‘You Wouldn’t Burn A Book…’

David Street sign, Holbeck

July 7, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process

This is taken from Matt Edgar’s personal blog, which, if you haven’t already, we strongly urge you to visit. A link to the site is on our blog roll.

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.

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.