March 23, 2012 9:01 pm

A proper piazza

For years the Piece Hall, a Georgian glory that began life as a Halifax wool exchange, suffered neglect. But a new project could reinvigorate it as a centre of public life

What a delight it is to ask a Yorkshire person the way somewhere. What laughs we shared, one and all, when time and again I had to stop the car for help in negotiating the almost impenetrable mesh of one-way streets, cul-de-sacs, works in progress and peculiarities that guard the approaches to the grand old town of Halifax. “You can’t miss it. You don’t take the first on the right, no, not the second either, but the third – no, I tell a lie, the buggers have made that one-way ... ” “Just keep going, take the right fork after the pub there, before the junction, but watch out now, after the second traffic light make sure you keep to the left lane past the road works on the corner. You can’t miss it ... ”

I loved it all. Merrily I passed the weird Wainhouse Tower, which began life as a dye-works chimney but ended up as the most wildly fantastic of follies. Warily I avoided Gibbet Street, where the guillotine used to be (“Always was one-way, that was, ha-ha”), respectfully I skirted the Town Hall designed by Sir Charles Barry (“him that built Big Ben”), until at last, limp with laughter and reversals, I found myself before the imposing west gate of the Halifax Piece Hall, one of the most extraordinary buildings in all Britain.

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You’ve never heard of it? It’s not surprising. Hemmed in by busy city streets, from the outside it often looks like a blank industrial plant of some sort, built of window-less pale red brick and utterly anonymous, possibly disused. But pass through that gateway and you will find yourself in a cobbled, galleried, arcaded quadrangle of immense proportions. It is like a Spanish plaza perhaps, or an Arab caravanserai, with some of the guarded privacy of an Oxford college, or the sudden calm majesty of a mosque in Cairo – and indeed, protruding above the south end of it, a slender church steeple does play the architectural role of a minaret. Talk about culture shock. It feels a bit like walking out of Tesco into the Piazza San Marco.

This ambitious construction was built in the 1770s but its career has been chequered. Halifax then was a booming centre of the wool trade, which brought buyers from far away to bargain for “pieces”, as the woven measures of cloth were called. It was a cottage industry. The wool was woven by sheep farmers and their families in the countryside around and the hall was a kind of exchange where merchant clothiers could store their goods and make their deals. Some 300 of them kept offices and store rooms there, and every Saturday, between 10am and 12 noon, the place was open for business.

Entrance at Piece Hall©Tessa Bunney

At first it was a vivid success. Buyers came from all over Europe, the great square was filled each week with horses, wagons, farmers and entrepreneurs, and the subscribing merchants did not begrudge the £9,000 (at least £500,000 by today’s money) it had cost them to build it. The Piece Hall was a princely edifice and its pretensions were princely too.

But alas, its great days were brief. By the end of the 18th century the cottage industry was dying and great industrial concerns did the weaving and the selling. Huge factories changed the face of Halifax and the splendour of the Piece Hall was diminished by the plethora of tall chimneys, the majesty of millionaires’ mansions, the eruption of grand municipal buildings by famous architects (him what built Big Ben, for example) and the blackening smoke of mechanised mills. There was no need for those 300 chambers, those elegant colonnades, that collegiate space or the white cupola above the west gate. The Hall was an anachronism in Victorian Britain, aesthetically as economically, and nobody quite knew what to do with it.

Map of Halifax

They held political meetings in it, religious revivals, firework displays, patriotic rallies, open-air concerts. Halifax’s first balloon flight took off from it. Blondin walked his tightrope across it. For a time they made a wholesale fish and vegetable market of it. Miscellaneous buildings, shacks and lean-tos appeared in the quadrangle, and well into the 20th century it remained a sad monument of neglect. When in 1959 Nikolaus Pevsner examined it for his Buildings of England books he gave the Piece Hall only eight half-hearted lines, and in 1972 it was proposed in the Halifax Council that the building should be demolished once and for all. The motion was defeated, it is said, by one vote.

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Consider it now. Have a Wensleydale Cheese with Warm Caramelised Balsamic Onions under the arcade of the hospitable Cappuccino Café, on the east side of the square, and contemplate the state of the Halifax Piece Hall.

A business at Piece Hall©Tessa Bunney

It is by no means a sorry state. The elegant colonnades look elegant still, and in good enough condition. The wide cobbled space before you, partly grassed now, is calm and clean, and up by the west gate a carousel (Thomas the Tank Engine) decorously revolves, with tinkly music and a solitary passenger, watched by proud parents, solemnly ringing the driver’s bell inside. There is a stir of life on the first-floor gallery above us, where the Tourist Information Centre is, and an art gallery, and a museum, and 30 of those 300 merchants’ chambers are in business as suitably oriented shops (Three Bags Full, Sweet Memories, Halifax Modellers’ World). But the stir of commerce outside the walls seems far away and it is hard to imagine the commotions that have excited this place down the generations, the bargaining and the exhibitionism, the clattering of carts and the neighing of horses, that first balloon going up, Blondin swaying on his tightrope.

And that’s the truth about Halifax Piece Hall. Not since the Industrial Revolution has this magnificent structure found a satisfactory purpose for itself. In 1976 the Halifax Corporation, instead of pulling the place down, restored it as a historical monument and general place of tourism and entertainment. So it became more or less as we see it today but more or less as we feel about it, too – a prodigy, that is, without a worthy purpose.

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Only today is there livelier hope for it. Cheer up! There are serious plans now to make of it a proper piazza, a genuine centre of public and civic life, fit to rank socially, as it already does architecturally, with the grand metropolitan spaces of Venice, Salamanca or Manhattan. Calderdale Borough Council, today’s local authority, is backing a brave scheme for which it hopes to attract big Heritage Lottery money too. Years ago the architecture critic Gavin Stamp wrote that the Piece Hall “ought to be one of the sights of England” and this new transformation, if it happens, could well make it so, and once again attract customers from across the world. Look again, from your table at the Cappuccino, and you may perhaps see it as it will be.

The quadrangle, impeccably restored, is full of people now, and hums with activity – with the music of a café orchestra perhaps, with the splash of the central fountains, with the shoppers sauntering among the stores and restaurants on all the galleries of the building; with international businessmen hurrying to their appointments in air-conditioned company suites; with tourists consulting their guidebooks, sucking their Pieceable Ices and rummaging in their Halifax totebags; with crowds of schoolchildren being shepherded into high-tech Heritage Interpretation Centres or escaping into amusement arcades. And as dusk falls over Halifax, so the lights come on all round the marvellous old quadrangle, the white bell-cote is floodlit, and there is beer, love and Yorkshire laughter until midnight.

It may never happen – but if it does, please God, you won’t be able to miss it.

For further details and news of the restoration project, go to www.thepiecehall.co.uk

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Great British Buildings: Edwin Heathcote’s pick of unsung gems

Oriel Chambers, Liverpool

Oriel Chambers, Liverpool

Oriel Chambers, Water Street, Liverpool If you’ve ever admired the iron-framed buildings of New York’s SoHo or downtown Chicago – this is the inspiration. One of the first iron-framed glass curtain-walled buildings (1864-65) is here in Liverpool, from where news of its innovations travelled across the Atlantic to become the de facto building method of US modernism – which was subsequently reimported into Europe. The terracotta-clad frame is slender and elegant, the undulating glass bays ethereally light. Its designer – Peter Ellis – and the building were so vehemently dismissed by critics that Ellis abandoned architecture. It is now recognised as one of the pioneering moments of modernism. Another exquisitely delicate iron-framed building from even earlier (1855-56) can be seen in another Atlantic port, Glasgow. Gardners Warehouse is in Jamaica Street. Its ground floor is now a huge JD Wetherspoon pub. www.orielchambers.co.uk

Watts Chapel, Surrey

Watts Chapel, Surrey

Watts Chapel, Compton, Surrey Art nouveau never really took off in architecture in England, except here. Hidden in the surprisingly rural countryside outside suburban Guildford, this chapel (1898) was paid for and designed by the artist GF Watts, whose slightly batty but undeniably powerful, Michaelangelesque paintings can be seen in the recently restored gallery next door. The little terracotta chapel’s Romanesque door is surrounded by the richest Celtic-inspired relief work you can imagine, but it is the odd interior which takes your breath away. It entombs you in a complex web of tendrils and angels, all in a slightly dingy Pre-Raphaelite palette of rusty browns, tarnished golds and mouldy greens. The chapel was designed by Watts’s wife Mary, and is her only significant work. What a way to be remembered. www.wattschapel.co.uk

Royston Cave, Royston, Hertfordshire Buried deep beneath a banal high street chain betting shop is this man-made cave, discovered by builders in 1742. The circular chamber of the bell-shaped cavern is decorated with the most extraordinary medieval carvings, depicting scenes from the life of Christ as well as a famously vulgar sheela na gig, an earth mother figure, who leaves nothing to the imagination. There was some speculation that the carvings were the occult tracings of Knights Templar but they now appear to have been made after the Templars were dissolved, sometime between the 14th and 17th centuries. They exude a primitive power and are without doubt one of the strangest sites in England. www.roystoncave.co.uk

St Catherine’s College, Oxford

Modernist: Sixties’ creation St Catherine’s College, Oxford. Designed by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen

St Catherine’s College, Oxford The ideal of the modernist gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, St Catherine’s College (1962) is a masterpiece by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen. Many will know Jacobsen’s name but even more will know his designs – the futuristic egg chair, perhaps, or the ant chair (think Christine Keeler, legs akimbo). For this Oxford college, he designed a traditional quad and a severe modernist building leavened by an unparallelled attention to detail – Jacobsen designed everything, most exquisitely in the dining hall where every fitting from the attenuated cutlery and organic lights to the sinuous, high-backed chairs bear his distinctive hallmark. The high point of the modern movement. www.stcatz.ox.ac.uk

Berry Brothers & Rudd, London

Berry Brothers & Rudd, London

Berry Brothers & Rudd, St James’s Street, London A glimpse into a world in which London was a city of coffee houses and fledgling banks and newspapers, this wine shop opened its doors in 1698 and doesn’t seem to have changed since. The tight, dark, panelled alley down the side of the shop, the huge scales inside and the battered black paint, which coats the store, bear a patina accumulated over five centuries of trade. Lock and Co, the hatters, a little way up the street, isn’t bad either, predating Berry Brothers by a couple of decades as a firm, although their beautiful shop is a little younger. They are an incredible sign of historical continuity in a city built on trade. www.bbr.com

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture correspondent

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