Leeds’ neo-Egyptian Temple Works deserves saving

A field of great glass cones extends across a rooftop in Leeds, like a colony of crystal teepees, stretching for two acres above a surrounding landscape of Victorian brick warehouses. It is a strange enough prospect now, but when Temple Works was built in 1836, it would have been an even more surreal sight. Where I now stand on asphalt, a lush green field once grew, grazed by a flock of sheep – who were shuttled up and down from the rooftop in their own hydraulic lift.

Built by the king of the Leeds flax industry, John Marshall, Temple Works was the site of many world firsts in its day. This early green roof was no miserly carpet of sedum, but a proper field of grass on a 1m-thick bed of soil, installed to maintain humidity in the factory below and prevent the flax fibres from drying out. The hydraulic lift was one of the earliest of its kind too, while between the conical roof lights (which doubled as ventilation shafts), rainwater was funnelled down inside the building’s cast iron columns and used to power steam engines in the basement, which fuelled the whirring spinning machines above. It was an exemplar of intelligent environmental design, 150 years before the box-ticking of BREEAM.

This was little-known on the street of course. Instead, passersby were met with  a magnificent Egyptian frontage, lifted straight from the Temple of Horus at Edfu – a personal obsession of Marshall’s, Egypt having had an important flax industry in the ancient world. Fat stone columns rise to elaborate lotus capitals, while winged solar discs stare momentously from above the tapering portals. It was an alien arrival to the streets of Holbeck in the 1830s, and is just as startling today, alongside an air-conditioning accessories office and a sandwich delivery depot.

Step inside the former spinning hall and the effect is breathtaking. Thought to be the largest room in the world when it was built, the factory floor stretches 125m by 70m, punctuated by a stately hypostyle grid of iron columns with capitals of bundled papyrus, from which huge groined brick vaults leap between bays. Circular pools of light from the conical roof lights lend the room an ethereal air akin to the Great Mosque of Cordoba.

While many of Yorkshire’s bold bastions of industry have been preserved as galleries or luxury flats, time hasn’t been kind to Marshall’s grade I-listed monument. Under the neglectful ownership of the Barclay brothers since 2004, the complex shows frequently on heritage at risk lists. It suffered a partial collapse in 2008, and metal clamps now encase many of the iron capitals, which have been prone to cracking, while water drips through the mossy ceiling and down the flaking walls.

For a few years, the complex took on an unexpected life as an atmospheric community arts venue run on a shore-string, populated by occasional installations, performances, raves and ‘zombie gaming nights’ (it was described as ‘the premier ‘dead person’ venue in the North’). Burberry had promising plans to turn Temple Works into a £50 million factory-cum-showroom, with Patrick Lynch working on a sensitive scheme for the site, but they pulled out over Brexit uncertainty.

The building was finally put up for auction for a pound at the end of last year, but was acquired one day before the sale in a last-minute deal with CEG, a commercial estates giant which owns around £800 million worth of properties across the country. This includes a 3.2ha site nearby, part of the planned ‘South Bank Leeds’ development, where Feilden Clegg Bradley has drawn up a masterplan that includes what could become the tallest building in the city. CEG has yet to reveal its plans for Temple Works, but suggests the building could find a long-term cultural use – finally a Tate Modern of the North? Backed by the financial might of two Swedish pension funds, it may finally see Marshall’s majestic monument saved from ruin. •

Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at the Guardian


 

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Looming on the horizon near Temple Works stands the Dalek-like hulk of Bridgewater Place, the tallest building in Yorkshire at 32 storeys, responsible for creating downdrafts of such strength that a lorry was blown on to a pedestrian, crushing them to death. A row of huge metal baffles was recently installed along the street to protect people from the great gusts.