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Demolishing Brutalist Bradford

Bradford Council's plans to raze the brutalist Kirkgate Centre represent this future City of Culture’s triumph over its optimistic, modernist past.

Bradford Metropolitan Council has announced it will be spending £15.5 million to purchase, and then demolish, the city's 1976 shopping centre.

Four months after winning its bid to be City of Culture 2025, Bradford Metropolitan Council shocked the city—and even surprised the local newspaper, the Telegraph & Argus—in announcing they would be spending £15.5 million of the cash-strapped authority’s money to purchase, and then demolish, the city centre’s 1976 shopping centre.

The Kirkgate Centre—originally named the Arndale Centre (and the name by which most Bradfordians still think of it) —is a brutalist concrete shopping mall designed by Donald Clark of the 1860s-founded Bradford architectural firm the John Brunton Partnership, on a sloping site in the heart of the city.

Sunwin House, originally the Bradford Co-operative, the first department store in Britain to echo the works of Weimar Germany’s Erich Mendelsohn. (Owen Hatherley)

The council’s plans, not previously hinted at, are to raze it to the ground and replace it with a city centre park, plus housing and commercial units—a ‘green lung’, to use the archispeak jargon. Bradford, of course, recently had a ‘green lung’—albeit, only by default. For more than a decade, the ‘Bradford Hole’ dominated the city centre, after the 1960s council architect-led Forster Square development was demolished, only for Australian retail developer Westfield to then cite the credit crunch to halt work on building its replacement shopping centre.

For a while, the space outside Forster Square train station became an urban garden, before reverting to the geographical and political black hole that even sucked carpet-bagging renegade MP George Galloway into to electoral success in the Bradford West seat. The finally-resulting Broadway Centre, which predictably now has killed the Arndale Centre, is everything the Arndale isn’t—plasticky, identikit, cheap, and plonked down without rhyme or reason. Despite sitting directly outside the city’s second train station, in a city trying to reduce car-dependency, it boasts 1,295 parking spaces.

Murals in Kirkgate Market designed by sculptor William Mitchell. (Owen Hatherley)

While lacking the stark, sculptural lines of Owen Luder’s lost Portsmouth Tricorn Centre (1966-2004), but similar in era and materials and with a similar small rooftop car-park, Brunton’s Arndale Centre was never loved by Bradfordians—through little fault of the architect. The Arndale was born under a bad omen—it replaced the Victorian Kirkgate indoor market, akin to Frank Matcham’s now-refurbished late-nineteenth-century arcades in neighbouring, wealthier, Leeds. These have proved an upmarket draw, in stark contrast to the increasingly visible poverty in Bradford, once the richest city outside London, mocked in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land for the millionaire mill owners’ nouveau-riche tastes (‘Like a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire’).

Predictably, that act of cultural vandalism was not the idea of the jobbing architects but the brainchild of the two property developers, Arnold Hagenbach and Sam Chippendale, who purchased the Kirkgate Arcade and—in a foreshadowing of what is due to happen nearly fifty years later—demolished it. The major difference was they were using private rather than public money to do so.

While the uncompromising but bold and sympathetic contours and materials of the Arndale Centre will find few (but, note, not no) defenders among locals, the arguments against it have morphed interestingly over its four-decade lifespan. Now the major concern, seemingly, is where the ‘anchor store’ of low-cost fast-fashion giant Primark will relocate to, plus the carping and grumbling about the building’s brutalist genre. This is despite the fact the Kirkgate Centre actually blends well into the cityscape in terms of roofline and colouring. The tight streetscape makes it quite difficult to glimpse just how radical—or offensive, take your pick—the Arndale is.

Bradford’s Highpoint, designed by the John Brunton Partnership. (Owen Hatherley)

But this aesthetic sniping was not mentioned in the 1970s and ’80s Bradford of my childhood, where the Arndale was new, and an astonishingly plush and optimistic air-conditioned echo of the shopping malls of Canada and north America, with its internal waterfalls, open escalators, its William Mitchell murals (now also to face the demolition ball?). Readers under 40 will struggle to conceive of this, but back then Boots and WH Smiths were deeply middle-class retailers, the latter known for its thick carpets, library-like hush, books and stationery, and even early home computers.

Unsurprisingly, dislike of the Arndale’s poker-faced ‘no-jokes’ brutalism has grown with its increasingly sad dilapidation. Internally and externally shops are now boarded up, with some independent or pop-up stalls plus low-end retailers still braving it, as per the final days of London’s Elephant and Castle shopping mall. That retail problem is hardly unique to Bradford, extremely poor as the city of 560,000 souls is even by UK standards. It’s hard not to ponder if Bradford Metropolitan Council’s pre-emptive attack on the Arndale Centre is a reaction to the spot-listing in April of their own Richard Dunn Sports Centre (1974-76, city architect Trevor Skempton), which the council had already closed, and earmarked for demolition. It now claims not to know what to do with it.

‘A non-Bradfordian may like to ponder the incredible wealth of surviving Victorian architecture—and the incredible poverty, squalor, and emptiness which now defaces it.’ (Owen Hatherley)

Councillors probably need have no fears of a similar miracle for the Arndale. Architecture fans, those interested in the post-war social history of the Wilson ‘white heat of technology’ boom of the 1960s and 1970s, and (dare I say it?), ‘cities of culture’ fans, had probably better get to Bradford fast—the 20th Century Society tried, and failed, to have the Arndale listed in 2017. While they are there, they might like to put on their Instagrams other magisterial works of pre-Thatcherite Britain, when the post-war future was still bright enough to accommodate, or, yes, demolish, Victorian wealth for a more collectivist future.

Perhaps the former Yorkshire Building Society’s HQ Highpoint, a few hundred metres from the Arndale, also by the John Brunton Partnership (which finally went under in the John Major recession of the early 1990s). Left empty for more than two decades, this is now being repurposed by a private developer as city centre apartments. Or Bradford University, a child of the 1960s ‘plate glass’ universities boom. Harold Wilson himself, despite being a native of West Riding rival Huddersfield, came to open Bradford University as prime minister in 1965. The science-orientated university was adorned by a large external mural by artist Joseph Mayo, reflecting the city’s wool-dyeing technology and history. Only a concerted campaign led by Bradford Civic Society forced the university to stop destroying its own mural in 2021.

‘The ‘Bradford Hole’ dominated the city centre after the Forster Square development was demolished and Westfield cited the credit crunch to halt building its replacement shopping centre.’ (Owen Hatherley)

Not to be confused with the Arndale Centre is the nearby Arndale House, a Mies van der Rohe-esque 1960s office complex, the only UK work by the US practice which created the Seattle Space Needle, John Graham and Partners. Bradford Council last year agreed to let property developers replace its floor-to-ceiling glazing with hideous PVC windows, ruining its Mad Men lines in one fell swoop of ‘tweaking’. And despite the concerns of the council’s own heritage officers.

Going further back, there’s the still-optimistic post-Victorian 1930s lines of the decade-long empty Sunwin House, originally the Bradford Co-operative, and the first department store in Britain to echo the works of Weimar Germany’s Erich Mendelsohn. Or the 3,500-seat Bradford Odeon (1930), which the city elders proposed to demolish in the late 1990s—before a grassroots campaign saved it. After standing empty for more than twenty years in the heart of the city, it will now re-open as a live music venue; an achievement the same council now unashamedly trumpets.

But while that non-Bradfordian is in the soon-to-be City of Culture, they may also like to ponder the incredible wealth of surviving Victorian architecture—and the incredible poverty, squalor, and emptiness which now defaces it. No wonder many refer to Bradford as ‘Britain’s Detroit’. Perhaps Bradford Metropolitan Council might like to spend some of that £15.5 million on compulsory purchase orders to bring back these fine Victorian buildings back to life?

Their most obvious use would be simply going ‘Back to the Future’—the solicitors and accountancy firms that were there before, their names often still etched on the first and second-floor windows. But the council has already put all its chips in the 56,000 square foot, £35 million One City Park office complex, with ground broken in May—just in time for the post-Covid work-from-home commercial office downsizing. It’s already being dubbed a white elephant. Instead, a fine and handsome Victorian corner block on Ivegate has just opened its doors as the Merkur Slots gambling centre. Despite best intentions and no doubt a spur to the (temporary) performing arts in the city, this is what the ‘City of Culture’ is actually going to look like in 2025—at least at street level.  

About the Author

Matt Tempest is a freelance journalist in Berlin, and Bradfordian. He was formerly a political correspondent for the Guardian, and authored the 20th Century Berlin Architecture Map with photographer Simon Phipps. He tweets at @MattTempest.