stone facade signalled a new confidence, authority and permanence.

Despite his political opponents’ accusations of abuse of child-labour in his mills, Marshall was regarded as one of the most liberal factory owners of his time. In his factories, overseers were not allowed to use corporal punishment on the workers. Younger children were encouraged to attend day school, and older children were given free education on Monday afternoons.

Marshalls ceased production there in 1886, but the textile use continued, moving up the value chain from spinning to clothing manufacture for James Rhodes and Co. This was Britain as a maker of things, the Workshop of the World.

Temple Works 2.0 was the northern distribution depot of Kay’s, the mail-order catalogue. After the Second World War the historic manufacturing sectors were undercut by industrialisation elsewhere in the globe, where people could produce at lower costs and in greater variety. Now Brits wanted a piece of America’s consumer revolution, and Kay’s were ready to oblige. Think of 1950s catalogue shopping as the e-commerce of its day, and Kay’s as Amazon.com.

Just imagine Temple Works’ vast single-storey open space filled with clothing and consumer goods ready for dispatch to home-shoppers across Northern England. Kay’s is well within living memory, and in parts the mill is much as the warehouse people left it when they moved out five years ago. The regeneration plans entail the demolition of an unloved 1950s extension, but I really hope the new uses will connect as much with this era as with the distant rattle of Marshall’s spinning frames.

Canteen area at Temple Works

Temple Works 3.0? What does post-industrial, post-consumerist Britain look like? The days when we defined ourselves by our industrial production have long gone, though the making of things could yet stage a comeback. It would be great to see products stamped with “Temple Works” again. It’s unlikely to be mass production on John Marshall’s scale, so we’ll have to make up what’s lacking in quantity with quality in handmades and one-offs.

We have more stuff than ever before, but it’s no longer fashionable to define ourselves by what we buy. Leeds’ carefully cultivated image as the shopping capital of the North already looks anachronistic. As well as things, we will spin experiences, authentically anchored in time and place, but also shareable as multimedia, cast out upon the net and even as lights into the sky. For the first time in its life, Temple Works will be open to the public on a regular basis: people in, instead of goods out.

It’s encouraging that despite (because of?) the economic climate the people behind the scheme to turn Temple Works into a major cultural venue are connecting with all interested parties to make this a reality as soon as possible. The overall scheme will take many months, but some parts of the building could be usable within weeks. Coming soon – Temple Works 3.0 Alpha!

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