The urban spaceman

Simon Baker
Simon Baker
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The downturn has left ugly gaps in Leeds where buildings should be. Grant Woodward speaks to the man with weird and wonderful ideas to fill them

NEW York has public swimming pools fashioned from converted skips; London a pop-up cinema housed in a disused petrol station.

In Copenhagen, visitors to the now hollowed-out Carlsberg brewery can swing through a rope forest or hone their parkour skills on wooden blocks that double as picnic benches.

Around the world, cities are learning to make the most of their empty spaces and derelict buildings – and Leeds architect Simon Baker says it’s high time we followed suit.

Where others may see grim reminders of how the economic downturn has stalled building projects, Baker sees only opportunities.

“Architects don’t think in terms of recession, they just see the potential for improvement and bringing more enjoyment into a city centre,” he says, sitting at a desk in his office on the top floor of Marshall’s Mill in Holbeck.

“I constantly walk around thinking, You could do this here, you could do that there. Everything is an opportunity.”

Such as?

“Off the top of my head, how about Lumiere on Wellington Street? From memory, that site’s got a big hole in the middle. You could turn that into an inverted climbing wall.

“The people who are going to do that might not be your traditional developers but maybe someone at Leeds Met who’s studying event management and is passionate about rock climbing.

“He has an idea of inviting an international circuit of rock climbers to an event in Leeds yet he’s going to do it in a great big hole in the city centre and charge a whole load of people to come and watch it and he’ll pay the landlord X amount of money to let him do it.

“It’s a business idea that takes advantage of that opportunity.

“I’ve plucked an idea out of the air there and it’s not a very considered one. But the challenge for the city is to send out a message that we want people to come forward with these sort of ideas and then work with them to make them happen.”

When the credit crunch escalated into a full-blown recession, building projects around the city were either abandoned completely or put on hold to be restarted if and when the economy picks up again.

Eyesore

This has led to a phenomenon known as ‘land-banking’, where developers simply hang on to a site without doing anything with it.

The result is ugly pock marks around the city of flattened, empty sites which are not only an eyesore for locals but send out a less than positive message about Leeds.

It’s not a problem specific to our city, but there is a strong sense that where others are leading the way we should now follow.

Around the world, there are ideas that are particularly pertinent to Leeds, too.

When the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen relocated it left a yawning gap and stopped the flow of visitors to the area dead in its tracks.

Artists were brought in and installed a rope forest – hundreds of climbing ropes which visitors can swing or climb on.

An immediate talking point, the wacky idea has succeeded in bringing a buzz back to the area which in turn has benefited surrounding businesses.

Baker hopes a place could be found for something similar at the former Tetley’s brewery site in Leeds – though he’s keen for the city to come up with its own ideas.

“There are other examples closer to home such as the big wheel in York, but that’s not me saying Leeds should have a wheel,” he says. “It’s a broader thing than just saying, Let’s have dumpster pools, let’s have a wheel.

“You need to get away from the idea of thinking normally and start to think creatively.

“It’s also about having a city centre management that sets out in a creative way to act as curators for a whole host of opportunities that could exist across the city.”

If they’re good enough, Baker believes these temporary uses could turn negatives into positives, putting out the message that entrepreneurial Leeds is open for business and prepared to push the rules a little.

It’s already happening at Wellington Place – between Whitehall Road and Wellington Street – which was meant to be a bright, shiny office development but now boasts a five-a-side football pitch and grassed area complete with seating and an informal stage.

The move has been a win-win: creating sport and leisure facilities for the public while earning developer MEPC a number of plaudits and awards, not to mention a huge amount of positive publicity.

Over in Bradford, a similar thing has happened on part of the site of the long-stalled Westfield shopping centre, where the hoardings have been taken away and a temporary urban garden created.

Baker, manager of the Leeds studio of architect firm Chetwoods which recently advised the council on its policy on the informal car parks that have sprung up on empty land in south Leeds, says we have a golden opportunity to regain lost confidence while bringing a much-needed sense of fun to the city centre.

His other ideas include art installations under a viaduct near Holbeck Triangle and using scrubland at the back of Marshall’s Mill to grow a bio fuel crop which could then be used to power the building, along with the addition of a lavender plantation and bee hives.

Baker foresees the council acting as an intermediary between the owners of a mothballed site and whoever has a good idea for putting it to interim use.

“A lot depends on the city council but I don’t think they’re ultimately responsible,” he says.

“It would be good to get some examples (of good temporary uses) and for those to be celebrated so the message goes out. Then if someone comes forward with an idea it’s about giving them the encouragement to make it a reality.

“Not only do you make these areas better for the people who live and work there but you increase footfall within streets that will then drive and improve local businesses.

Message

“We’re in an economy where we’re trying to get people to stay and not leave. If you’re going to do that the city has to be giving out the right message.

“In the boom times there were cranes on the skyline and lots of activity. I don’t see many cranes or a lot of activity now.

“People at the council will point to big projects like Trinity and the Leeds Arena. But we now have an opportunity to move away from some of the grand visions that were set in the boom times and look at how we can build small projects that will make a big difference.”

In the meantime, Baker and his team are continuing to spearhead their revamp of Marshall’s Mill, which has helped bring a six-fold increase in occupancy.

Conscious that it felt too much like a factory, an exterior wall has been lowered and 60 trees will be planted where offices were meant to go before the crunch bit. If and when they’re built, the trees will be moved somewhere else.

And next month an outdoor cinema will be set up for one night only with the public invited along for the show.

But Baker has an eye for the little things too.

Pointing to the fire escapes on the outside walls of the mill he says the landings have been made bigger to encourage people to hang out there.

“And it’s working,” he says. “People come out of the offices for a smoke or just to chat. It’s like something you would see in New York.”

You never know, we might just find ourselves taking a swim in that skip after all.

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