The dark side of Temple Works – Holbeck’s urban gem

Temple Works, Leeds

Temple Works, Leeds

Temple Works is one of Leeds’ most interesting buildings – so why don’t more people know about it? Jon Cronshaw uncovers its secrets.

Situated in the heart of Holbeck is one of Leeds’ most intriguing buildings. Temple Works is a cultural hub that houses artists, writers and theatre groups. It is also the home of all things extreme, from hosting hardcore punk festivals to acting as a set for low budget horror movies and gothic fashion shoots. And apart from Leeds Town Hall, it is the only Grade 1 listed building in the centre of Leeds. Its facade is based on the Temple of Horus, Egypt, and it once laid claim to the largest room in the world – at a staggering two acres. Yet few people in Leeds know of its existence.

Temple Works was built under the vision of industrialist John Marshall in 1838-40 as a flax mill by the architects Joseph and Ignatius Bonomi. Marshall was one of the early champions of workers’ safety and education and was concerned about the dangers inherent in running a textile mill.

Susan Williamson, Director of the cultural project Temple.Works.Leeds with her company Cornerstone Strategies, explained: “He was concerned that textiles were extremely flammable. He made sure that there were 25 fire escapes, and instead of having a multi-storey building where people would get trapped in the stairways, he wanted to try out having a single storey. So this was his magnum opus.”

Marshall’s concern for his workers went further, as he also felt socially responsible for his workers’ families. Susan said: “The under-croft is where the children of the original mill workers had dormitories, shops, doctors, a church and an adjacent school above ground. So they lived there during working hours until the age of 12.”

The massive two-acre room at the heart of the building is stunning to say the least. With its wide open space, huge skylights and pillar-like pipes, it is a room that glows with an aura of natural light. The huge masonry roof was originally stabilised by hollow rainwater pipes which act as both as columns and help to collect rainwater. Susan explained: “The roof was originally grassed and mowed by sheep. It was grassed to wick the moisture from the air and bring it down the rainwater pipes to make steam with water from the nearby Hold Beck to power all of the machinery here. With all of the solar energy gained from the skylights, it was able to have a solid 78 degree temperature to keep the air moist and keep the flax from breaking.”

With such a heavy roof being stabilised by the fragile columns, cracks soon began to show – literally. Susan said: “The whole building was originally built under compression, which meant that the weight of the roof was supposed to keep it stable. It is like having an incredibly heavy brick being stabilised by toothpicks. But it failed immediately. The architect then did something that no one had ever done, and no one has ever done since – he went in and put the building in tension using cast iron cables which is completely mad. The building expands and contracts and we believe this helps cause the cracks we are struggling with today.”

As well as the grandeur of Temple Works’ main space, the front of the building is equally striking with its frontage taking inspiration from ancient Egypt. Susan said: “A lot of great industrialists expressed their wealth and supposed education through their buildings. We’re lucky here because the facade is an exact reproduction of the Temple of Horus at Edfu – the way they could justify it was that flax came from Egypt.”

Temple Works also has a historical claim to fame – it is the place where the hydraulic lift was first invented. ut it wasn’t invented to move people or goods, it was used to move sheep. Susan explained: “This was the home of the lift because sheep can’t climb ladders and they can’t walk down stairs – seriously. The sheep had to come in for maintenance, so they invented an early hydraulic lift.”

When the flax industry collapsed in the 1870s due to the textile market being flooded with cheap cotton, Temple Works became a normal textile mill.

In the 1950s, the building became the northern office of Kay’s catalogue, and remained so until the company folded in 2004. Throughout this period, it was the largest employer in South Leeds.

Kay’s last owners were the developers the Barclay Brothers who were attracted to the site partly because of its logistical value for its catalogue goods. When Kay’s closed plans were drawn up for a mixed use development by the owners, with Temple Works as a cultural hub within the development. After initial planning applications were turned down, Cornerstone Strategies were called in to help rethink Temple Works’ use.

In 2010 the owners were granted planning permission to run the Temple Works site as a cultural venue. Susan said: “The plan was that this hall would be like the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, but for extreme performing arts.”

The cultural project Temple.Works.Leeds has transformed the site into a thriving cultural hub that regularly host events from music festivals to experimental theatre. Susan said: “We have events that come to us – art events, music events, collaborative events. We’ve had the country’s biggest punk and metal event in April. We like extreme stuff here. We don’t get programme funding from anyone – we’re quite proud of the fact that we’re self-sufficient.”

Temple Works has been used frequently as a set for filmmakers and photographers. Susan said: “We’ve got a myriad of spaces and the details are extraordinary. We stripped away anything that looked modern here – we stripped everything away that was a signifier of time. So if you filmed here it could be set any time. We specialise in vampire, zombie, sci-fi, etc. We do punk and gothic photo-shoots. We’re the premiere destination for dead people!”

The building is also home to a number of creative people. Susan explained: “We have a fluctuating group of residents. But generally, it always includes filmmakers, artists, musicians, photographers, and theatre groups. We are also home to the Leeds Model Railway Society – they’re our prize possession, they’re very extreme! They’ve been at it since 1947 and one of their founding members is still there. No one’s paid here, not even myself, but we can make money out of Temple Works and that’s what makes it interesting for everyone involved.”

The biggest concern is the large cracks that have appeared in the main room. Susan explained: “We have a really serious structural problem here. So our big task really is to restring the building – which will take a lot of time and money. The big question is who is going to pay for the repairs? Just because the building is privately owned, it doesn’t mean to say that they are obliged to foot the repair bill for a massive national monument – there’s a public responsibility as well.”

Temple Works is a place that few Leeds residents know about – but when they do, it’s difficult not to fall in love.



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