Put your best foot forward in city walks of heritage

John Orrell Regional Chairman of the Royal Institute of British Architects
John Orrell Regional Chairman of the Royal Institute of British Architects
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We’re often too busy to appreciate the amazing architecture around us. The Love Architecture Festival aims to change that. Sheena Hastings reports.

EVEN if you live in a city with the iconic architecture of York it’s possible to take all that history, beauty and grandeur for granted – and perhaps even not really note its existence in an everyday sense as you run about your business.

When your home town or city is not renowned for ancient buildings and archaeological treasures that bring tourists in their thousands, it’s even more likely that you’ll live from year to year without giving much thought to the idiosyncratic story of the environment. Yet buildings hold the secrets of history, the marks of ideas, the clues as to how we used to live and how we live now. They hold the aspirations of those who conceived and built them and those who live in them or use them for work or play. They’re built using the skill, experience and vision of brilliant people who left a civic legacy they hoped would endure not just as bricks and mortar.

There’s a lot to throw your head back and see, if only at the most superficial level, and there’s even more to read about if you want to understand why your town is the way it is now. And yet we don’t think to lift our eyes. Walking down Briggate, the central shopping street of Leeds, on a weekday morning no one seems to look up above the “70 per cent off” sign in the window of Harvey Nichols, to admire the fine and delicate beauty of the doll-sized department store’s early 1990s frontage. Nor, in the adjacent glass-covered arcades of the Victoria Quarter, is anyone bending over backwards to see the glorious glass roofs that are the centrepiece of a late 20th century change in civic planning and attitudes which led to historic buildings here being saved from destruction.

Above the bland facades of retail outlets and global coffee chains at street level, this “ordinary” pedestrian shopping street harbours noble, intricate frontages rich in craft and imagination as well as passageways and back alleys, including Thorntons Arcade and its exquisite clock with four life-sized figures that stands above the exit onto Land Lane. How many actually set their watches by the magnificent artefact that serves to entrance as well as inform? The early 18th century Whitelocks pub and The White Swan attached to City Varieties hold a wealth of history and interest, too.

The first licence was granted to Whitelocks in 1715, then called The Turk’s Head, and the building itself dates back even further. This was the hub of bohemian life in Leeds, and at one time an Irish giant called Thaddeus Moyland was the doorman, presiding over the behaviour of those carousing within. At a time when women were not allowed to go to the bar a team of dwarves were employed as waiters to serve them. This was the first pub in the city to have electricity, and to this day it’s said to be haunted.

Who knew that Leeds’s incomparable and renowned Kirkgate Market’s design was inspired by Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London and that the Leeds Library, founded in 1768 on The Headrow, is the oldest surviving example of the “proprietary subscription library”, in the British Isles? This was a kind of library created, owned and run by its members, and one of many such schemes that appeared along with cloth halls, assembly rooms and canal companies.

It’s a great idea, once in a while, to go downtown with no other mission than to look at the buildings. It would also be wonderful if all of our towns and cities – not just those that attract great numbers of tourists – could somehow stretch the budget to signpost the architectural treasures and colourful history around us – not just the landmark buildings, either, but the nooks and crannies that add to the rich warp and weft.

The Royal Institute of British Architecture has launched its first Love Architecture nationwide festival, which starts today and aims to encourage us all to look at, find out about and appreciate the architecture of our cities and towns. Each region and town/city organises its own events and they range from guided or self-guided architecture walks to films, photography challenges, exhibitions, talks and children’s activities.

In Leeds, RIBA has got together with historic pubs around the city centre to produce four different self-guided trails, with maps and details of buildings and other architectural features on the trail accessible via specially-produced Love Architecture beer mats giving codes that can be swiped by smartphones. Details will also be available on the Love Architecture website at www.lovearchitectureleeds.org

The four trails are: the cultural quarter around West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds Parish Church, Kirkgate Market and Briggate; the Old Post Office, St Anne’s Cathedral, Leeds City Museum, Millennium Square and the civic buildings, Leeds General Infirmary and the major art galleries on The Headrow; the wharf area of the city, the Adelphi pub, Salem Chapel, The Calls and the Corn Exchange; and the fourth takes in City Square, new buildings like Candle House, and the wonderful industrial architecture of Marshall’s Mill, as well as the Round Foundry and Temple Works in Holbeck – a Grade I listed former Victorian flax mill gloriously realised with a facade modelled on the Temple of Horus at Edfu in Egypt in 1840.

Albeit in a part of the city beyond the normal flow of crowds, Temple Works (designed by Joseph Bonomi the Younger) is referred to in schools of architecture and engineering the world over, and well worth going out of your way to marvel at. The exotic exterior is one wonder, but even more astounding was the visionary design of the main mill floor, reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building built a century later.

The burgeoning creative community in the Round Foundry nearby and the arrival of trendy bars and eateries like Midnight Bell mean a new crowd is starting to arrive and explore the architectural gems on these streets south of the city centre.

When you do take the time to view quality of the industrial revolution architecture in this area it’s easy to understand what a force to be reckoned with the Yorkshire textile industry was in the world.

The idea of the Love Architecture Festival – offering 10 days of events across the region – is based on a feeling within RIBA that it was time to become more public facing, says the institute’s Yorkshire regional chair John Orrell, who is also director of DLA Design Group in Leeds.

“People sometimes think of RIBA as being a bit high-fallutin’ and dusty,” says Orrell. “But the institute is changing and we have a new CEO and president. We wanted to do something that would engage the public more in their surroundings, and help them to learn about and enjoy the amazingly wide array of buildings we have. What made the job easier in Leeds was that the city is very much in ‘quarters’ anyway – the commercial and banking area, the shopping section, the civic area and the historic industrial section.”

While some might not think of the city as a whole as being architecturally important, it is easily on a par with Birmingham and Manchester, says Orrell. “Of them all, Leeds has always been more of a live, work, play city. It has enormous depth and breadth in its buildings, and it is very highly regarded. Some of the top architects internationally are very keen to build here. I think (long-time civic architect, the last in that role in the UK and now retired) John Thorp did a lot to avoid the worst excesses of new building in Leeds, and was very good at working with and conserving historic buildings alongside new inventions.”

Ten days of events across Yorkshire aimed at igniting the love of architecture

The Royal Institute of British Architects’ new festival Love Architecture runs from today until June 25 and offers the chance to get involved in a host of activities that celebrate the buildings, streets and neighbourhoods around us. Some of the events happening in Yorkshire include:

Free Guided Architectural Walk in Wakefield – June 23, 1.30pm-4pm, starting in King Street.

Picturehouses Present: Architectural Features – Metropolis at York City Screen June 21, 6pm. Showing of Fritz Lang’s classic film with an introduction from the York Architectural Association.

Yorks’s Playful Spaces – June 16, Northern College of Costume, 11am-5pm (£10). Observe and photograph the city’s urban landscape then turn the images into 2D and 3D explorations with expert help. Bring a camera.

Sheffield School of Architecture summer exhibition June 15-20

Architectural walking tour of Sheffield June 16

Leeds Architectural Photo Hunt – June 23, 1pm-3pm, Leeds city centre. Free. Bring camera, friends and family to enjoy the challenge to collect 50 images from a set list of architectural gems around the city. Meet in pub or care afterwards to share your treasure – and maybe win a prize.

Huddersfield – June 18-22 Curiosity: open house at achitects’ studio/home

For information about these and other events: www.lovearchitecture.org