Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

Feature: Will culture fix Hull?

Made in hull city hall jpm17 h17 5095 © james mulkeen (1)
  • Comment

The Yorkshire city’s status as 2017 UK City of Culture marks a wider resurgence including a £90 million investment to improve the city core, reports Tim Abrahams


In a poem written in 1961, Here, about his adopted home of Hull, Philip Larkin describes the ‘surprise’ of arriving in the city and seeing its ‘domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster’. In 2017, Hull boasts the title of UK City of Culture. And if there is one capacity that the place retains since that day it is its ability to surprise. 

While the vibrant, architecturally quirky city suffered financially when the fishing industry collapsed and containerisation decimated employment in the port, it has retained a strong sense of independence. Partly because of its size, Hull can make collective decisions that have a positive effect on the built environment – when the money becomes available.

So as it enjoys its moment in the spotlight, what does UK City of Culture status mean for Hull in terms of development? 

On first look it means large stretches of the city centre will be cross-hatched with site fencing as a huge public realm scheme hurries to a spring 2017 conclusion. The city of culture delivery company (Hull 2017) raised £32 million including £13 million from central government. However, this injection of money also convinced the local authority to borrow £90 million to improve the city core. This includes the refurbishment of the SN Cooke’s wonderfully severe Ferens Art Gallery; a rebuild of the early 19th-century New Theatre; and a new granite pedestrian route through the town from the railway station; all the way down to a new creative arts district in the old dock.

What has already emerged is of a very high quality. The landscaping, designed by Leeds-based landscape architect Re-form, is the first major redevelopment of the city centre in 70 years, and includes 14 streets, four public squares and the planting of over 70 trees. It is hugely ambitious, stylish and superbly executed in a short turn-around. The completed work at Trinity and Victoria Squares is as good a piece of urban landscaping as has been seen in the UK since Gustafson Porter’s 2007 Market Square in Nottingham; albeit less extravagant and more pragmatic.

We made a strategic decision to invest heavily in the city centre … We are going to invest in things related to enjoyment in life

According to the council’s director of major projects, Garry Taylor, ‘we made a strategic decision we were going to invest heavily in the city centre at this time … We are going to invest in things related to enjoyment in life.’ 

The aim is not as gratuitous as it first appears. The animating idea is how to extend the length of stay in the city from simply ghosting in and out to spending days at a time in the place. Yet the council’s confidence to borrow is not entirely based on the City of Culture status. Equally vital is the opening of Green Port, effectively the refurbishment of an old commercial dock into a site for wind turbine production with added capacity for associated industries.

In 2012 Siemens agreed a £2 billion deal to supply 300 turbines for offshore wind farms and began plans for a £200 million factory in the port. The first blades for the turbines rolled off the production line last month. Indeed, one of them was hauled into Victoria Square where it is being exhibited as part of the city’s 2017 celebrations, with Green Port and Siemens picking up most of the tab for the 10-week display of the city’s latest industrial production. There’s a certain fortune to this. Although Hull’s MPs lobbied hard for Green Port to be based in the city, it won largely because it is the most convenient port to the offshore fields of wind turbines. 

Made in hull the deep jpm17 h17 5221 © james mulkeen

Made in hull the deep jpm17 h17 5221 © james mulkeen

In many ways, the city of culture can be read as a sign of successes in the city rather than the other way round. The budget for Hull 2017 is more than 50 per cent higher than the 2013 European City of Culture hosted by Derry/Londonderry, largely thanks to private funding. The truth is that Hull is slowly benefiting from painstaking work begun over 15 years ago. Larger northern cities such as Manchester and Leeds, which experienced the full benefits of support from the Regional Development Agencies in the noughties, have also experienced dramatic losses following the financial crisis a decade ago. ‘You can’t make a quick buck in places like Hull,’ says Dominic Gibbons, chief executive of family-owned local regeneration company Wykeland.

Recently developers such as Wykeland have been quietly delivering creative industry and arts focused developments in very specific areas of the city near the old docks, particularly the Fruit Market area. Although an extravagant proposal by Chetwoods for enclosing a 220-year-old dry dock never emerged, a more modest one was built. This features a rather clunky Centre for Digital Innovation by Leeds-based Enjoy Design with 7,400m2 of office space, which may loom over the dock but at least addresses the well-landscaped amphitheatre extension into the dock area (also by Enjoy). This will be used as an event space for Hull 2017. 



‘The whole idea with the City of Culture is to raise local aspirations and raise the perceptions here too. To demand more,’ Gibbons says. 

The whole idea with the City of Culture is to raise local aspirations and raise the perceptions here too. To demand more

Hull 2017 though is as much the work of sticking to a vision of culture-led regeneration that had apparently seen its day, even if it has taken a long time to get there. The development of the adjacent Fruit Market area has taken nine years from when Surface, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects and Bauman Lyons with developer Igloo won the high-profile competition to transform it, before the deal collapsed as government funding disappeared and the recession bit. Instead, the area was taken on by Wykeland and local housing developer Beal Homes in partnership with the council, and later this year several units of the 104 townhouses and apartments will go on sale amid the galleries and retailers. 

‘The current plans are very similar to ours though without the quality of architecture,’ says Igloo founder Chris Brown. ‘The building Sarah Wigglesworth designed for us was absolutely brilliant.’ 

Other initiatives also fell by the wayside. Níall McLaughlin’s temporary Arc building was sold and eventually dismantled. Chetwoods’ high-rise Boom development next to the River Hull also disappeared. 

‘Hopefully City of Culture will help to promote and grow Hull’s existing and vibrant, though partially hidden, creative economy,’ says Brown.

Wigglesworth agrees. ‘Places like Hull could really benefit from the overheating in the South East,’ she says. ‘Especially for artists who are getting priced out. They are a seedbed for creative work.’ 

Tellingly, in early 2016 Wykeland sold several business parks it owned in Scotland and the North East to focus on growth in Hull and the wider Humber region. The city, unlucky for so long during the 1970s and 1980s, avoided the worst of culture-led regeneration, and lucked out comparatively with millennial grands projets. Terry Farrell’s aquarium The Deep – regardless of how convinced you are by the arch-Postmodernists take on Deconstructivism – is very much a going concern and, with the McDowell + Benedetti swing bridge to the south, acts as solid foil to the bulk of the Hull Tidal Barrier. Together they contribute to the quirky, independent-minded architectural landscape and, next to the brutal-crystal-palace-on-stilts of Hugh Martin’s Princes Quay, it is relatively sane.

Hull also benefited from other initiatives. There are 21 new or significantly refurbished school buildings following the £400 million investment under Building Schools for the Future. The design champion for the project, Richard Scott, says that although the budget was subsequently cut by 30 per cent it has provided an architectural quality and character to the wider city. ‘It was always going to be a more austere version,’ he says, ‘but at least it kept going.’ 

This programme of building partially contributed to the reopening of the architecture department at the University of Hull in 2010 (it had closed in 2003). In addition, in 2014 Hull College launched a degree course in architecture, following the UK City of Culture announcement and citing feedback from local practices about a lack of architectural graduates in the area as a reason. 

In Larkin’s poem, he describes its citizens as ‘a cut-price crowd, urban yet simple’, making them admirably suited to the current era. Hull’s regeneration is pretty frill. The effect of the City of Culture will be most clear in the city centre which has been poised for over a decade waiting for a catalyst. Whether the rest of the city benefits will be down to the success of less sexy, longer-term factors such as the economics of wind turbine production. 

Five things to see in Hull in 2017

Ferens art gallery (c) hull city council

The annual Open Exhibition at the Ferens Art Gallery has attracted amateur and professional artists since 1967. Marking its 50th anniversary, this year’s exhibition will be selected by National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi, Hull-born actor Maureen Lipman and sculptor David Mach. 

The gallery is worth a visit for the building alone, by architect SN Cooke and opened in 1927. It also has a wide-ranging permanent collection featuring works from Fran Hals to Canaletto and Walter Sickert to Wyndham Lewis. 

During 2017, five of Francis Bacon’s ‘screaming popes’ will be on loan to Ferens, including his masterpiece Head VI (1949) from the Arts Council Collection. This year the gallery will be only the fifth venue outside London to host the Turner Prize since its launch in 1984.

The Open Exhibition runs until 12 March. Open Monday to Saturday from 10am, Sunday from 11am.Ferens Art Gallery, Queen Victoria Square, Carr Lane, HU1 3RA. 

Lines of Thought: Drawing from Michelangelo to Now, Brynmor Jones Library  

Brynmor jones library university gallery

This British Museum touring show is worth seeing for its impressive collection of drawings from masters such as Dürer, Degas, Michelangelo, Matisse and Rembrandt.

But seeing it in Hull also provides an opportunity to visit the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones Library where poet Philip Larkin was librarian,from 1955 till 1985. Sheppard Robson has recently completed a £28 million transformation, involving the complete refurbishment of the library’s two buildings: the 1956 original Art Deco building, and the adjoining eight-storey 1960s Brutalist building.

Until 28 February at the Brynmor Jones Library, Cottingham Road, HU6 7RX. Admission is free.

Coum transmissions

COUM Transmissions was a music and performance art collective founded in Hull in 1969. This is the first exhibition of materials drawn from the personal archives of members by Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti. 

Humber Street Gallery was established for the UK City of Culture 2017 as ‘the new home of the sort of art that Hull inspires’, according to its curator David Sinclair. ‘Art that is innovative, politicised, groundbreaking and daring. Everything is rooted in the art history of the city, especially drawn from the groundbreaking, often challenging, lineage of COUM Transmissions and [arts development agency] Hull Time Based Arts.”

Live events will trace COUM’s conception and legacy, combining music, talks and discussions among original COUM members. Three sculptures by Sarah Lucas will also be on show at the same time. 

3 February till 22 March, Humber Street Gallery, 64 Humber Street, HU1 1TU. 10am-8pm everyday. Admission free.  

Blade, Queen Victoria Square

Blade  installation blade install 33 (c) thom arran

Blade, by artist Nayan Kulkarni, uses one of the first B75 wind turbine rotor blades produced at Siemens’ new Hull factory, and was commissioned by Hull UK City of Culture 2017 in partnership with Siemens. At 75m it is the world’s largest, handmade fibreglass component cast as a single element. 

Kulkarni said: ‘The twisting wing, although inert and at rest in the street, speaks of movement, but not of freedom.’  

Blade is the first in a series of major art commissions that will be installed in public spaces as part of Look Up, a year-long programme of temporary artworks.

Until 18 March in Queen Victoria Square, HU1 3RQ




Ten World Upon Humber Bridge

Scale lane bridge 242 03 people riding timothysoar95

Scale lane bridge 242 03 people riding timothysoar95

Source: Timothy Soar

Scale Lane Bridge

When it opened in 1981, the 2,220m-long single-span suspension bridge was the longest of its type in the world, and despite having slipped down that list, it remains the longest such bridge one can cross on foot or by bicycle. 

From April, pedestrians will be able to experience Ten Worlds upon Humber Bridge (working title), a sound installation featuring the Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North. 

It has been composed by Norwegian trumpeter and jazz musician Arve Henriksen, electronic musician Jan Bang and guitarist Eivind Aarset, mixing their own music, orchestral music and field recordings made at the Humber Bridge by Hull-based sound artist Jez Riley French. 

Ten Worlds is designed to be listened to via a headset while walking across the bridge, and will ‘uncover the hidden sounds of the bridge and its surrounding natural environment of river and fens, pairing these with music both atmospheric and epic’. 

Other bridges in the city are planning cultural projects for 2017 too, including McDowell + Benedetti’s Scale Lane Bridge. Playing the Bridge, by Nye Parry and Laurence Rugg will explore the bridge’s sonic potential and hidden engineering as it is turned into a giant musical instrument. Members of the community will be invited to become ‘sound explorers’, culminating in a live performance and audio-visual installation on the structure itself.

26 March until 1 April.

Listings by Rupert Bickersteth. Full programme details available at Hull 2017 website


Simon Baker, Group Ginger

Twenty years ago, councillor Dave Gemmel and Colin Brown travelled from Hull to the Natural History Museum in London – a trip that inspired them to open a parallel attraction in Hull. They were at the vanguard of an initiative that would help to transform Hull, acting on the recommendations of a commissioned branding report that identified ten ways to improve the image of a once great city whose fortunes were intertwined with the sea. Number one was to change the city’s name. Somewhere further down the list was to build a ‘Guggenheim-type’ attraction that would replicate the regeneration of Bilbao. Rather than ridicule their vision, the Natural History Museum supported and encouraged the men in their quest to put Hull on the cultural map.

This was the start of a long journey. The initial idea led directly to the Heritage Lottery funded Millennium Project, The Deep, completed in 2001. The most commercially successful of all the UK’s Millennium landmark projects, The Deep has been a huge success, drawing more than 300,000 visitors a year; this success is reliant upon the business strategy, planning and ongoing management of a committed team.

There were many other grand regeneration schemes envisaged for the city - The fruit market, The Dry Dock, River Hull East side, the Swinging Bridge. Gap funding and grant awards fuelled the masterplan and development ambitions of the city. The financial crash of 2007/8; changes of government and a bonfire of the quangos together stifled the pace of change, putting a stop to many of the more inflated schemes. In some way, this has saved Hull, certainly that’s true of the east bank.

Rather than the quick-fix offered by artificially-funded development, the city’s leaders have had to accept a slower pace, reconsidering a number of their ambitions and tailoring their plans to be within means. The shift in perspective has altered the scale and focus of investment with greater emphasis on enhancing what’s already there: existing culture, residents and businesses.

It has been a slow process but one that seems finally to have created a joined-up place which resonates with its residents and isn’t quite like anywhere else. There are still gaps - notably the swinging bridge to nowhere - but over time these will take shape.

The City of Culture 2017 should not be viewed as a destination but rather one more well-considered stepping stone. Equally, City of Culture status is not best described as ‘a catalyst for growth”: Hull is on a continuous voyage to shape a distinct place, derived from the culture of its people and those willing to stay and invest their time in its future growth.

Luckily for all, the decision-makers resisted the urge to change the name of a very proud city and, as Colin Brown steps down from his 15-year tenure as Chief Executive in April, his successor can rest assured that The Deep’s presence on the city’s horizon is secure.

Jonathan McDowell, director, Matter Architecture

Jonathan mcdowell

Most people who visit Hull for the first time are surprised by the quality of its buildings and spaces, particularly in the docks and cobbled streets of the Old Town, legacies of the historic walled city on the River Hull that became a wealthy global port. Wartime bombing and rapid industrial decline have left it with an unfairly negative image, reinforced by its end-of-the-line location and its inhabitants’ inbuilt tendency to self-denigration. It is, however, an energetic and active city with a tough and robust quality, physically and culturally, which is celebrated in a strong identity of ‘Hull-ness’.

’Most people who visit Hull for the first time are surprised by the quality of its buildings’

Since we [when I was at McDowell + Benedetti] started working in the city in 2005, I have seen some significant new buildings built, including Hull Truck Theatre and Hull History Centre. There has been steady public and private push for regeneration although that has been hindered by post-recession budget cutbacks. It is arguable whether the shiny new St Stephens shopping centre is a boon or threat to the city, and whether too much hope is pinned on the jobs at Siemens’ factory.

[However] the programme has started energetically, and promises a huge variety of intriguing events (including the one we are organising at Scale Lane Bridge

While these are fleeting by nature, they reinforce and invigorate a community that demands substantial physical improvement takes place, as long as the benefit can be brought to the people who really need it and not just a cultural elite. 

It is going to be well worth the effort to join in the celebrations and experience that ’different resonance’ that Philip Larkin found in Hull. 

Sandy Wright, co-founder Wright & Wright Architects

Sandy wright

Sandy wright

The collapse of the fishing industry brought about by the 1983 EU Common Fisheries Policy led to Hull becoming one of the most deprived cities in Britain. Social and economic decline galvanised the industrious city fathers into action, aided by agencies such as the appropriately named Hull Forward.

 Around the old city centre various developments emerged: The Deep, the Architecture Centre (sadly no longer with us), the quayside marina, the rail and bus station, Hull City football stadium, industrial estates, business precincts and the ubiquitous shopping malls.

In 2002 we were invited to enter the competition for the new Hull Truck Theatre. The playwright John Godber and his team had the confidence to apply for funding to get their highly popular Hull Truck company to move out of cramped, damp conditions into a new building on Ferensway. We won, and the pivotal arts development that many didn’t think would or deserved to happen did. A key piece was the theatre’s rooftop ‘Light Curtain’ installation by Vong and Oboussier.

Things were moving but what did Hull want to be?

Another building block in the regeneration was the BSF programme and much needed schools emerged in quick time.

Employment then improved, for example, with the arrival of the Siemens wind turbine production plant.

Those in arts and culture milieu were also driving through exhibitions and art installations, culminating in spectacular events such as Spencer Tunick’s ‘Sea of Hull’.

In a move unimaginable at the start of the millennium, the City Council courageously sought to apply for City of Culture status. They won and Hull became the City of Culture 2017.

Co-curators of the City of Culture Art installations, Andrew Knight and Hazel Colquhoun were charged with a major project. Nayan Kulkarni’s ‘Blade’ is a gigantic blade from a Siemens wind turbine set in the city centre with the old dock building, now the fishing museum, as a backdrop. For me this explicitly captures what the way ahead could be. An engineering object, beautiful in its own right and representing the potential of green energy, set on a pedestal as high art.

’Hull is now firmly on the cultural map’

In the same way that former industrial cities Glasgow and Newcastle were transformed by cultural programmes, Hull is now firmly on the cultural map.

But I would also encourage people to experience the city’s architecture. The collapse of the fishing industry had a peculiarly benign effect in that the old city centre was preserved by the lack of development. The beautiful old brick houses, warehouses and arcades are still intact and frozen in time. This inner citadel, ‘the Land of Green Ginger’ is where to start your visit.

Door view

James Lockwood of idarchitecture

James lockwood


Hull quite frankly is a mixed bag. A city tarnished repeatedly as the Worst Place to Live in the UK it came as a surprise to many that Hull would become host to City of Culture 2017.

Home to Wilberforce and a city rich with maritime history the city over the last decade has become home to a number of prestigious architectural projects by Wright & Wright, Terry Farrell and most recently the award winning Scale Lane Bridge by McDowell & Benedetti. Have these contributed to the cultural richness of Hull? Arguably not but they have shown a confidence in investing in the city’s wider regeneration.

’The Turner Prize in Hull, who would have thought?’

Regeneration has never been more apparent in Hull than that invested in its historic Fruit Market. Home to the annual Humber Street Sesh and Freedom Festival for the last 15 years the local council and its developer partner are leading the process of creating a dynamic cultural quarter within its tapestry of historic warehouses. This is not a legacy project in recognition of 2017 but a sign of dedication of like minded individuals with a desire for change.

City of Culture if anything will hopefully encourage people to see for themselves that this city is perhaps not deserving of its notorious title. The Turner Prize in Hull, who would have thought?

City of culture we are hull made in hull event photo

City of culture we are hull made in hull event photo


  • Comment

Related files

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.