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Leeds: Shaping the city - RIBA's new book is little more than a PR push

An uncritical study of the regeneration of Leeds is peppered with unintended irony, says Richard Waite

Leeds: Shaping the City by Martin Wainwright. RIBA Publishing. 2009, 220pp, £19.95

‘Daddy, what was it like before the credit crunch?’ ‘Son, read Leeds: Shaping the City. Its pages contain the worst indulgences of short-sighted, boom-fuelled backslapping of 2007/2008 – a book bankrolled by pre-recession developers, high on years of untroubled success.’

The sleeve notes claim Martin Wainwright’s book (produced by RIBA Publishing and Leeds City Council) is an ‘authoritative and objective’ assessment of the redevelopment and regeneration of Leeds. In essence, it is little more than a 220-page brochure, cataloguing a hotchpotch of schemes in the city over the last 15 years, combined with a potted history of where it all began and where it’s heading.

What’s worse is that it is already horribly out of date. Overtaken by the speed of the economic collapse, large chunks of the book verge on irrelevance. Describing the ‘future’ of Leeds’ redevelopment, Wainwright laughably claims the city’s ‘renaissance is neither shallow nor a bubble… [and] there is no shortage of people wanting to move in to live, work and spend.’

Clearly the book was written well before the national press carried headlines such as ‘Leeds: the empty flat capital of the north’. Likewise, Sunand Prasad was not to know as he penned his foreword (presumably last year) that schemes by Make (the Spiracle on the Leeds International Pool site) and Ian Simpson (the Lumiere), which he champions as ‘the boldest of the new era of skyscrapers’, would be ditched or mothballed.

Poor timing is forgivable, but the lack of a true critical voice is not and you only have to look at the list of ‘publishing partners’ (which includes the likes of developers Hammerson) to see why Wainwright avoids giving some schemes a good kicking.

Perhaps, in time, the book will become a valuable insight for historians trying to investigate the moments before the country plunged into financial crisis. But for a truly ‘objective’ appraisal of the city’s architecture, choose Susan Wrathmell’s 2007 Pevsner City Guide on Leeds.

Resume: No critical insight in the RIBA’s PR push for Leeds

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