Bipartisan Brutalism: The Rise and Fall of the Yorkshire Post Building in Leeds

 By Moritz Föllmer

Architectural brutalism is anathema to British conservatives.[1] In 2016, a Tory government minister declared it “aesthetically worthless, simply because it is ugly.” Those who beg to differ, whether they merely fetishize brutalist architecture or recall its social agenda to provide affordable housing, situate themselves on the left. But this has not always been so. In the 1960s, the renewal of city centers commanded support across a wide political spectrum. It was driven both by demands for social housing and pressures for commercial development.[2] To the Tories, generally more hesitant about modernization than Labour, it promised a capitalist future beyond smoking chimneys and densely populated working-class neighborhoods. “I want to see the guts torn out of our older industrial cities,” asserted their coming leader Edward Heath in 1964, “and new civic centers and shopping areas built there, the older houses torn down and new ones in their place.”[3] Offering an allure of progress while allowing for cheap construction, brutalist architecture was the logical expression of this consensus.

One case in point is the joint headquarters of the Yorkshire Post, a long-standing voice of regional and even national conservatism, and the Yorkshire Evening Post, a centrist newspaper focusing on Leeds itself.

Bipartisan Brutalism-Image 1
Yorkshire Post Building, autumn 2009. ©Michael Taylor, Wikimedia Commons.

Designed by John Madin, better known for the Central Library and a number of other projects in his native Birmingham, the building was completed in late 1970. It replaced the newspapers’ previous headquarters in a cramped Victorian building on one of Leeds’s major commercial streets, which was in turn demolished to make way for a shopping center. With help of the Labour-dominated City Council, a new site had been found to the west, on the premises of a demolished textile mill. In close proximity, other landmark buildings had recently opened, namely the International Swimming Pool and the Yorkshire Television Studios. The Inner Ring Road, whose third stage was then under construction, promised a direct connection to the motorway and thereby the entire region. Further west lay the working-class areas of Armley and Kirkstall, whose streets with back-to-back housing were increasingly juxtaposed with through roads, carparks, and supermarkets. The Yorkshire Post Building on the fringe of the center was thus an integral part of Leeds’s transformation from an industrial and still recognizably Victorian city to the self-proclaimed “Motorway City of the Seventies.”

Bipartisan Brutalism-Image 2
Construction of the Inner Ring Road, with the Yorkshire Post Building visible to the right, 1974. © Leeds Library and Information Service, www.leodis.net.

In an apparent historical irony, none other than the Prince of Wales performed the official opening. The 22-year-old heir to the throne was not yet known as Britain’s foremost critic of architectural modernism, a role he was to assume in the 1980s. In line with the monarchy’s attempts to present a forward-looking face, Charles came across as a man with a keen interest in technology and a humorous manner when chatting to the staff. The chairman of the Yorkshire Post Newspapers Ltd. spoke of a “building for the generation now approaching maturity,” appropriately inaugurated by “one who has already shown himself to be a leader of that generation.”[4]

When the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded the building a bronze medal, it cited both the “dramatic contribution” it made to Leeds’s cityscape and the “extremely successful solution” it provided to the client’s “very complex planning problem.” This complexity stemmed from accommodating the entire enterprise of two distinct newspapers under one roof. Communication flowed seamlessly both within and between the different departments. Internal barriers were abolished, facilitating vertical movement. Copy came in “either from the editorial floor above, or from below, where the classified advertisement is.”[5] With computers performing the typesetting and the “largest hybrid press installation in the world” integrating established and new printing technologies, production was united on the middle floor.

Bipartisan Brutalism-Image 3
Advertisement in Yorkshire Post Newspapers New Building Edition, December 9/10, 1970

The newspapers were stacked automatically, whereupon conveyor belts carried the bundles to the trucks for distribution.

Even so, there did not seem to be a contradiction between advanced technology and human employment. Well over a thousand staff members were taking calls, typing up copy, and manning various machines. With more sales than ever, the newspapers could afford numerous journalists. As one veteran recalls, articles were written in two huge newsrooms filled with cigarette smoke, the sound of ringing phones, and a fair amount of adrenaline. Authoritarian editors reigned supreme, calling journalists to their offices for a telling off or a triple gin. The modernity of the print media was thus simultaneously impersonal in outlook and controlled by powerful male personalities. The division between gender roles permeated the entire process of newspaper making. The classified advertisement team, for instance, comprised the “pretty girl [who] will hang on your every word” alongside the “creative ideas man” in a sharp suit and company car.

 

Bipartisan Brutalism-Image 4
Advertisement in Yorkshire Post, December 28, 1970.

The self-presentation of the newspapers at their new site thus combined the allure of modernity with a promise of continuity. “The idea was a building of rugged strength,” enthused the company’s managing director, “it was to be symbolic of Yorkshire and of a new age. But it had to blend with the Leeds of the past and with the architecture of those days.” In a promotional film, the conservative Yorkshire Post stressed that massively improved communication and distribution would connect it even more closely with the county’s farmers, gardeners, and cricket players.

The newspapers’ rootedness in tradition, however, limited their ability to come to terms with the changing face of Leeds as a whole. Their endorsement of new buildings and roads went hand in hand with a grim outlook on urban society. Residents appeared to be hampered by strikes and threatened by violent criminals, even before the Yorkshire Ripper rose to sinister prominence. It was barely acknowledged that not all of them were white, notwithstanding the sizeable Asian and Caribbean communities. Far from seeing diversity as an asset, the city was increasingly perceived as fractured, and the specter of urban decline came to the fore. While the Yorkshire Post Building retained its functionality, the cultural foundations of bipartisan brutalism eroded.[6]

It was only in the 1990s and 2000s that a spirit of optimism returned to Leeds, but this benefited neither the print media nor the modernist architectural heritage. Crisis after crisis caused the staff of the two newspapers to shrink.

Meanwhile, older shopping centers as well as the International Swimming Pool were demolished to make way for new commercial and residential buildings. The Yorkshire Post Building’s turn came in 2012, after printing had been outsourced and the remaining journalists had moved to a smaller location. Its fitness for purpose now limited the possibility of reuse. None of the prospective investors was interested in costly preservation. English Heritage refused to list the building, dryly noting that its value lay less in its design, which lacked “coherence,” than in its “original function,” which was now lost for good.

 

Bipartisan Brutalism-Image 5
Demolition of the Yorkshire Post Building, spring 2014. ©Moritz Föllmer.

With protest too timid to amount to a campaign, there were only some nostalgic musings about the loss of Leeds’s 1960s heritage. Perhaps the commentator asking what better end there could be “for a truly modernist building than demolition, to make way for the future” hit the nail on the head. The rise and fall of the Yorkshire Post Building attests to a culture of urban capitalism whose knack for radical transformation has been thinly disguised by reassuring narratives of continuity. The next reiteration of this culture on the same site will be a somewhat predictably designed combination of office, residential, and leisure facilities.

StudioHeno 22665-38.jpgMoritz Föllmer is Associate Professor of Modern History at the University of Amsterdam and has widely written on European cities in the twentieth century. Before moving to the Netherlands, he taught at the University of Leeds and lived on the City Island development behind the Yorkshire Post Building.

[1] This established term has nothing to do with brutality but derives from the French béton brut (raw concrete).

[2] See Peter Mandler, “New Towns for Old: The Fate of the Town Center,” in Becky Conegin, Frank Mort, and Chris Waters, eds., Moments of Modernity: Reconstructing Britain, 1945-1964 (London: Rivers Oram, 1998), 208-27.

[3] Quoted in Brian Harrison, Seeking a Role: The United Kingdom, 1951-1970 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 152.

[4] “A Yorkshire Toast to the Prince,” Yorkshire Post, December 11, 1970.

[5]  This and the following quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the Yorkshire Evening Post’s “Yorkshire Post Newspapers New Building Edition,” December 9/10, 1970.

[6] Compare Simon Gunn, “Ring Road: Birmingham and the Collapse of the Motor City Ideal in 1970s Britain,” Historical Journal 61 (2018), 227-48.

 

2 thoughts on “Bipartisan Brutalism: The Rise and Fall of the Yorkshire Post Building in Leeds”

    1. Dear Bob Schofield, thanks for your reaction! When researching briefly for this piece, I struggled to find first-hand accounts (the one I quoted mentioned triple gin – perhaps there were several spirits on offer?) as well as a floor plan of the building. I would be curious to learn about the practicalities of sharing one editorial floor between two distinct newspapers, so if you could drop me a line at m.foellmer@uva.nl that would be much appreciated. With kind regards Moritz Föllmer

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s