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Get the Odeon revamp right and Bradford will be one step closer to a revival

The two remaining bids in the 1930s Odeon cinema competition are perhaps too safe, writes Richard Waite

Bradford’s 1930s Odeon cinema could turn out to be a surprise success story of the recent financial turmoil. Not because its long-awaited redevelopment happened, but because it didn’t.

Closed since 2000, the much-loved, slightly stubby, Renaissance Revival cinema, with its famous cupola-topped towers, had been controversially earmarked for demolition. It was due to be replaced by a bland, could-be-anywhere, office-led scheme by Carey Jones Architects - until the recession claimed it.

The original development team won the project by a hair’s breadth in summer 2006, edging ahead of rivals with its marginally stronger up-front financial offer. But the design was uninspiring and the money argument was, at best, short-sighted.

Worryingly for the city, people didn’t like it. Worse still, the local authority didn’t seem to care - despite vocal protests from the campaign group Bradford Odeon Rescue Group, which drummed up support for a 1,000-strong human chain during the ‘Hug the Odeon’ event in July 2007.

Backed by the regional development agency, the team pressed on for another five years, ignoring Bradfordians who felt the building, or parts of it, were worth saving. Indeed, the authority’s stance helped Respect MP George Galloway get elected to Bradford West by pledging to save the Odeon in his manifesto.

Galloway twigged that people were almost universally against the wasteful demolition of a remarkably robust landmark - an increasingly tatty, but stoutly barrel-chested neighbour to the domed Alhambra Theatre and an appropriate bookend to the award-winning City Park. The flattening of the Odeon’s twin towers was not opposed just on nostalgic grounds, but because people felt powerless. The despair was compounded by the lack of action over the Westfield shopping site, which was cleared and then left as a hole for six years. Would the Odeon become another, lamentable city-centre scar?

Fortunately, Carey Jones’ scheme came off the rails in September 2012, with the property transferring to the council for £1. Late last year, the authority began searching for a new team - this time with the onus on retaining as much of the existing fabric as possible.

Three teams threw their hats into the ring, but last week the slightly ridiculous proposal by Rance Booth Smith Architects to convert it into a swimming pool and indoor running track was withdrawn. The two remaining bids are much safer (perhaps too safe) and involve reusing the theatres as live performance spaces.

Hackney Empire-mastermind Tim Ronalds Architects has teamed up with local businessman Lee Craven under the ‘Bradford Live’ banner to convert the building into a 4,000-seat music venue. Meanwhile, the Bradford One team featuring local firm Halliday Clark Architects wants to transform it into a multipurpose cultural venue - tapping into the Asian wedding market - and centre for creativity and enterprise. The group is community-owned with 400 members to date, and admirably pledges to give ‘them a chance to have a direct say in the future of their building’. Both teams claim they have gone through the viability issues with a fine-toothed comb, even though the Populous-designed Leeds’ Arena, just a few miles down the road, opened last year and Bradford’s St George’s Hall offers a similarly-sized venue.

At this stage little of the architecture has yet been shown off but, with the council still in the driving seat, now is the time to demand that design quality is a major factor in whichever bid wins. More importantly, the people of Bradford need to be taken along every step of the journey. Getting the Odeon right is vital for Bradford’s delayed, but nascent renaissance.

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