Building a city…Bradford’s architectural heritage


It’s easy to knock Bradford.

Poor relation to Leeds, a lost cause, caretaker of a huge ditch where the shops used to be.

It’s hard to deny that Bradford has suffered more than its share of disastrous town planning over the years, with that infamous crater perhaps being the most startling example.

It hasn’t always been like this. The ghosts and echoes of Bradford’s proud past – and maybe it’s confident future – are everywhere. Bradford’s faded grandeur reminds me of a film star fallen on hard times, down on his luck, a bit shabby around the edges and maybe even bankrupt, but still oozing class.

There’s potential in the old city yet.

Let’s start in Centenary Square, right in the heart of the city. City Hall towers above, the crowning achievement of the prolific local architects Lockwood & Mawson. Built in a Gothic style and opened in 1873, the building has a scale that’s quite astounding. There was ambition there, corporate confidence and a willingness to create a civic building that would show the world just how important Bradford was.

Lockwood & Mawson left a heavy imprint on the city. Besides being responsible for the design of much of Saltaire village and Sir Titus’ colossal mill, they also designed two more of the city’s gems, the Wool Exchange and St George’s Hall.

The Wool Exchange mirrors the Gothic style of the City Hall, and stands as a powerful symbol of Bradford’s former wealth and position as the centre of the Victorian wool trade. It was here that business happened, where wool was bought and sold.

This was the hub of the city’s purpose.

Today, the Wool Exchange houses a bookshop. Renovated carefully and respectfully, the interior of the building still holds its former power and glory.

A statue of Richard Cobden, peace campaigner, politician and driving force in persuading Robert Peel to rid Britain of the repressive Corn Laws, stands at the head of the trading floor.

Cobden proudly keeps watch over the books and the browsers. He seems quietly pleased to be watching people going about their business.

WarehouseRound the corner, the third of Lockwood & Mawson’s buildings, St George’s Hall, is an austere example of a Victorian concert hall, capable of holding 3,500 in its prime, with a façade of classical pillars made of sandstone. The relatively downbeat design contrasts well with the fanfare of the City Hall.

Just up the road, opposite the rail station is the Great Victoria Hotel. Like the Midland Hotel, next to Bradford’s other rail station (two stations, no through line…figure that one out), the Victoria was built to luxuriously accommodate visiting businessmen at the height of the wool boom.

Back down into Centenary Square, in front of City Hall, you’re confronted with the City’s West End and the Alhambra theatre beside the quietly rotting New Victoria, Gaumont or Odeon cinema, depending on how old you are.

The Odeon represents the side of the city that’s gone wrong and lost its direction. The building is vast, a relic of the 1930s drive to build huge auditoriums. It’s domes dominate the western skyline, complementing that of the older Alhambra next door. Political and commercial indecisiveness have left it stood empty, gently decaying and crumbling, a sad shadow of the days when the Beatles and the Stones were drowned out by their screaming fans.

The Alhambra theatre still has life, and plenty of it. It’s a wonderfully preserved regional music hall that benefited from a forward-thinking renovation in the eighties, doubling the size of the stage, making the theatre capable of hosting touring West End productions.

Little Germany v2Back across town, past the shopping centre-less hole stands a dense cluster of warehouses, the heart of Bradford’s old commercial centre.

Built in the second half of the nineteenth century by German and Eastern European traders keen to impress, Little Germany is one of the country’s best preserved Victorian commercial areas. There’s an imposing feel about the streets, a claustrophobia brought on by the towering warehouses, small yards and closely packed buildings. It’s a foreboding area with a powerful history of business and commerce.

Flanking Little Germany stands the magnificent Cathedral. Dating from Saxon times, St. Peter’s has played a part in the city’s history at every turn.

During the Civil War, woolsacks – what else? – were hung from the tower to protect it from Royalist canon shot. They weren’t entirely successful…a couple of dents are still there.

The Cathedral sits on a hill, the blue clock face and huge, solid tower seemingly guarding the city, as it has done for five hundred years.

Bradford has more. Much more.

The bank at the head of North Parade, the red brick Co-Op building at the foot of Ivegate, the Royal Exchange building on Forster Square. Even the NatWest has a heavily French influenced building with a tower. Outside the city centre, Cartwright Hall is central to the superb Lister Park.

The wool barons and their fortunes may have gone – they’re all up the road in Undercliffe Cemetery, worth a visit just to witness the Victorian’s ostentatious view of memorial – but they left their civic mark behind.

Bradford may be bruised and battered these days, but the ghosts and echoes of former greatness are still here to be seen and enjoyed.  Places develop, grow and thrive with one eye on their past…these echoes of a Victorian golden hour are also the future seeds of Bradford’s regeneration.

Don’t write the city off yet.  Instead, have a wander around it.

And look up.

You’ll be surprised.

Windows v2


  1. Beautiful piece. Beautiful buildings.

    However the future of Bradford does not depend on the bricks, stone and mortar of its historical buildings, but on the flesh, blood, imagination and aspiration of its people.

    Nor does it depend on the quality of the planners or the cunning strategies of the council, but on the ability of people to organise and act in their own mutual interests.

    Any Renaissance will be led by individuals and communities developing and exercising their power in pursuit of progress.

  2. Spot on, Mike.

    I find the way in which the way in which the built environment supports communities and influences the way they develop absolutely fascinating.

    Yep, you’re correct that people are the most important thing in any coming Renaissance, but I hesitate to underplay the importance of the city’s architectural heritage as a foundation for that regeneration.

    Bradford has plenty of examples of shocking council leadership and plenty more of great grassroots community action. The effects of the former are plainly obvious, and it’s also apparent how they impact on the latter.

    What Bradford needs is both, working together.

    It needs to somehow harness it’s wealth of community and marry that to some properly thought through civic and architectural regeneration. It needs to look at the Odeon, for example, and wonder what Bradford would be like without those iconic domes. Would it lose part of it’s soul if they went? It needs to wonder more imaginatively about what it could do with that building.

    And the answer isn’t another hotel or shopping centre.

    Now, if only I could actually draw…

    1. Of course the built environment can be an influence on progress. But as Viktor Frankl showed in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ it is not a determinant.

      Great buildings are a product of community and not its cause.

      As soon as we try to marry community building with property development we find that for every pound that goes to ‘community development’ £10 000 or more goes to architects, developers, planners and others who profit from property. While property developers are given decades to weave their transformations community development practitioners usually work on three year funding arrangements at best. The playing field is far from level.

      And if you need convincing that the regen agenda has been completely hijacked by the property industry just look at this:

      1. It’s a chicken and egg thing, and I don’t think there’s a right answer, especially when the built environment is already, well, built.

        Does the city’s architecture have an affect on it’s community. It’s already there, so it must do. It’s certainly affected me over the course of my life. It’s part of my heritage.

        But should it constrain and contain that community? Absolutely not! It will certainly shape the way that the community thinks about itself and may even inform some of its plans or actions, but it shouldn’t stop it being radical.

        As for the role of private money in property development…that’s a whole different post. I know that people make money from involvement in regen projects, but I don’t necessarily disagree with that. Property development is a commercial enterprise.

        It’s the role of councils as the elected representatives of the community to guide investment and property development properly, which is something that Bradford has sorely missed.

        Leadership is key.

  3. Lovely post about our favourite city, thanks for that.

    I couldn’t believe how interesting the place was when I first went there and I still remain fascinated by it today.

    I’d love to think that the quality of the architecture alone would spark some sort of renaissance but I think it needs more. Of course property decays when it isn’t inhabited, the key is to get it occupied as much as possible, that means as cheaply as possible but the rates just aren’t coming down.

  4. You paint quite a beautiful and lucid picture of a city I know just a little. So it’s great to hear more about what’s made it tick, past and present, especially sharing it with us, as some of your neighbours. Great images too, I’ll remember to look up next time I’m there!

  5. Fantastic post and great photos. On a walk recently aroung Manningham, I looked up – wow! We are lucky to live in, by and around such wonderful architecture, from the homes of the great & the good to the mill-adjacent workers’ homes, Bradford is bathed and swathed and shod and clothed in fantastic buildings.

    Thanks for a great post.

    1. I grew up in Saltaire,

      It was a super fantastic place then, as it is now ! It’s still hard to believe and comprehend the epic proportions of the Mill and village around it. I just love the place. Bradford had some amazing buildings which were pulled down in the 1960’s. I was about 12 at the time if only they had asked for my opinion then, I was more aware as a child than these so called council pro’s were then …to late now and how sad ! I remember the stunning collinsons cafe resteraunt in Bradford,the staff wore black and white uniforms… pure class the building was stunning ! Replaced with an insurance building,the biggest eyesore ever. Who were these people who made these decisions ? they should be named and shamed ! Then people would think twice before they made such unprofessional decisions. Brown & Muffs and Busbys department stores I hope still stand, and all the Villas on Manningham lane ,and side streets.I hope they still remain. We have to be thankful to the likes of Men like Sir Titus Salt, Jonathan Silver…… Shipley clock and saltaire village ? Just a thought ! Kathy

      1. Interested in your comments about Collinsons cafe. I am trying to find out about all their cafes for family history research. Do you have any more memories of the buiding or what the cafe served etc

        Thank you

        1. I loved Collinsons cafe as I did love Bradford. I was born in 1952 and lived in Low Moor and Wyke most of my life. Going to the centre of Bradford was a great fascination to me. My mum used to take me to Collinsons cafe for cake and I suppose orange juice when I was very small. I remember the 3 piece orchestra, a grand piano upstairs and most of all the great red coffee grinding urns in the shop below and of course the delicious smell of coffee. I have often told my children about it and how I wish it was still in existence, it would be very popular nowadays. My mum was an avid cafe goer, we also frequented Betty’s Cafe, Brown and Muffs and Busby’s cafes also the stylish Marshall and Snellgrove couture shop which also had a cafe. Its not because of my age that I miss these things, people of my generation in Bradford all say the same what a pity Bradford was ruined in the 60’s.

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