Tell me more about your Aire Valley masterplan proposals.
It’s all about addressing rural decline. The Aire Valley has the most extraordinary landscape, littered with power stations, open-cast mines and sewage works. But in terms of nature and conservation it has a lot to offer. We want to create a new city district but we will be using landscape to repair and restore it.
Your history with Leeds goes back a while doesn’t it?
Yes, we originally looked at Quarry Hill [an area dominated by 1960s council flats] back in the 1980s. But there was a property collapse and it stalled.
Did you ever think you’d get the chance to work in Leeds after that?
The thing about being an architect is when the phone rings you have no idea who it could be. It might be a museum or a council estate – which funnily enough has just happened.
What was your starting point for the huge Eastgate retail-led proposals [for developer Hammerson in the north-east of Leeds city centre]?
An awful lot of our work in cities is about putting it all ‘the stuff’ back in. There has been terrible decline in the post-industrial cities after the Second World War. With the introduction of the Welfare State you would have thought these Northern cities would have been looked after, but there was such abuse. In Newcastle they put a motorway through the city.
In Leeds, the building of the ring road totally destroyed the areas either side. The economic decline was accelerated and the area put in a stranglehold.
So what exactly are you doing to address this?
We are looking at the terrible pedestrian intersections – you have to do that with courage and I think this is perfectly possible. I’m not in favour of knocking anything down. That end of town is a cul-de-sac – it doesn’t lead anywhere. We came up with the idea of a grand galleria. It’s going to be the biggest galleria in Britain, but leading off will be tight-grained streets.
As masterplanner, how can you ensure the quality of the final scheme will be high?
The jury is still out on that one. [Former culture minister] Chris Smith asked me if there was a way we could get good architecture every time. I replied: ‘Yes, there is one way. You get good architects.’ He said that led to difficulties with procurement. But you don’t get the best orchestra conductor on the lowest bid. Here we are looking at using 10 different architects [Carmody Groarke has already been shortlisted for the John Lewis store].
There is a lot of comparison between Leeds and Manchester. Should Leeds be looking at its rival for its future development?
Everywhere has to be true to itself. Places are different and have different embedded cultures. Manchester is like a frontier town – home to free trade and lets people do what they want to do. But it is not very well organised. Leeds has a unique quality about it and, with its arcades, a certain civility. It shouldn’t worry that it doesn’t have the wow factor. It has to avoid following the glitzy and build quality buildings that are still there in 100 years’ time.
How do you see the recession affecting the future development of Leeds?
The North of England suffered a terrible decline after the Second World War, but even the Gatesheads and Middlesbroughs have seen that it is not all over and that there is a way forward after industry. The problems with regeneration is that [rapid] development is thought to be everything. But if that means 1,000 badly built homes, what good does it do?
What one thing do you think Leeds needs today?
We looked at an idea for the bottom of town, near Millgarth, similar to the London eye and we worked with Marks Barfield on it. We came up with a needle with a capsule on it that went up and down. At the base would be a public room. It was suggested to the council leaders but came to nothing.