Towering presence in Leeds city centre

As the redevelopment of Tower Works moves a step closer, Chris Bond looks at the importance of transforming this landmark site in Leeds city centre.

The three Renaissance-style chimneys, part of the Tower Works site in Leeds.
The three Renaissance-style chimneys, part of the Tower Works site in Leeds.

THOSE of you who commute regularly by train into Leeds will recognise them instantly.

But someone arriving here from Florence for the first time might look in disbelief and wonder, just for a second, if they were still in Tuscany.

The three red brick towers that stand close to the station look as though they’ve time-travelled from Renaissance Italy, but they have actually been a conspicuous presence on the city’s skyline for generations.

The oldest of these impressive, yet curious, towers was based on the Lamberti Tower in Verona. The largest and most ornate was built in 1900 and echoes Giotto’s famous campanile in Florence, while the simplest of the three represents a typical Tuscan tower like those found in the Medieval hill town of San Gimignano.

But attractive as they are, the towers weren’t designed as artworks but working chimneys – ones that helped put Leeds at the heart of the textile industry during the 19th Century.

They are part of Tower Works, a pin factory originally set up in the mid-19th Century by Colonel Thomas Harding. As with many industrialists of his day Harding was inspired by his travels on the so-called Grand Tour, long before budget airlines made Europe accessible to the likes of you and me.

He was fascinated by Renaissance Italy and believed by introducing ordinary working men and women to fine art it would raise their aspirations and outlook on life.

These days the towers may have been dwarfed by some of the new offices and apartment blocks that have shot up in the city centre over the past decade or so, but they remain a unique focal point on the landscape and are part of its DNA.

The Tower Works site itself is located in Holbeck on the city’s south bank. This area was the engine that drove the Industrial Revolution forward in Leeds, and as well as the Renaissance-style chimneys it’s also home to the remarkable Egyptian Temple Mill and Matthew Murray’s Round Foundry.

For decades the area was allowed to stagnate before being remodelled as Holbeck Urban Village in 1999, since when this former industrial heartland has steadily been transformed.

It has become a key plank in Leeds Council’s ambitious plans, announced last autumn, to create a so-called South Bank, stretching from Holbeck Urban Village to Leeds Dock.

Tower Works is seen by the council as an integral part of these plans and a catalyst for the future regeneration of neighbouring sites.

The initial phase of its regeneration came in 2012 when some of the buildings were turned into offices used by a range of creative and digital firms.

Then last month the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), which owns the Tower Works site, announced that construction firm Carillion was the preferred development partner for the former factory’s transformation into an £80m mix of office, leisure and residential space.

London-based architects Jestico + Whiles have come up with design proposals and a planning application is due to be submitted to the city council in June. If this gets the go-ahead then work would start in January with a completion date pencilled in for 2020.

The redevelopment includes plans for 147 new homes, 92,000 sq ft of office space, as well as new bars and restaurants.

Some people might groan at the prospect of more bars and restaurants, but with a new southern entrance to the train station being built it’s estimated that as many as 20,000 extra people will use the area every day – which means more investment and more jobs.

Alex Gordon is associate director with Jestico + Whiles and says the designs revolve around the chimneys and the existing Engine House, all of which are listed structures, ensuring they wouldn’t be swamped by the new development.

“We would be using traditional materials in a modern way that would knit the area together,” he says.

“We see this as a real opportunity not just to create a new living and working environment, but to help bring this part of the city back to life.”

The aim is for Tower Works to be easily accessible from the city centre and to make it a place that people want to visit, so along with a public square at its heart there would also be public walkways and cycle routes.

This site is one of the most historic in Leeds, something that Gordon recognises.

“Holbeck dates back to medieval times and became an industrial powerhouse during the 19th Century,” he says. “You’ve got the canal, the three towers and the factory wall and we want to rejuvenate this historic site and at the same time retain its old character.”

As well as developing a key piece of the city’s regeneration jigsaw, Gordon believes it will also help with another longstanding issue, namely the chronic lack of new homes.

“It’s hugely important for places like Leeds to build more houses, there aren’t nearly enough being built and hopefully we can help address that need.”

As well as the three chimneys, which will be kept as heritage assets, Leeds Council also owns the Grade II listed Engine House and is in the process of going through proposals for the building’s redevelopment with a decision expected later this spring.

The construction of Leeds City Station’s new southern entrance and The Tetley, a contemporary art space that opened in 2013, are among several South Bank regeneration schemes - but Tower Works is arguably the biggest to date.

Kevin Grady, director of Leeds Civic Trust, is enthusiastic about the redevelopment plans as long as the towers remain a focal point.

“If they manage to reproduce the charm and atmosphere of the Round Foundry then that would be extremely good. I think the idea of having Holbeck Urban Village was, and is, a good idea and the Round Foundry has set the benchmark in terms of blending modern design with great historic buildings,” he says.

“Tower Works has these wonderful Italianate chimneys as well as the Engine House with its great engineering association to the textile industry, and the Trust is delighted that phase two of the Tower Works scheme has started.

“Work on the south entrance to the station is well under way and these historic buildings anchor and give character to what is a significant area of the city centre in terms of its industrial and architectural heritage.”

Dr Grady believes the redevelopment of Tower Works and the nearby Temple Mill can be a springboard for the regeneration of the city’s old industrial south bank.

“I don’t like to use the word ‘iconic’ to describe buildings but these really are, and after so many years of recession the fact we’re seeing schemes like this under way is really good news.”