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THE HEADQUARTERS OF THE DSS GRINS GORMLESSLY DOWN ON CENTRAL LEEDS FROM ITS HUGE DEATH'S-HEAD FACADE

OPINION / PETER DAVEY

I spent large chunks of my adolescence in Leeds. It was a grim place 50 years ago - still suffering from post-war impoverishment and the accumulated filth of 150 years of Industrial Revolution. Yet there were wonders. The city was dominated by the formidable black bulk of Cuthbert Brodrick's mid-1850s town hall, surrounded by its massive millstone grit Corinthian order.

In the surrounding dirty red-brick streets were excellent second-hand bookshops, tottering opticians who sold microscopes and ancient pubs where hallucinatory spaces were defined by mirrors and sparkling copper bar-tops.

Behind the grime, gems could be discerned: Brodrick's daunting ovoid Corn Exchange; austere but graceful Georgian buildings in the gridded 18thcentury centre; and spare, functional Victorian warehouses on the stinking river.

All has changed. Journeys north showed the city altering rapidly. The town hall was cleaned and lost much of its black majesty. The Leeds Style was invented, a special kind of Yorkshire PoMo, made exceedingly boring by fatigued polychromatic analogies to the great days of the 19th century.

But where Victorian polychromy was structural, the 20th-century version is just a stretcher-bond skin - pansy compared with the toughness of the real stuff. The dimness of the '80s and '90s is summed up by its sinister apotheosis:

the headquarters of the old Department of Social Security, which grins gormlessly down the Headrow from its huge death's-head facade.

Ironically, this expression of the terrifying soullessness of the bureaucratic state was built on the site of one of the most heroic British architectural experiments of the '30s. The city fathers had the grit and vision of their Victorian predecessors, but they were socialist. They built the largest housing scheme in Europe on Quarry Hill, previously a huge slum. Designed by the undersung city architect RHA Livett's team, and based on the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, the complex had a perimeter twoto eight-storeys high, housing over 3,000 people. Inside this rim of flats were to be all sorts of communal facilities: shops, cafés, laundries and the like.

Only some were built and the estate slowly fell to bits socially and physically - an innovatory steel frame and concrete-panel system was used and by the '60s it had started to corrode very badly. The lifts stank of piss.

Everything was demolished.

Such memories can make a visit to Leeds rather glum.

But I was cheered this time.

Seen from the railway station, the town hall (now grey) is diminished but new buildings are crisper and less banal than their Leeds Style predecessors.

The anti-urbanity of civil engineers has been partly mitigated (the city was a test-bed for urban motorways), the river is virtually clean and so are most of the old buildings.

Many more people are now living in the centre. Leeds may have wrecked its main square, but it has not felt the need to make absurd gestures, like the blue slug by Future Systems in Birmingham, nor has it opted for wild makeovers like those offered by Will Alsop to neighbouring Bradford and Barnsley (the latter is to be a Yorkshire version of a Tuscan hill town). The second-hand bookshops may have gone but the copper bar of the Turk's Head still gleams brightly in its little alley off Briggate and the splendid glazed Victorian arcades have been renovated and added to. Central Leeds has acquired new confidence.

It all makes me quite proud to be a local lad.

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