Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios Broadcasting Place in Leeds responds to both the surrounding geology and the cityscape, says Rob Gregory. Photography by Will Pryce
The fact that Leeds chooses to elevate the status of its most celebrated architect by calling a pub The Cuthbert Brodrick is no bad thing. It is likely that the 19th-century designer would have enjoyed a pint or two in a local tavern after working on the city’s impressive Town Hall and Corn Exchange buildings. Sadly, the watering hole that bears his name is one of JD Wetherspoons’ 767 venues; a commodified, you-could-be-in-any-city-centre-or-station sort of place, the epitome of mediocrity. Sadly, this quality is shared by much of Leeds’ recent architecture.
Arriving at the city’s station, Leeds’ skyline presents every conceivable variation of curtain wall or rainscreen cladding. Taste and restraint are not words that spring to mind when you see the multi-coloured, multi-faceted elevations. As such, it is a relief to emerge from the station on to Park Row, one of the city’s principal historic streets that, to the north, provides an early glimpse of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ (FCBS) Broadcasting Place’s tower, with the south elevation articulated by four cantilevered wedges that increase in height as they scale its 23 storeys.
Broadcasting Place is a mixed-use development for Leeds Metropolitan University and property group Downing. It provides about 10,200m2 of office and teaching space, 240 student residences in the aforementioned tower and, rather curiously, a Baptist church embedded into its northern-most corner.
While it is unusual to begin a critique of a FCBS scheme with a comment on its formal composition, this building deserves credit for its contribution to the cityscape. The brooding and bombastic tower is without doubt the scheme’s most prominent element, but what is really noteworthy about this building, on a more subtle level, is how its cranked and inclined silhouette resolves some especially tricky site constraints. Working around an existing Baptist church (now offices) and the prostyle former BBC Old Broadcasting House, Broadcasting Place had to negotiate its place and resolve four contrasting elevations. These include Woodhouse Lane to the west, which forms the principal frontage, lined by Blenheim Terrace and leading up to Leeds University’s neo-classical Parkinson Building; and the A660 to the east, which creates a deep physical and psychological scar on this gateway site at the north fringe of the city centre.
To date, FCBS’s reputation has been built on more rigorous attention to the resolution of social and environmental aspirations. With this building, however, in response to context, the architect has expressed a degree of formal liberty not seen before. As senior partner Peter Clegg says: ‘Making an overtly formal response is a new direction for us.’
Having grown up in the region, Clegg describes how the eroded sandstone in the Pennines, sculptural modelling of Ilkley Moor and work of local artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth all had an influence. As such, Broadcasting Place was conceived as three forms that resemble geological outcrops: Block A, the Humanities Building, which fronts Woodhouse Lane and contains lecture theatres, seminar rooms, offices and a shared foyer, rising from three to six storeys; Block B, the Arts Building, that addresses the more hostile environment of the A660 with robust workshop/studio space, falling from eight to seven storeys; and Block C, Broadcasting Tower, to the south, in which 22 of its 23 floors are divided into two clusters of five single rooms and one studio flat.
Unified by its rusty Cor-ten cladding, the rake of the roof responds to adjacent buildings. English Heritage and Leeds civic architect John Thorp pushed FCBS in this respect, making particular demands on the elevation of Block A to Woodhouse Lane. As a result, the composition on this face presents the building at its most restrained, with a tighter pattern of fenestration, a half-pediment and a four-column, prostyle colonnade. These combine to produce a sophisticated entrance elevation that looses nothing of its relationship with the more abstract whole. FCBS partner Alex Whitbread acknowledges the success of this enforced discipline: ‘While we may not necessarily have produced such a highly composed elevation ourselves, with a centralised entrance and exposed columns, in the end, I agree with their view. ’
The west elevation’s 16 windows refer to the remaining 16 frames of the world’s first moving images, developed on this site by Louis Le Prince in the late 19th century. Its half-pediment strikes a sympathetic line between Old Broadcasting House and the Baptist church, before snaking off higher still. Four columns reveal the building’s concrete frame, while making a subtle announcement of frontage.
By contrast, the building’s northern tip is described by Whitbread as the ‘Harley-Davidson corner’ or, more playfully, the ‘you’ll-take-someone’s-eye-out-on-that-corner corner’, cutting a deep chasm between Blocks A and B, forming one of three new routes across the previously privatised site. Whitbread restates the significance of the city’s and English Heritage’s support for ‘a building like this’, in the middle of a conservation area, which required the demolition and adaptation of a number of listed buildings.
The rake of the Arts Building stops the natural accent, as the roof changes pitch to fall from eight to seven storeys between apex and tower. Venturing to the top of Woodhouse Lane reveals that this pitch perfectly mimics the roof line of Blenheim Terrace, demonstrating FCBS’s skilful manipulation of form.
Internally, this profile gives identity and drama to the uppermost space. The single-volume, split-level architecture studio occupies the majority of the seventh floor, which is open to the inclined and exposed concrete roof slab. Divided by haphazard temporary screens, this studio deserves more appropriate occupation but, even in this state, it would be the envy of most architecture schools, with spatial diversity and a fantastic aspect over the city.
Some of the block’s diversity comes from the expression of the fenestration that incorporates FCBS’s commitment to integrated low-energy design. The apparently random patterns have been composed to ensure that the vertically modulated cuts provide an orientation-specific balance of daylight penetration and solar gain reduction.
As a developer-led, mixed-use scheme, in which the architect had to plan for long term commercial use, the building is not without its compromises. It shows signs of a more speculative commercial development. The cladding, for example, is not as deep set as the forms deserve, with the relationship between steel and glazing failing to exert a convincing sculptural quality. The conventional glazing bars bring this element perilously close to being just another entry in the Leeds cladding catalogue. However, due to the singularity of articulation, and the high material quality, the architect has maintained sufficient rigour and discipline to produce a fine building.
The developer should also be credited for the outcome, agreeing to the university’s request to employ a new architect once the 25-year lease had been signed, which ultimately led to a far more sophisticated scheme. Hopefully, more investment will allow Broadcasting Place to reach its full potential when essential landscaping works heal the scar of the A58(M). Building users, staff and students also deserve a decent place to eat and drink – the large cupboard in the foyer is completely inadequate. A venue in the courtyard would be a welcome addition, and may well become a more suitable establishment to reclaim the distinguished Brodrick name.
Collective townscapes, enriched identity
As in other Victorian cities, the universities in Leeds originated in relatively self-contained campuses. Over the past five years, the city’s two major universities – Leeds University and Leeds Metropolitan University – have joined with the city council in endeavouring to transform their campuses and adjacent civic quarters into well-connected, welcoming townscapes within the core of the city.
This joint ambition to soften institutional identities nevertheless contains the aspiration to maintain or enrich a distinctiveness of character and place and an expansion of a range of activities in particular localities.
Broadcasting Place represents a remarkable and distinguished fulfilment of these demanding aims. This achievement was made possible by the willingness of Leeds Metropolitan University, investor/developer Downing, architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, professional advisors and council officers to engage in a challenging but creative sequence of design and development workshops. Wide public consultations were carried out and design matters responded to in the workshops. Plans panel members engaged in pre-planning discussions, site visits and inspections of full-size mock-ups of assemblies of building components, as well as their formal considerations.
All these initiatives were guided by aspirational mapping of the potential of this piece of the city’s core to contribute to its wider connective and topographical context.
For the city council, this outstanding project illustrates the benefits of a willingness to progress schemes through collaborative approaches to design, development and renewal, pursued in a context of clearly defined principles and development frameworks. Many other benefits were also realised as the scheme progressed, despite recent economic reversals. This project has helped to test the proposition that, more often than not, places change and are given coherence – except at the level of major infrastructure – by gradualist, incremental steps: even at the boldness of stride taken by Broadcasting Place.
John Thorp, civic architect, Leeds City Council
Start on site June 2007
Contract duration 42 months
Gross internal floor area Block A: 5,713m2;
Block B: 5,724m2; Block C: 6,486m2.
Form of contract Design and build
Total cost £50 million
Client Downing and Leeds Metropolitan University
Architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Structural engineer Halcrow Yolles
M&E consultant KGA
Quantity surveyor Ridge and Partners
Landscape architect Robert Myers Associates
Main contractor George Downing Construction
Annual CO2 emissions Not yet calculated