Sunday, September 22, 2019


Gigantic Leeds (2)

My second gigantic and over-the-top building in Leeds is the Corn Exchange, another enormous structure by Cuthbert Brodrick and, like the Town Hall, a design that won a competition. Brodrick based it in the Halle au Blé in Paris, a domed circular building that had already inspired a major structure in London, the Coal Exchange by John Bunning, a masterpiece that John Betjeman tried unsuccessfully to save from demolition in the 20th century. Brodrick’s Leeds building, though, is elliptical with three semicircular protrusions that mark the entrances. While the Halle au Blé had a classical design with quite plain detailing, the Corn Exchange in Leeds is probably closer to baroque, with its gigantic size, its varying curves, and the monumental treatment of its masonry.

The exterior is of sandstone ashlar and the masonry is imposing, if not almost overwhelming in its finish. Most of the blocks are rusticated and carved to form diamonds pointing outwards; decoration includes swags and paterae; the clock is surrounded by garlands. The identifying inscription, by contrast, is in a dead plain sans serif letterform that seems to mean business.

And this was also, when it was originally completed in the 1863, a highly practical, businesslike building, housing a ring of offices for the corn factors around the perimeter and a large open market space accommodating stands for the factors in the centre. A balcony running around the walls half way up gives access to a further collection of offices, and above that is the vast dome, its structure largely visible from within and its great sweep dominated by two openings – a huge oval window that forms part of Brodrick’s design and an additional window like a vast curving slit, that is a later modification and adds another touch of eccentricity to this highly original building.

Since the Corn Exchange ceased to be used for trading in grain in the 1980s, it has undergone two restorations to attempt to adapt it for retail use. On the face of it, the result seems successful. The rings of offices convert easily to small shops without destroying the integrity of the building, and the open areas lend themselves well to café or restaurant use. However, the trading areas seemed very quiet when I visited and I do hope they weather the current difficult time for retailing in Britain. Brodrick’s building deserves to survive and deserves to be used.

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