Some very short reviews of assorted cities in Yorkshire

The Hepworth, Wakefield. Image: Poliphilo/Wikimedia Commons.

When you’re only visiting a city for a few hours, you can’t realistically hope to understand every nuance of social or economic history, or understand what it’s like to live there. There’s only so much you can learn.

One of the things you can learn, however, is what it’s like to visit the place for a few hours. So, since I spent several days this summer shuttling between different bits of Yorkshire, I thought I’d write some brief reviews of the cities I visited.

I’m sure these won’t get me into any trouble whatsoever.

Wakefield

On one side of the Doncaster Road you’ll find the Hepworth, a gallery whose architecture and setting are as beautiful as any work of art it contains. On the other, you’ll find a medieval bridge over the river Calder, alongside the ancient Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin.

These things, alas, lie either side of a god-awful dual carriageway, a depressing and inconvenient half a mile walk from the city centre. You know that thing about not hiding your light under a bushel? Wakefield hides its light besides the A61.

That’s my overriding impression of Wakefield: depressing streets and genuine treasures, all mingled up together at random. The Cathedral looks good, there’s some decent public realm in the “civic quarter” near town and county halls (this was once the capital of the West Riding), and there are a lot of fine buildings in the network of ancient, narrow streets behind Marygate, too.

But the main shopping centre dates from the ’80s with all that implies, Westgate station feels unloved and Kirkgate forgotten, and chunks of the city feel shabby to the point of decay. Oh, and there are too many massive bloody roads.

Loads of past glories on show, but the place needs... not even love. Money. It needs money.

Leeds

I’ve been to Leeds three times now, and I still feel oddly like I’ve never seen it. This is frustrating because most people I know who’ve ever lived there swear by the place.

So on this trip, I tried to explore a bit further than I had in the past, crossing the river to the regeneration area on the south bank of the Aire, and taking buses up to the student areas of north Leeds and back. And I did see a couple of things that grabbed me: the Corn Exchange, which I’d somehow managed to miss before, is stunning, as are some of those Victorian shopping arcades, and the area around Woodhouse Moor is gorgeous, especially when viewed from the top of a bus.

Insider the Corn Exchange. Image: SteveCadman/Wikimedia Commons.

And yet, still, I just don’t get it. There’s a load of great stuff in Leeds, but I just can’t quite get a handle on what the place is like as a whole, in a way I’ve not found with Liverpool or Manchester or even poor, unloved Birmingham.

So what am I missing? Is it just that I can’t shift the impression left by that horrendous bit in front of the main station? Am I just broken in some way? Tell me.

Huddersfield

How can I not love a place where the first thing you see on arriving as a statue of Harold Wilson, and where the station looks like this?

Huddersfield station, with Harold Wilson. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

Huddersfield boasts a frankly incredible amount of fine 19th architecture: the town hall, the George Hotel, St Peter’s Church, and always the sight of the Victoria Tower on Castle Hill looking down on the town. It’s one of those places where there are so many fine buildings, the authorities genuinely don’t seem sure what to do with them all.

On the other side of the balance sheet is the bus station, and the buildings where the council offices are housed, and the fact this fine centre is fenced in by one of the worst ring-roads I’ve ever seen. But nowhere’s perfect. This is one of the few places from which commuting to both Leeds and Manchester is equally plausible so, in the event we ever solve this whole north-south divide thing, I’d expect Huddersfield to boom.

York

Chocolate box. Beautiful, obviously – the Minster! The walls! The museum gardens! – but with a lingering sense that the place is now more for those who visit than those who live there.

The Shambles. Image: Peter K. Burian/Wikimedia Commons.

What the city really reminds me of is Oxford and Cambridge. It’s a beautiful medieval city, with insanely high property prices, overly tight green belt and a ring road, where you can’t turn your head without bashing it into someone taking a picture of a building that they think they know from Harry Potter. The university has even divided itself into colleges and sent its products out to conquer the British media. No one has yet tried to coin the phrase “Yoxbridge”, but it can only be a matter of time.

The Railway Museum is a reminder that there was another York – a gritter, industrial one – but these days it’s all tourists and students and London ex-pats smug they can afford the house prices.

Halifax

Why has nobody ever told me to visit Halifax? Why is it not competing with York for that lucrative tourist market?

The Piece Hall. Image: Tim Green/Wikimedia Commons.

It should be: it’s glorious. The 18th century Piece Hall looks like something that got lost on its way to Renaissance Italy. The covered Victorian Borough Market is less unexpected, but just as beautiful. And the whole place lies on the side of a valley, overlooked by beautiful Pennine Hills. It’s stunning, and no one had ever mentioned it to me.


So why isn’t Halifax a destination? I fear that geography may play a part: its Pennine location means Halifax isn’t on the main north-south routes, and even the main east-west railway lines skip it, running instead via Huddersfield (today) or Bradford (should they ever build HS3). But it’s gorgeous, and the municipal authorities should start trying to sell it as a Christmas destination pronto, and you, personally, should go, right now.

Go on then.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.