Friday 7 November 2008

Corn Exchange

On a recent visit to Leeds I had a wander around the city’s Corn Exchange (1860-62), a building designed by Cuthbert Brodrick and described as “of national, maybe international importance.” The design, like much of Brodrick’s work owes much to French precursors, in this case, the Halle au Blé in Paris built almost a hundred years earlier. Unusually for a domed building it has an oval footprint and the central oculus is elliptical. There is an additional asymmetric wedge shaped area of glazing that admits north light and can be seen in some of these photos. Order, symmetry and repetition of forms prevail in the interior space while the absence of internal structural support greatly enhances the exhilarating sense of scale.

After a protracted but thorough renovation, involving opening up the basement to create a third level, the Corn Exchange reopened in 1992 as an indoor shopping centre. Until recently it prospered, the retail units being let out, for the most part to independent traders. In November 2007 these traders were given notice to quit by new operators, Zurich Assurance. The displaced traders make a strong case in their blogspot. In the meantime, Zurich’s programme of refurbishment is almost complete as these photos confirm and they are pressing ahead with a scheme to transform the Corn Exchange into an up-market palace of food. Behind all this lurks a corporate imperative to maximise an investment by increasing rentals to the point where only high turnover, premium business can afford them. It’s an exercise in exclusivity, the objective being to provide goods and services that only those in the highest income groups can afford to buy. A landmark building of such grace and distinction should be accessible to all especially as the ownership still resides with Leeds City Council.

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