Monday, October 5, 2009

The West Riding: Two-thousand and Nine

My Urban Trawl through the West Riding is up on the BD website here - though for a full view of the Westfield Hole I recommend investing in a copy. I'm aware, incidentally, that the term 'West Riding' is something of a misnomer here, encompassing as it does South Yorkshire's steel towns and ex-pit villages, along with pockets of the rural, plus heritage Bronteville - but it has such a ring to it, an evocative air of approaching drama and doom (as David Peace was no doubt aware when titling his quartet). Nonetheless for this piece I've mainly used the parameters of the government-defined 'West Yorkshire Urban Area' (except adding Halifax to the list), a conurbation that - unlike those other unofficial supercities, the West Midlands, Greater Glasgow, Tyneside or Greater Manchester, all these potential rivals to the bloated, absurdly over-favoured capital which never quite manage to get their act together - is hardly continuous. One part of it can seem like it's on a different planet to another part, which is presumably one reason why, other than the ingrained opposition to planning, the places are all treated as if they're discrete areas, despite the fact it's easier to get from one of these towns to another than it is to get from South-West to South-East London. If this is a Supercity in waiting, it's an extraordinarily strange one, a multi-centred mess, marked by sharp, shocking geographical and urban/rural contrasts. And although I mention Alsop favourably in the piece, and genuinely do think the Supercity is a good idea, something which as he rightly points out is already happening in an exurban, car-driven, environmentally destructive manner but could, if planned, be astonishing, it should be noted that his plan for Bradford is a peculiar bit of whimsy - let's add a few water features, then it'll be more like Manchester. There is however plenty of water in the Westfield Crater.

Near the centre of the potential Supercity is a vast TV tower, the tallest freestanding structure in Britain, which sits alone in the midst of open country, a megacity monument without a city. So the most obvious thing would be for the hypothetical West Riding Metropolis to be centred around Emley Moor, much as Berlin clusters round Alexanderplatz.

The Marketplace

Surely one reason why the West Riding seems to have produced great urban writers - David Peace, Laura Oldfield Ford, Jarvis Cocker, even the now-all-but-forgotten J.B Priestley (who can be found perambulating Bradford's demolished Arcades in that clip) - is the presence of actual Parisian ferrovitreous Arcades in its cities, something which is otherwise largely limited to outposts in Piccadilly and Deansgate, neither of which are as good as these. Leeds has the most obvious examples, and given Leeds' status as the local mecca for The New Economy - i.e, as a centre for the post-industrial triad of finance, property and shopping - its examples are treated best, a little Knightsbridge. Normally they are entered through not especially interesting buildings, standard if high-spec Victorian piles, which when penetrated reveal their true futurism, their prophecy of the total retail environments of the 20th century and after. Leeds' Arcades, like everything else in the city, appear to be hierarchical. There are two tucked away in places where you wouldn't know to look unless you're with a local, and which are relatively down at heel. Yet the 'Victoria Quarter' is where Vivienne Westwood, Harvey Nichols and, with tragic aptness, a boutique called 'The French Revolution' make their home. It's wonderfully effeminate for (in the southern imaginary) macho and stolid Yorkshire, prettily dressed as it is with Parisian ornament and pretty, glittering art nouveau mosaics.

What is much more exciting however is the City Markets, a lanky and gaunt, complex and luridly painted piece of spindly ornamental high-tech, which contains within it a mingled smell of old sweets, paint and wrapping paper, and a welcome bustle and mess absent from the slick opulence of the Victoria Quarter. Again, it's impossible not to be struck by the formal daring of the interiors and the retardataire bombast of the exterior, Modernist cliché though this may be. The equally bombastic, imperial stripped classical 1930s Queen's Hotel contains within it an elegant, deeply American moderne station concourse, where a restoration job by Carey Jones (more of whom later) has given Wetherspoons et al an (in)appropriately Reithian typeface. At this point the Leeds that Simon Jenkins thinks is so wonderful effectively ends, although no doubt he is pleased that many back-to-backs, a form of housing considered unfit for human habitation for 150 years, still exist in the city. The other Arcades are the Arndales and their contemporaries. The Merrion Centre, say, with its lost, abandoned basement of greasy spoon cafes and a tiled tower which is a comparitive masterpiece by the standards of the post-war Leeds Skyline. Inside, the use of mirrored glass creates an imaginary geometric space that reflects oddly the uninteresting collection of chain stores therein.

Wakefield clearly wanted a piece of all this when they commissioned David Adjaye, recently bankrupt provider of shiny barcode facades to East London, to design their new market. To their credit, Adjaye instead provided a striking but far from ostentatious or meretricious structure, clearly designed as a mere backdrop to the action of the stalls themselves, which is admittedly the opposite approach to the Arcades of Leeds and Halifax, which impress through opulence rather than rectitude. If this is any indication, it's loathed in Wakefield - a place where, for the first time, I felt like I was somewhere familiar, which is why I haven't given that town much attention - because I felt I knew where I was, because it felt like a southern city. I appreciate this is probably the worst thing anyone could say to Wakefield, so it has my apologies. Their main new shopping centre, aside from the Market Halls, is The Ridings, a standard-issue Mall which occupies part of a 1960s megastructure, consisting of several towers, arranged in zig-zags on top of a shopping street. I have no idea whether it was once impressive or whether it was shoddily done, but today - like all the tower blocks in Wakefield - it is painted in desperately jolly colours, and given an absurd hat. No doubt if the blocks were falling apart before this is a preferable condition, but it should be noted that as in cladding-crazy Glasgow, the entire housing stock has been sold to a housing association, who seem keen on these kind of 'solutions'. The end result is that Wakefield becomes bleakly surreal in its total lack of all-over planning. Take the exit from the all-but ruined Wakefield Kirkgate (where part of the station wall collapsed last year, smashing a parked car, and whose Wikipedia page lists various unpleasant crimes to have occured there recently), where boarded-up pubs and tower blocks seemingly redesigned by a 5-year old greet the traveller, as you can see below. Regardless, Wakefield feels normal, just a bleaker version of normality - and perhaps the council know this, hence their hiring of Chipperfield and Adjaye to sprinkle starchitect fairy dust.

'It's like hell, isn't it, he said enthusiastically'

Halifax, for a southerner, is another world. On a road junction, looking around at the tower blocks, derelict mills and two-up/two-downs, the sombre local stone, all surrounded by freakishly high, impassable hills, themselves enclosed by hedges as if hundreds of miles from a city, with the smell of the Nestle factory wafting over, all under a looming, threatening sky, I said to Joel 'this is indubitably the North'. A voice from a car waiting at the junction agrees, by yelling 'THE NORTH!' as it drives off. Next to this junction is a pub with the name The Running Man, which fits perfectly the general sense of fear and tension. The Running Man has a rather googie roof, and a view over the seemingly untouched 1960s estates which have mercifully escaped the hatting given to Wakefield. As we board the Halifax to Wakefield train, some youth ask us 'are you FBI?' Aside from being quite funny when asked of two men in long coats with neat hair taking pictures, the asking of this question says more about the Special Relationship between the UK and USA than any David Hare play ever could.

Quite honestly, anyone who knows and/or comes from the industrial towns of the south - say, Southampton, Portsmouth, Colchester, Reading, Slough, Swindon, Luton - can't help being jealous of the sheer strangeness of their Northern equivalents, their hills, their scale, the closeness of open country, the amount of extraordinarily serious, world-class architecture, the lack of '80s-90s tat - although little of this applies in Leeds, which conjured the postmodernist 'Leeds Look' in the '80s to simulate Victorian grandeur, with the presumably unexpected end result that much of its outer centre looks like Reading. This is perhaps why it's the token 'successful' northern city along with Manchester, because it's boring enough for southerners to understand. So inexplicably Halifax, a town about half the size of Luton, has within it a Town Hall by the architect of the Houses of Parliament, Arcades as good as those in London, Leeds or Manchester, a 'People's Park' which is a model of municipal munificence, and yet you can see where it stops, when the Moors rear up in front of you. And yet all this (admittedly jolie laide) beauty and richness seems to have no effect. There's no sense here that city air is free air, but instead an almost all-pervasive air of latent violence that could explode at any moment. We watch indie kids with black eyes cluster together in the Arcades, we (me and photographer, ages 28 and 34 respectively) get called 'shirtlifters' by shellsuited youth. Halifax is in general the most racially segregated place I've ever seen. There's a certain historical justice that the spaces of imperial philanthropy are well-used by the formerly colonised, while the descendants of the colonisers prefer to live in the middle of nowhere, seemingly refusing to take advantage of the extremely impressive town their great-grandparents toiled to create.

Building Society Design

There's a very interesting point made by a commenter on this Impostume post, that the epicentres of late British neoliberalism and its subsequent crash have been those areas once considered resistant to Thatcherism - Scotland with RBS and half of HBOS, Tyneside with Northern Rock, Manchester with everything - and the former Mutuals in the West Riding, Halifax Building Society/HBOS and Bradford & Bingley are perfect examples of this, one utterly dysfunctional and propped-up by the state, the other now reluctantly entirely nationalised, due to their over-identification, their over-investment in the new financial architecture of derivatives and suchlike. Both of these entities have a deeply corporeal, brutally physical presence in their respective towns, expressions of bourgeois civic pride, reminders of the close interlinking of finance and industrial capital in the (post)-industrial north. Halifax's headquarters is genuinely one of the most unbelievable post-war buildings in the country, all the more so for being the product of the deeply average Preston-based corporate firm BDP.

To call it dominant would be an understatement, the way it juts out across a Victorian street - but it also harmonises chromatically with Halifax's Yorkshire-stone browns and blackened stains. Finished in 1974, it combines every possible device in the 1970s architectural arsenal, everything that was in the magazines at that point - flying walkways, black glass Seagram curtain walls, postmodernist incorporation of heritage (the original Victorian façade of their first headquarters can be viewed as an object stripped from its context, behind a glass screen), neo-Constructivist public sculpture, and a series of jarring jigsaw angles which are clearly indebted either to Russian Constructivism itself or the variants upon it which were soon to be known as Deconstructivism - all reached by a series of platforms and walkways which replicate the sharp changes in scale of the local landscape. It's a breathtaking building, and proof that finance capital was, even over a decade before Lloyds, quite capable of using the devices of 'left' architecture.

The Hanging Gardens of Bingley are relatively normal by comparison, but are still a powerful statement, by the local firm of John Brunton and Partners, more of whom later. Sharing Halifax's grounding in the work of Denys Lasdun, whose fusion of classicism and Brutalism is so perfect for the area that it's a minor tragedy he didn't design anything here himself, Bradford & Bingley's ziggurat was once planted with creepers, to make this most ancient of architectural forms look appropriately ruined and eternal. Interestingly, now that the building is up for sale and under threat of demolition, the creepers have died, reminding that ruination is not always picturesque. Otherwise Bingley is an almost-suburban encampment looking out over an (award-winning!) new motorway and the Moors. It's up for sale, as you can see.

Local Architecture for Local People

In southern towns, except for Bristol (almost an honorary Northern city in its independence from the capital) and Camden-on-Sea (or 'Brighton-and-Hove' as it prefers to be known), you leave for London if you possibly can. This is one of many reasons why these places are so awful, as all manner of shite can be foisted upon them as nobody really cares enough to propose anything better. Local architects in the south are a source of grotesque comedy. This isn't quite true up north, where the general standard appears to have once been rather extraordinary - in an analogy which unfortunately only one or two readers will get, compare the work of Lockwood and Mawson, who designed most of High Victorian Bradford, to Southampton's Gutteridge and Gutteridge. Being commercially driven non-side takers in the style wars, L&M were able to indulge in a wide variety of seemingly conflicting manners without fear of contradiction - Ruskinian Gothic (with the explicit disapproval of Ruskin himself) for the Wool Exchange and the Bradford Club, 'debased' (according to Pevsner) classicism for St George's Hall, and an amplified, timestretched utilitarian man-machine Italianate for the mammoth industrial structures at Manningham and Saltaire. The latter town was planned and designed entirely by the firm on behalf of the Wool Magnate and philanthropist Titus Salt, where it serves as one of the more complete examples of a settlement completely formed by the rationale of early industrial capitalism in its more 'improving' variant - a gesamtwerkstadt, with churches, social centres, libraries but, of course, no pubs (originally). Although the conditions there were far better than those of the surrounding areas - with space, inside loos, orientation to the sun, etc - there's little attempt to prettify the process, which may explain why it is that its later equivalents, such as Bournville or the Garden Suburbs, massively increased the level of verdancy.

For those of us who mourn the passing of the visible world of engineering and design, Halifax, Bradford and Saltaire are exemplary. The city does not pretend to be the country, but the country is always visible, reachable on foot, and is wild and dramatic. One is one, one is the other - they are not diffuse. Accordingly, Saltaire does not pretend to be a rural village, does not have winding streets, big gardens, gables and beams, as would its successors. It is completely unambiguous about its industrial nature. Strangely, then, Salt's Mill is a veritable hub of cottage industries, or after closing in 1986 and being Regenerated over the last decade, it has become such. Inside the Mills are businesses, galleries, luxury flats and (comfortingly) an NHS centre. A similar transformation has been wreaked upon Dean Clough Mills in Halifax, but Saltaire seems to have as its demographic something that could only exist in a large city like Bradford - Guardian readers, many of whom are in attendance for a beer festival in Salt's teetotal temperance outpost. The other factory given architectural dressing by Lockwood and Mawson is Manningham Mills. Almost accidentally, we found ourselves in search of the Labour Party that was formed here. We ate Pizza in the room where the I.L.P was formed, admired the mural and the Constructivistic worker rising like a lion after slumber that appends the buildings where it was 'officially' founded, and visited the Mills where a long, bitter strike presaged the party's formation.

'Socialism is the Hope of the World' it says, if you look very closely. The ILP was an enormously admirable organisation, always to the left of the compromised Labour Party it named and helped to form, eventually leaving it out of anger and frustration with its dogged conformism in the 1930s, disappearing within 15 years. The legacy of New Labour, meanwhile, is best expressed in Manningham by Urban Splash, one of their finest architectural embodiments. Mr Anderson, the photographer for the images you see here, is from Manningham, so was able to inform me of exactly where the line of burning tyres were placed in front of the RUC-esque police station during the riots of 1995, and the block of vernacular shops 'n' flats that sits on the site of the car showroom that was burnt to the ground in the more extensive riots of 2001, where the army were on standby. The following two images show the Urban Splash-restored 'Lister Mills' (with Fosterian pods just out of shot) and the eerily spacious row of Eric Lyons-like council houses that they look out upon.

Inside, through the obligatory gating, are these ducts, and round the corner, the Wu-Tang have been present. Deep down in the back streets, in the heart of Medina, about to set off something more deep than a misdemeanour.

I always hear about how 'brave' Urban Splash are in restoring and privatising Factories and Council Estates, as if gutting and selling well-constructed city centre buildings is a thankless, risky task (and in a recession perhaps it is, hence their current 'troubles'). There is certainly a daring of some sort in taking one of the most notoriously divided places in the country and building therein more gates, more walls, reinforcing its divisions - although I'm told the division between the new Manningham Mills and the surrounding area is more a question of class than race. So while the best buildings go private, the Victorian situation is replicated - the well-off literally look down upon the poor, who remain in their hovels, left to their sectarian fights while their birthright is stolen in front of their eyes. This is particularly shocking in Saxton Gardens, Leeds. Joel, admittedly a Bradfordian, dismisses Leeds as 'a bosses' city', and there's an alignment there in one particular site which is truly alarming. Once, on Quarry Hill sat an extremely carefully designed 1930s council estate full of facilities and public space. It was Britain's first major casualty of post-60s municipal antimodernism, demolished in the late 1970s. Now a BDP office block nicknamed 'the Kremlin' occupies most of the site. The same architect, R.H Livett, designed the less dramatic, more CIAM standard-issue blocks of Saxton in the '50s. This photo shows that while the not-so-poor get ethereal, dematerialised barcode facades and gated-off car parks, the poor get clunky plastic balconies seemingly designed by the same 5-year old who worked on Wakefield. The U.S site has as its motif some Garden Gnomes, which are apparently going to be everywhere when they finish cladding their second private block, as they will - out of the kindness of their heart - be laying on allotments. Whether these allotments will remain as imaginary as their oft-praised, never-started Tutti Frutti in Ancoats I'll leave for you to speculate.

I can only presume that the Gnomes are in lieu of the references to Pop Music that would be used in Sheffield or Manchester. Leeds has a strange dearth of epochal pop for a city of such size (there's LFO, Nightmares on Wax, lots of Goth bands, some other exceptions, but nothing that would get a BBC4 documentary), so has to borrow other places' 'icons' - under a railway bridge we spot something called 'The Stone Roses Bar', which promises us that 'Love Spreads' therein. This all represents something of a failure of imagination on the part of Urban Splash however, in that they could have referred to one of Leeds' more famous groups, The Gang of Four. Saxton - At Home You'll Feel Like A Tourist!

The other local architects worth mentioning here are from the eras of Wilson and Blair, and are each equally symptomatic of their times. First - John Brunton and Partners, designers of the aforementioned Bradford and Bingley, along with High Point and the Arndale in Bradford. A huge swathe of Victorian Bradford was levelled to make way for the Arndale, while the Arcades were swept away for the (American-designed, and pretty decent, Perret-esque) Arndale House tower. The monitors of design locally, like the Bradford Civic Society, loathe the Arndale, but in its hard, sombre aesthetic and its confusion of forms it fits the city far better than, say, the appalling decorated sheds which sit next to Forster Square railway station. It is a mess, full of tat, although the markets in the basement have a certain bazaar-like quality which only seems to exist in the north, and are another place where the alleged racial segregation of Bradford can be proven to be wildly exaggerated. It's all full of almost Barbican-like gridded ceilings and walkways, but in organisation identical to any Mall of the 1980s. There's another market building in Bradford, where shiny cladding shuns rather than embraces Bradford's (still remarkable, even given all the destruction) cohesion, something which is, unfortunately for any local racists, far from the case with the brick-and-copper Mosque nearby - but both are overlooked and overshadowed by Brunton's most unnervingly brilliant and insane building.

High Point is also ritually loathed by right-thinking Bradfordians, and is also home to a local bank, the somewhat less notorious Yorkshire Building Society. It's also utterly freakish, the severed head of some Japanese giant robot clad in a West Yorkshire stone-based concrete aggregate, glaring out at the city through blood-red windows, the strangest urban artefact in a city which does not lack for architectural interest. The work of Brunton seems almost too appropriate for the combination of wild technological daring, Cold War paranoia, shabby corruption and crushed dreams that defined the Wilson era. In a similarly piece-writing-itself manner, we have Leeds' currently dominant firm, Carey Jones. Viz, their new skyscraper, Sky Plaza, completed just a couple of months ago and receiving its first undergraduate inmates when we visit:

The earliest building of theirs we see, the 1999 Princes Exchange just by the Queens Hotel, is a decent bit of corporate slick-tech, well-scaled, cool and confident, from the time when Blair's rhetoric about a 'young country' might have almost seemed convincing - it's actually better than the 1990s Richard Rogers buildings in Docklands that it pinches all its ideas from. After this, it all goes rapidly downhill. Clarence Dock (below) is mostly by said firm, although includes Derek Walker's earlier fierce, bleak Royal Armouries, which, we wrongly assume, by now inured to these sorts of shocks, to be flats, although even in Leeds a block with no windows at all couldn't get through planning. Yet. Leeds is full of Carey Jones' towers, most of them more or less like the following - not awful, they'd get to that later, just woefully unimaginative. They tend to sit by congested, looping main roads, in a city which is marked by a huge amount of empty inner-urban flats, with none of the oh-so-inhumane underpasses or walkways that could relieve the enormously unpleasant road-crossings.

Ring-Roads, Towers, Estates, Wasteland

Both Leeds and Bradford have extremely aggressive ring-roads, but somehow Leeds' underpasses do less damage, while the wide dual carriageways and inexplicably Portland-stone clad 60s towers in Bradford create ghettos as easily as any housing allocation policy. The Leeds system feels more permeable, less like a barrier, because you pass over the traffic, you are not directly inconvenienced by it (though the pedestrian bridges can be somewhat, er, 'bracing'). What makes it unpleasant is not the planning so much as the architecture. It's an enduring irony that Leeds' city architect, the last in any major city, has personally authorised the development of these towers - not because it's a bad idea in principle, but because of the relentlessly shabby quality of the results. Sky Plaza I've mentioned in the BD piece, and it's also pulled apart by the Ghost of Nairn - but those below are almost as bad, and from their vicinity we literally watch the destruction of the finest work of Leeds' most famous architectural firm - John Poulson, the corrupter of Maudling, British Rail and T Dan Smith, headed by a man who apparently may never even have held a pencil, let alone designed a whole building. Ambitious young man like you...As you can see at the top, we had a good view of the diving board from the walkway over the underpass.

The combination of local reference - red terracotta, who knew! - incredibly clumsy massing and the walled-off wasteland in front of this Carey Jones scheme constitutes one of clearest images you could want of the results of the financial crisis and the thinking that led to it. Leeds has been in the grip of a bitter strike over rubbish collection, with the city council taking a hardline class-war approach to the binmen - but we don't notice it until we check the local press that evening. 2009 is a 'reverse 1979', so the images are different, 'luxury' turning empty and desolate rather than the collapses of council housing and consensus that marked punk mythology - no mountains of rubbish in the street, at least not yet. Here are four more of Leeds' towers, the first of which (by Aedas, Hong Kong/Leeds-based hacks whose offices we pass by near Clarence Dock) is the best of a bad bunch, the second of which is surely the worst - unless anyone has an even worse example they'd like to send me. Unlike all the others, it was impossible to find out who the designers were. It is student accommodation, as are many of the worst buildings in Leeds. The Opal Tower, one of those in the third image, is also student flats. For some reason students are not allowed normal-sized windows in their flats, and must instead look out of these tiny slits.

While central Leeds' ring-roads and inhospitable corners are impeccably Regenerated via this sort of hostile, pedestrian-unfriendly architecture, there is one end of central Bradford that regeneration has barely even scraped, despite impeccable Jane Jacobs credentials. A Bradford Civic Society brochure we pick up from the Bradford Club, which apparently has not been distributed outside of these rarefied circles, entitled Common Sense Regeneration, rebrands it 'Goitside' (no Bradfordian we mention this to knows of the term), and despite banging on at length about an uninteresting Edwardian cinema that faces demolition, at least the writers recognise the remarkable quality of 'Goitside' in architectural terms, and the depths to which it has sunk. From here you get an awesome view, with one of the several sides of Bradford University's tower (anyone know the architect?) fitting perfectly with the landscape (on the other side, sky-blue cladding has been added, in an act of sheer architectural illiteracy). There are several derelict warehouses, but what really hits you is the city's earliest council housing - 1900s tenements, low-rise, arts-and-crafts. They are littered both with bright, well-meaning public art from when people did live here, and the needles and foil left by those who are using in the flats' derelict shells. The smell here is foul.

British cities today are marked by brightly coloured fences. The ultimate of these is the Westfield Hole in Bradford, which provides a fantastic opportunity - surely Westfield have broken the terms of their contract, and surely a visit to towns such as Southampton, which have seen violent crime and traffic congestion rising in almost exact tandem with retail floor space and the attendant desolation of the old high streets, would help them reconsider - but regardless, the fences and the wasteland are one of the most striking features of the post-boom landscape. Don McCullin, who once said 'visually, you just can't lose in Bradford', photographed the area in the late 1970s, showing huge amounts of dead and derelict space. I would wager West Yorkshire has as much of this now as it ever did, if not more, but the bright fences (the happy result no doubt of health-and-safety regulations) help screen most of the wasteland, the most obvious sign of failure, from the public. In the next couple of pictures you can see it behind a sign announcing Halifax's obligatory zoning and subdivision into 'quarters', and then you can see the hoarding that announces the Westfield Hole, where a sloganeer has made the point I've been trying to make in far fewer words.

it's this town Billy, it's the people we know...