Victorian dragons

15 03 2013
1. Kirkgate market hall, Leeds, 1901-04.

1. Kirkgate market hall, Leeds, 1901-04.

Leeds’s Kirkgate market hall is one the best surviving Victorian retail buildings. Opened in 1904, it still retains much of its original decoration, including the numerous cast-iron wyverns (two-legged dragons) on the ground floor (1) that are in fact brackets that support the gallery level above. These outsized monsters are a curious legacy of the Victorian fascination with the grotesque and a reminder of a vanished way of thinking about the value of the decorative in civic buildings. But what do these particular wyverns mean? Surely not mere whimsy, ornament for ornament’s sake? After all, this was a public building, built with hard-earned public money. Why did Leeds’s civic authorities deem it necessary to include wyverns in the people’s market hall?

2. Halifax market hall, 1896.

2. Halifax market hall, 1896.

In fact, these wyvern motifs were specified by the architects of the market hall (John and Joseph Leeming) in their original competition drawings for the project and developed from similar ones they used in an earlier market hall in Halifax (2; 1896). In the late nineteenth century, dragons and their wyvern cousins were both common heraldic motifs in Britain and were also associated with industry; in 1845 the Midland Railway adopted a wyvern as the crest in their unofficial coat of arms, believing it to be the symbol of the ancient kingdom of Mercia, or the Midlands as it effectively was in the Victorian era; the company incorporated cast–iron wyverns into luggage rack supports, bracket signals, and the spandrels at Hellifield railway station (31880).

3. Hellifield railway station, 1880.

3. Hellifield railway station, 1880.

Despite their appropriation by the Midland Railway, wyverns and dragons were generally perceived in the Victorian period as a menacing symbol associated with the devil; it was John Ruskin, in Fors Clavigera – a series of letters, published in the 1870s, addressed to British workmen – who drew on the sinister associations of dragons when he directly equated them with what he regarded as the hellish consequences of rampant industrialisation. Significantly, Ruskin was prompted to make such an association after he discovered the motif of a cast–iron dragon/serpent on a metal bench (4) whilst walking in the picturesque Lune Valley in Lancashire; he reacted in horror to what he perceived as a satanic emblem fouling one of the loveliest beauty spots in the English countryside.

4. Bench in Valley Gardens, Harrogate, c.1880s.

4. Bench in Valley Gardens, Harrogate, c.1880s.

5. Cast-iron bracket from the sixth edition of Macfarlane's catalogue, 1882.

5. Cast-iron bracket from the sixth edition of Macfarlane’s catalogue, 1882.

Despite Ruskin’s chagrin, cast–iron dragons and wyverns were a common motif in both Victorian street furniture and seaside architecture, as seen in many designs included in Walter Macfarlane’s catalogues in the 1880s (5), which were probably inspired by their earlier adoption by the Midland Railway. In contrast to Ruskin’s emphasis on their sinister implications, cast–iron dragons were often associated with the “exotic” cultures of the Far East, particularly in seaside architecture (6); the wyverns adopted by the Midland Railway and the architects of Leeds’s market hall, however, were more likely viewed as symbols of protection, industrial power, or as denoting ancient indigenous mythic pasts.

6. Wyvern bracket in the shelters on Ryde pier, 1880s.

6. Wyvern bracket in the shelters on Ryde pier, 1880s.

Moreover, the significance of the wyverns in Leeds’s market hall (1) is heightened by their repetitive use – an inherent characteristic of cast–iron reproduction. Here, repetition lends both added emphasis to the sense of civic power articulated in this building and also a direct visual sign of the material abundance that the new market hall promised to the city’s citizens. Thus, the lavish ornamentation of market halls like Leeds’s not only symbolised the promise of abundance, but also enacted it in its spaces by creating a more abundant supply, lower prices, and higher quality in meat and poultry.





Dreaming spires: Victorian chimneys

3 01 2013
1. Robert Rawlinson's fantastical array of industrial chimneys as seen in The Builder, 25 April 1857, p. 23.

1. Robert Rawlinson’s fantastical array of industrial chimneys, The Builder, 25 April 1857, p. 23.

‘A tower is the creation of another century. Without a past it is nothing’ (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 25)

In 1853, The Builder pictured industrial Manchester ‘getting up the steam’ (2) – the city’s skyline filled with an almost impossible number of chimneys belching smoke and so tall that they dwarfed even Manchester’s church spires. Sublime – even Gothic – in their blackness, these chimneys were nevertheless strictly utilitarian in appearance: identical stacks of brick attached to equally stark mill and other factory buildings. Yet, only five years later, in 1858, The Builder pictured a new vision of industrial chimneys as a dreamscape (1). Assembled by the engineer Robert Rawlinson, these fantastical designs were chimneys that mimicked historical precedents, whether medieval Italian campaniles, Moorish minarets or the more recent clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. Rawlinson believed, in common with most Victorian designers, that history gave aesthetic meaning to structural form; according to Rawlinson, instead of ‘chimney’ being a ‘by-word for hideous structures’, it should be in tune with the models of the past that ‘have stood for ages as monuments of beauty.’

2. 'Manchester, getting up the steam', The Builder, 1853.

2. ‘Manchester, getting up the steam’, The Builder, 1853.

Yet, Rawlinson’s designs do more than simply dress up chimneys in attractive disguises; rather, they draw building into a potent kind of dream. As the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard has emphasised in The Poetics of Space (1964), towers are more than simply structures; rather, they are primal images of verticality that illustrate the verticality of the human being. So, in our dreams we always go up towers (whereas we always go down into a cellar). Towers are images of ascension, the endless winding steps inside them leading to dreams of flight or transcendence. Chimneys may not in themselves be fertile dream spaces; yet, because they’re designed solely to carry polluting fumes above the city, they are almost pure images of verticality. By cloaking chimneys with images of the past, Rawlinson joins the pure vertical expression of industry with a whole succession of former dreams of ascension. He also humanises the industrial by bringing it within the compass of the verticality of the human being: people may not be able to literally ascend chimneys but, cloaked in the former dream images of bell towers and minarets, they can now do so in their imagination.

3. The Abbey Mills pumping station as seen in The Illustrated London News, 15 July 1868, p. 161.

3. The Abbey Mills pumping station as seen in The Illustrated London News, 15 July 1868, p. 161.

4. Chimney of the Edgbaston waterworks, c.1870

4. Chimney of the Edgbaston waterworks, c.1870.

There are numerous Victorian chimneys that followed Rawlinson’s example: from those that adorned the extravagant Crossness (1862-65) and Abbey Mills pumping stations (3; 1865-68) in London, to the more diminutive but no less aestheticised chimney of the Edgbaston waterworks in Birmingham (4; c.1870), one of a pair of water towers that were thought to have inspired the title of J. R. R. Tolkein’s second book in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yet, perhaps nowhere was Rawlinson’s dream more closely realised than in Leeds’s Tower Works (5), where the steel pin manufacturer T. R. Harding brought together fine architecture into the industrial workplace in the form of three extraordinary chimney-towers: the first (right; 1866) based on the 13th-century Lamberti tower in Verona; the second (centre; 1899) inspired by Giotto’s 14th-century campanile for the Duomo in Florence; the third (left) a 1920s re-imagining of one of the numerous medieval defensive towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany.

5. Tower Works, Leeds showing the three chimneys based on Italian towers.

5. Tower Works, Leeds showing the three chimneys based on Italian towers.

6. Candle Tower (2009), Leeds, next to the Tower Works.

6. Candle Tower (2009), Leeds, next to the Tower Works.

This gathering of chimney-towers in Leeds’ Tower Works demonstrates that structures – even those with an essentially utilitarian purpose – can dream. For what else are these chimneys but towers brought into a new constellation of meaning, assembled from the fragments of the past, and born in the imagination? And even today, when our own megalomanic skyscrapers seem to abolish the kind of verticality that chimes with human being, there’s still a sense in which imagination still plays a part in the conception of some of our tall buildings: whether the Candle Tower (6, right; 2009) near the Tower Works (nicknamed the ‘leaning tower of Leeds’), or Manchester’s Beetham Tower (7, right; 2006) – a structure that, despite its sleek modernity, nevertheless still answers the age-old appeal of the tower, as seen in its early Victorian forebear on the Rochdale Canal (7, left).

7. Beetham Tower (2006) next to a early Victorian factory on the Rochdale Canal.

7. Beetham Tower (2006), Manchester, next to an early Victorian factory on the Rochdale Canal.





The Dark Arches of Leeds

3 12 2011

1. One of the tunnels carrying the River Aire in Leeds' Dark Arches

Today, the entrance to Leeds’ central railway station is a rather banal building dating from the late 1960s. This replaced another station, dating from 1864 to 1866, which, in turn, was a ‘new’ station superseding a jumble of earlier buildings dating from the 1840s.  The enormous scale of the railway station today is best appreciated from below, in its aptly-named ‘Dark Arches’ – a line of immense red-brick groined vaults covering an access tunnel built beneath the station in the mid-1860s and still forming most of its substructure today (2). When it was built, this subterranean world was one of the largest man-made underground spaces in Britain, created by the engineers T. E Harrison and Robert Hodgson and using over 18 million bricks. The space is dominated by the River Aire – Leeds’ principal waterway – which crosses the west end of the Dark Arches in four immense tunnels spanned by a cast-iron bridge (1 & 3). Here, the tunnels carry the fast-moving river underneath the station where it then joins the Leeds-Liverpool Canal at Granary Wharf. Turbulent and unruly, its sounds and smells animate the atmospheric gloom of the tunnels.

2. The Dark Arches from Neville Street to Granary Wharf

3. Walkway in one of the tunnels carrying the River Aire

Lining the last tunnel is a narrow walkway, a tantalising aid for would-be explorers but sealed off by a gate and coils of threatening barbed wire (3). Other brick openings suggest more secret worlds hidden in the darkness beyond, their unknown extent emphasised by gigantic brick arches glimpsed among the shadows and receding into pitch black (4). While gleaming, transparent glass office blocks rise up from Leeds’s nineteenth-century heart, the Dark Arches remind us of the city’s foundation – namely, its murky, industrial past. Indeed, in one of the arches are reproductions of Victorian photographs of the area, stained black with soot and smoke and redolent with a sense of stygian gloom.

4. Receding brick arches in the shadows

5. A place of safety for some...

The Dark Arches used to contain a run-down shopping centre, designed to cleanse this space of its dark associations in the early 1990s, but one that failed to entice enough people to shop, eat and enjoy themselves underground. As with many leftover Victorian subterranean spaces, the symbolic power and industrial origins of the Dark Arches remain stubbornly resistant to gentrification. Today, some of the arches facing Granary Wharf have been converted into restaurants, while the majority are now filled with parked cars – a common, acceptable use of underground space that is probably due to us feeling that our cars (if not ourselves) are safer in these sealed-off worlds (5). In between the cars, a few people use the arches as a convenient thoroughfare; others, for more nefarious activities. As early as 1892, Leeds’s chief of police was citing the Dark Arches as a centre of idling, prostitution and mugging; while in 2007, the British Transport Police uncovered a cannabis factory hidden in its recesses. It’s this twin sense of safety and danger that continues to haunt all underground spaces, particularly Victorian ones, and which prevents them from ever being fully controlled by the powers in the world above.





The Victorian arcades of Leeds

29 04 2011

County arcade, Leeds, 1897-1900

In the 1890s, the municipal government of Leeds was vigorously promoting a new civic identity for the city, especially after the town was granted city status in 1893. From 1878 to 1900, eight arcades were built in the city, five of which are still standing. The first, Thornton’s arcade (1), built in 1878, connected Briggate with Lands Lane and was designed by the architect George Smith for Charles Thornton, who owned the White Swan public house/hotel and a theatre in the hotel yard. In keeping with its theatrical focus, the arcade’s ornamentation is flamboyant and playful, with pointed arches, lancet windows and cast-iron Gothic roof, the arches pierced with geometric decoration and including truncated winged lions at their bases.

1. Thornton's arcade, Leeds, 1878

2. Queen's arcade, Leeds, 1889

Leeds’ second arcade, the Queen’s arcade (2), was opened in July 1889, ran parallel the Thornton’s arcade and, like its predecessor, included a roof supported on ornamental cast-iron arches. Despite the privilege associated by its name and being privately financed by the joint owners of the new property, it was celebrated by The Leeds Mercury in language more commonly used to describe public buildings: a ‘credit to the town’, its ‘elegance and attractiveness’ replacing ‘old, filthy and unsightly buildings’. Part of the reason for this civic language lay in restrictions imposed on the design of the Queen’s arcade by the Leeds Corporation; they stipulated that houses be incorporated into the arcade above its roof. Thus, the arcade was both a commercial and residential space, reflected in the design of its interior, which included a gallery-level promenade disconnected from the shops below and lined with an ornamental cast-iron railing. An important aspect of the social life of late-Victorian industrial urban centres, the promenading of middle-class residents contributed to the reshaping of urban space in industrial towns and cities in Britain. In Leeds, promenading encompassed all the fashionable shopping streets and new arcades and served to reclaim the symbolic status of the streets from the working classes. Thus, the intervention of the municipal government in the design of the Queen’s arcade can be viewed as an attempt by them to expand the narrow commercial function of the building and to impose a symbolic identity that would link with the city as a whole, given added credence by the fact that the arcade was opened in a public, civic ceremony in July 1889.

3. County Arcade, Leeds, 1897-1900

Leeds’ final, largest and most elaborate arcades – the Cross and County arcades (3) – were built by the prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham for the Leeds Estate Company Ltd, formed in 1897 to redevelop the area between Briggate and Vicar Lane. Centred on the construction of the Empire Theatre, the new arcades were also a civic complex that included lavish ornamental embellishment: marble columns on the ground-floor, coloured mosaic frescoes representing the arts and sciences in the supporting pendentives of the three, galleried domes (4), a cast-iron balustraded gallery lined by a faience frieze of fruit (5), and ornamental cast-iron arches supporting the glass roof. This luxurious ornamentation was perceived by The Leeds Mercury as a necessary antidote to the ‘severely plain’ buildings of industrial Leeds, but it also reflected the more general transformation the city’s image by the municipal government, with its emphasis on monumental scale, the overt display of elevating ornament, and the creation of a hybrid space signifying both private and public luxury.

4. County arcade, Leeds, 1897-1900

5. County arcade, Leeds, 1897-1900





Civic space? The Barton arcade, Manchester

1 04 2011

1: Barton arcade from St Anne's Square

Walter Benjamin recognized in the first arcades of Paris – built at the turn of the 19th century – the beginnings of iron construction that would culminate in the Crystal Palace building of 1851. Yet, arcades also looked backwards as well as forwards: for Benjamin, they were also still rooted in the luxury culture of the 18th century, private worlds that effectively sealed out the social mixing on the street in an artificial environment – a ‘world in miniature’. The early arcades were commercial speculations, built by a single or joint property owners, with the shops lining the arcade leased to individual traders. They were usually narrow spaces, the architectural potential of the iron and glass roofs subordinated to the dictates of economy.

2: Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan in The Builder, 25 April 1868

Yet, by the time the Barton arcade was constructed in Manchester in 1871 (1), everything had changed. In the second half of the 19th century, the rapidly-growing industrial cities of Britain embraced the arcade as an essential part of civic improvement. The precedent for this ‘public’ appropriation of the arcade was the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, opened in Milan in 1865 and influencing a British audience through the pages of The Builder (2). This monumental arcade was the result of international cooperation; it was financed by a British company, designed by an Italian architect and constructed by a French engineer. Consisting of two wide passages joining beneath an octagonal-based dome 106-ft high, this was an arcade on a colossal scale, richly decorated with frescoes and ornamental cast iron vaulting.

As a new civic space modelled on the Milan Galleria, Manchester’s Barton arcade exhibits its ‘public’ status through its decorative features. Wider than its earlier British counterparts and built on three-levels, the sense of light-filled space is dramatic on entering the arcade via a conventional stone-fronted building (3). The elaborate cresting within the barrel-vaulted glass roof, the lion heads cast onto the shop fronts (4), and the naturalistic foliage seen in the columns and panelling in the exterior of the arcade (5) all contribute to the newfound sense of iron being a material fit for symbolic treatment. Such symbolism was an essential element in Victorian civic architecture, especially in industrial cities like Manchester, whose urban identity was being reconstructed, through high-profile architectural projects, out of its former utilitarian image – a monotonous cityscape of chimneys, vast mills, factories and warehouses.

3: Interior of the Barton arcade, Manchester (1871)

4: Ornamental iron shopfront in the Barton arcade

5: Detail of ornamental cast iron in the exterior of the Barton arcade

The Barton example initiated an arcade craze in Manchester: Victoria buildings (1874) included a vast galleried arcade, as did the Exchange buildings (1876) and a new arcade was constructed in Deansgate in 1899. None of these other examples survive but they are nevertheless testament to the power of the arcade as a symbol of civic status in Britain in the late-19th century. Similar arcade complexes were also built in other cities around the country, including Cardiff, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow and Leeds. Together, they represented the transformation of Benjamin’s exclusive ‘world in miniature’ to a democratised covered space in the city accessible to all. Yet, despite the best intentions of their progenitors, arcades were always subject to the dictates of supply and demand; they all served commercial functions and were never financed by public money. As a result, their presumed ‘public’ status was in reality subsumed to ruthless economic dictates. The arcades in Manchester quickly fell victim to this schizophrenic status: at best, they were viewed as too spacious to function as indoor ‘streets'; at worst, as wasteful follies built solely on the basis of speculation that failed to attract either shopkeepers or customers.





The ring of Saturn

11 02 2011

Grandville's universe of iron, 1844

Grandville’s 1844 book Un autre monde (Another world) offered a fantastical take on Parisian life in the 1840s. Often cited as a prototype Surrealist, Grandville filled his alternative world with the products of the new industrial age but as imagined in a dream or nightmare: people become the objects they desire, machines become animated, the universe is filled with outlandish structures. The image above illustrates the adventures of a hobgoblin who is trying to find his way around outer space: ‘A bridge – its two ends could not be embraced as a single glance and its piers were resting on planets – led from one world to another by a causeway of wonderfully smooth asphalt. The three-hundred-thirty-three-thousandth pier rested on Saturn. There our goblin noticed that the ring around this planet was nothing other than a circular balcony on which the inhabitants of Saturn strolled in the evening to get a breath of fresh air.’

Walter Benjamin later reflected on this fantastical imagining of cast iron as a ‘wish image’, that is, something that appears from the unconscious of a society. Here, the utopian promise of iron construction is imagined to have been realised but not in the form that engineers might have supposed; rather, the image of iron bridging the planets draws on the new-found superabundance of iron (made possible by the industrialisation of production) and its tendency to invoke a sense of awe of its seemingly magical properties. In Grandville’s world, what was perceived as natural (the rings of Saturn) are now discovered to be a product of the industrial world. It is as if the sheer power of industrial materials like cast iron now remake the universe in their own image.

Lamp, Regent St, Cheltenham, 1880s

Shelter on Ryde pier, 1880s

It is in this context that the association of cast iron with the fantastical throughout the nineteenth century begins to make more sense. The recurring motif of the dragon – seen in the forms of street lamps in Cheltenham, in a shelter on the pier at Ryde, and the supporting brackets in the market halls in Halifax and Leeds – might be seen as an appropriate symbol to be cast in iron; after all, the foundry, where iron was cast, was indeed like a dragon, with its incessant flames of fire and connotations of unnatural power. Yet, because the cast-iron forms could be repeated endlessly and exactly, there is a sense in which the power of the dragon now lies in its potential to appear anywhere and in infinite numbers, in the same way that Grandville’s iron bridge assumes its monstrous proportions.

Kirkgate market hall, Leeds, 1904

Borough market, Halifax, 1896

It should come as no surprise, then, to discover Victorian architectural critics railing against ornamental cast iron. Mechanical reproduction of ornamental forms challenged the notion of an original, authored work of architecture. To the horror of architects and critics alike, the power of expression was seen to be shifting from the artist to the manufacturer. So, when an ornamental cast iron lamp was unveiled in Southwark St, London, in 1865, The Building News praised its decorative treatment but went on to say that:

‘The most objectionable circumstance connected with the structure is, however, the fact of the ornament being executed in cast iron…There is the prospect of seeing the same design erected without the slightest variation, some dozens of times, it may be, in various parts of London…Constant repetition, sooner of later, would make the highest work of art offensive; and it is to this that the use of cast iron naturally leads’

Lamp in Southwark Street, London, 1865








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