Leeds Civic Architect: John Thorp
BY Daniel Chapman
“I’ve got my work cut out – they want this room back.”
Technically, John Thorp retired back in November 2010, but he has still not closed his office on the seventh floor of the Leonardo Building, which John himself designed to fill an old woodyard between a Victorian office building and school. It was the first move in the “interactive chess game” that created the space for Millennium Square, the landmark demonstration of ‘urban dentistry’ with which John, as Civic Architect, transformed this part of the city.
John turns in his chair and reaches for two wood- en boxes on the window sill. “These are two boxes of slides I pulled out of a waste bin, in the 1970s, and have never done anything with, because I haven’t had time. They’re of Quarry Hill flats construction, and these are going to the Victoria and Albert Museum, to the RIBA drawings collection there. That’s the steel frame going up,” he says, holding a thick glass slide up to the light, “and the show flat for tenants is in here, and it’s wonderful – it could be in an art deco museum, the room is fabulous. Peter Mitchell photographed the flats in demolition, but I can’t think of another project of that scale where you’d have nearly the whole collection of plans, drawings and construction, and a whole photographic record of the demolition.
“I’ve got my gilded owl maquette” – this is perched out of reach on top of a standard office shelving unit – “Nelson Mandela and the Queen are the only ones who have got that in solid bronze with gold gilding, and that’s a test model for it. The Henry Moore Foundation are going to take the models I made for Henry Moore himself, because he influenced the Foundation’s building personally, as archives of a sculptor’s work with an architect.” Two paintings in heavy frames lean against the wall, behind a pair of enormous wooden plaques. “These belong to the Architect’s Society and I don’t know what to do with them, but I housed them, and there are two portraits, of the architect of the Grand Theatre, George Corson, also the Tiled Hall architect, so the society are debating how to preserve those.
“That’s what I’m doing voluntarily at the moment – finding the right home for things as culturally and architecturally precious as these happen to be.John Thorp has been designing buildings in Leeds since the late-sixties, working for the council from 1970 – “I started in ‘Education and General,’ and the ‘General’ bit was art galleries and unusual aspects that came along” – and despite the number and variety of projects John has been involved in since then, it is almost impossible to identify a signature style, or even compile a definitive list of ‘John Thorp Buildings.’ His touch is everywhere. A typical comment might be, “I didn’t do the design as such, but in the workshops we were having the architects responded to my ideas very effectively.”
The ideas in this case were for the fourth Italianate tower of Holbeck, Candle House at Granary Wharf: “At Tower Works we had Giotto’s Campanile as a fume extract chimney, we had a copy of a tower in Vicenza as a proper chimney, and a plain one that looked like the ones in northern Italy. There were three Italian referenc- es, all mundane engineering structures. So could we have a non-leaning tower of Pisa? Perhaps just make it look as if it might be leaning a bit, which is why the floors all lean slightly. And that was a moment of blockage when we couldn’t find a form, and I just noticed on the plan that there had been a railway turntable on the station next to that site.” And that’s a building, remember, that John did not design.
“I have always been interested in architecture as a creation of built objects containing spaces, and the interaction of indoor space, outdoor space, urban space, field space, landscape space, as a continuum in a way,” says John. “And when the opportunity came in 1996 and I was asked to be Civic Architect, the title was chosen because the councillors who suggested all this wanted the idea to emerge of city development as a concept, less concerned with pure planning, pure architecture, pure engineering, pure whatever the headings were of the physical city. ‘Civic’ was seen as a word that covered both the urban in terms of what you’d think of a physical city being, and the needs of the city’s ends: in other words, a Greek city state, as a cultural and a physical concept. There was something about the ring of the word that was different from city.”
Civic architecture in this sense was not the job of designing buildings on a civic scale, but of thinking in a civic way, of establishing and returning to themes and traditions that would influence the development of the city.
“A term I coined is ‘civic entrepreneurship,’ and that was also part of my appointment in the sense that if we had assets as a city council, was there a better way of using the assets? The whole story of Millennium Square and all the buildings around it has been a chess game of bidding for funding, moving a theatre into a new building so that an old build- ing could be restored physically – a grade II* listed building that’s now the museum – doing all of those chess games but particularly also seeing public space, whether it’s a pavement or a footpath or a street or a square or a garden, as part of this flow between buildings, places, and so on. So there has been an organic evolutionary step by step incremental revitalising of the city.
“The criticism is sometimes that we don’t have a master plan for this, but the response is we have clear principles and objectives, and we’re sufficiently adaptable to respond to shifts. If you have a master plan where everything is predesignated, you’re bound to carry that out, and if you can’t there’s a gap. If you say, well, no, the aim is to produce better connectivity, more green space, to respond to viaducts, all the ingredients I got the city, in the urban sense of the city, and a landscape sense, into about eight principles then I’ve found that whenever we’ve looked at a project, if you can argue those through, not almost case by case but with an overall aim, it’s a very interesting way of working.
“It’s the one that seems appropriate to our city I think, but I would understand frustrations from those who feel there should be a big plan. Barcelona, Edinburgh and New York are good cases where a grid was established, but I couldn’t imagine how Leeds, which has grown from a bridge crossing to today, with loads of traces of its history still there, in its form as much as its appearance, I couldn’t understand how we could superimpose a singular form.
“So for example right now the debates on the planning application for Victoria Gate, with Hammerson, are all about extending the network, not about simply a John Lewis store placement, even though that’s vital and important. Our view is that if buildings are really part of a city they would be embedded in it however distinctive they might be. So the Arena is an example, the Town Hall, Corn Exchange – very large buildings, historic and new buildings, that have been grafted and settled in to the city, rather than standing out as what I call ‘Look at Me’ buildings.”
Part of the subtlety of John’s work, and one of the reasons why it’s so hard to point to a signature John Thorp building, is that when it works, it’s almost invisible: it dissolves into the solution of the city. One of the reasons for John working past retirement was to see Trinity Leeds through to completion, a project that doesn’t just provide a new twenty-first century shopping centre, but that restores a nineteenth century urge to movement.
“The Trinity one was a fascinating one in that in front of planning public inquiries it was my job to articulate what had happened on the site from the medieval era through to the 1960s–70s, then what happened in the 60s–70s, and then what we were hoping to do. And the 60s–70s scheme had stopped off certain streets, and so the planning inquiries were about what were known as ‘stopping up’ orders – but instead we were asking to unpick the ‘stopping up’, and to reopen not the historic street style but the historic street movement pattern, to heal the links from Boar Lane to Albion Place, from Albion Street through to Briggate. It led us to say that actually the Trinity project is a city block, and the only point you become aware of the interior is at four points: one on Briggate, one on Boar Lane, one on Albion Street and one on Albion Place, where the roof tentacles just come to the edge and they’re actually on historic street routes.
“I can remember from the day I came in 1970, there was a section in the City Architect’s office called Town Design, and the spire of Holy Trinity Church was always seen as something that would have circles round it that said, ‘Let’s try and maintain its presence.’ So the design of Trinity included what’s obvious now, and that’s the glimpses through the glass of the spire, as a marker of Trinity Street as it was. And at the top end, when what was known as the Church Institute was re-stored, on the corner of Albion Place and Lands Lane, the spire was added back to that building, and if you stand today in Boar Lane, you can see that spire all the way through Trinity. I mean it’s only perhaps people like me who might notice that, but the sense is that the connectivity is back and the historic patterning is back.”
The other major project that kept John working until recently was building what is now first direct Arena. “It’s interesting because the term ‘Urban Dentistry’ came to encapsulate in one pair of words everything I’ve said about adaptation, infill, careful thought; although it’s not a very comfortable analogy – like being in the dentist’s chair! And then someone asked me, “So what’s the arena then, in urban dentist terms?” And I said, “That’s a full replacement tooth.” It’s not a filling. The hole in the city was there, in that part of the city, and the ambition was to say, ‘Could an arena quarter emerge from this very courageous decision during a recession to make that kind of expenditure on a public building – public in the sense of the public use?’
“And it’s been possible to say, well, if something like the arena is here, certain projects will arise – one has been the chance to refurbish Queen Square, modestly but carefully, to be part of the arena journey from the multi-storey car park if someone chose to take it. There are historic references – for example we framed the Hepworth House clothing factory, which is very elegant, in the exit from the arena – when you come out, you see a very nice historic building, while round you are rising all the other ones of later periods. So those interactions, and the links to the community of Little London, and down to Lovell Park, are all there.
“But the arena itself became a stimulating building. It was challenging, it was large, and the question to me was, will it fit? And I think I’m on record saying it will either feel like a comfortable glove or a pair of tight shoes. It’s on the margin, and I can’t be absolutely sure, but obviously my inclination is that it will fit like a glove. I found that the Greek amphitheatre at Epidaurus was a perfect model: our arena is trimmed, it’s not a pure semi-circle, but the dimensions are uncannily similar. And then I found that the land sloped and there was rock, so coming in slightly higher than the stage level was natural, and that meant being able to go up to upper levels without epic climbs.
“I eventually persuaded everyone that the analogy of the fan or even the spot-lamp came in, because the threaded end of a spotlight is where all the lorries and servicing comes in, the building spreads out, and it was the lens that then became the extrovert aspect. So the front of the building is quite clear, it’s there, and it can change its colour even in the daytime – the shadows along it change with the brise soleil we put there – and I relied on the artist from the Bauhaus called Paul Klee, who did beautiful watercolours of squares with a slight different tone on each, to use the metal shingle – I think we’ve got it a bit strong in places, but it’s the idea that you could dapple the building.”
In conversation John takes the long path, lingering where other people might rush, presenting all the subtleties of a place or its history in careful, comprehensive and often funny speeches. “I’m digitally inept,” he says at one point, placing a bewildering new iPhone on the desk and spreading his hands. “Well, electronically digitally, that is,” waggling his fingers and raising his eyebrows, one cigar away from a Marx brother. Analogies like the spot-lamp can often be found in the background of a John Thorp project, as can his enormous and colourful maps, wonderful creations of felt-tip palimpsest, drawing over and over the Leeds of now, to ex- plore the Leeds of the past and project the Leeds of the future. Then there are the more playful representations like sculpted blocks of brie and cheddar that stood in for buildings at Wellington Place.
“Jonathan Miller, who once had a programme called ‘The Body in Question’ – I don’t know why, perhaps I need a psycho analyst to find out why I go for medical and dental analogies – but he said that if in a medical consultation you can describe what something is like, you’re well on the way to describing what it is. And so the analogy process I found was comfortable in the end to most, as long as it was meaningful. So I’ve had the lightbulb for the arena, I’ve had the cheeseboard for Wellington Place, the petals diagram to describe the city as a whole, pizza diagrams, quilts – thankfully they’re not all dental. And I do think people respond, it’s not artificial, it happens to be the way one thinks, but it’s trying to get ideas condensed.
“There was this wonderful moment at a plans panel meeting when the architects had over exaggerated with blue and white bricks and one councillor said, “It looks like a j-cloth.” And it brought the house down but it was spot on – it was too strong, but the idea was fine, and so it was turned into something rather more like a tweed jacket than a j-cloth.”
If you were to seek a John Thorp signature, it’s most likely to be found here, at press its ideas in terms of cheeseboards and tweed. The office of Civic Architect may be closing, but in its place John has established a tradition of workshopping, collaborating and debating which will continue to guide development in a John Thorp style.
“I used to enjoy some of the plans panel debates on the grounds that they were very creative, and not the normal town planning culture. I think it has helped in our case because the boundary of Leeds, created in 1974, encapsulated, in a sense , a kind of West Riding, as Wetherby, Otley, Morley, Rothwell, all willingly or otherwise came into a geographical area. Significance is not the line drawn on the map, but that the democratic representatives from all of those places sit together in the Civic Hall. So you have a reflection of the needs of a former woollen town alongside the needs of a city centre, alongside agricultural worlds and recreational worlds, like the bit of Leeds that sticks on to Ilkley Moor. Temperamentally I found that very satisfying.
“Workshopping has been fundamental. I’ve found a kind of, like, studio-squatting thing going on, where if a room was redundant for a while, I might be able to get in and use it, because I liked to be able to work in rooms where it didn’t matter if a mess was made, and we could work to a big scale. The idea of them was that people wouldn’t feel, hopefully, intimidated, because you’re kind of off everyone’s patch: you’re in a room, with the aim of trying to debate and shape any kind of project.
“So we had a workshop for workshopping in – not everything happened there, but some things did – in the basement of the Civic Theatre, when it was still a music college and they were just leaving; and the last one was active until just a few weeks ago in the shipping containers on Wellington Place, where the offices for the developer there had come in for a temporary planning approval, and I noticed on the plans there was a hole in the middle. We ended up with a fabulous working space down there for workshop exchange. And we hope that the new Tet- ley project that Project Space Leeds are evolving right now, we all hope we’ll be able to establish the workshop, the ‘city room’ really, there.”
One of the projects the city room will oversee is the development of the South Bank, of which the Tetley building will form an integral part, as the first move in a south-centre chess game. “The Tetley-Carlsberg ‘world’ had grown slowly, but substantially, and taken historic street patterns over, but luckily they still exist. So the temporary car park there is in action now, and as Carlsberg carry out the work, they’re actually starting the South Bank Park – alright, it’s a small piece of it, but it’s in the right place. The thing we’ve been asking for help with is the reopening of the north-south street which will link Leeds Bridge to the new Leeds City Col- lege in the Alf Cooke Printworks. They’ve restored the clock beautifully, and if it’s well lit, which I think it’s going to be, you can actually see that from Leeds Bridge – you’ve got to look for it, but a line of movement that was historic will be reinstated as one of the conditions of the car park project.”
The route to the Alf Cooke building – the proposed ‘Hunslet Stray’ – will also take people to a small but significant part of John’s own heritage. “My personal pleasure is that the very, very first built fabric I ever was allowed to design was in 1968, when I was working with my brother in a small practice, and Alf Cooke’s wanted to have a pallet warehouse. And there were to be no windows; it was next to this wonderful Victorian building, so instead of putting it on the back of the pavement for several hundred yards I stepped it according to the size of pallets, and it staggers along. So there’s this kind of industrial era building extension, which I assumed would be knocked down, but is now having windows cut in the walls – and I’m not quite sure how it’s going to be finished off, but it’s deeply satisfying. I feel really lucky because my first daughter was born in that year and so it was quite an important year, and this humble wall still staggers along Leathley Road and has been adapted. So I told my daughter, we came past the other day and I said, ‘That’s your wall, and they’ve kept it.’”
It’s now forty-five years since John designed that wall, and yet he can still recall the planning debates over whether to use clean red bricks, or blue to match the soot. Impending retirement, and his book ‘From The Tile to The City,’ have given John a chance to reflect; something that hasn’t always been possible while the work has been ongoing.
“The experience of walking the city is challenging at times because you can’t escape the memories,” he says. “You can’t just say, oh, I’ll go and buy an ice cream, and then you come back having seen twenty things you did, and feel totally relaxed. But the thing that I’m excited by is that it’s constantly revealing itself, actually, is the city.
“We had a workshop recently in the Victoria Quarter boardroom, and as we came out, it was a very warm day and the fire doors were open on to the escapes, and my colleagues Mark Burgess and Sarah McMahon stood there and said, ‘Where’s that dome?’ There’s this glass dome, and we hesitated and said, ’Is it the one where the Mecca ballroom used to be? – No, that’s the other side…’ We went down to street level and went into Paul Smith’s shop and said, ‘Are you aware of a dome at the back of you?’ And they said, ‘Oh, you need to go into Jigsaw!’ So we go into Jigsaw and there is this fabulous, fabulous dome which we could only really appreciate by going upstairs to the men’s department – and they’ve done a beautiful job with their lights, and clothes rails, and stained glass, and I didn’t know that was there. And half of me was saying, ‘You should have known this!’ And the other’s saying, ‘No! The fact that you didn’t suggests that there’s plenty of the city to reveal itself.’
“In retrospect, I think fundamentally there’s this satisfaction that, collectively, things have been done to a fabulous standard. I mean we can all point to negatives, but generally the atmosphere of the city’s concern for itself has come through, and it certainly couldn’t have been done by a single powerful individual, be he an architect or any other professional or politician. It’s definitely done by interaction. And it’s that that I take away most pleasure from, the memories of who we worked with, how we worked – collisions, yeah, sparks, yeah, but in the end, something going off about wanting to do well by the city.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds issue 04