'Freakish' Leeds tower slips into bracket of top four in world for 2010

A building in Leeds less than 70m tall and made of deliberately rusted steel has just been bracketed with three megastructures as one of the four best towers erected in 2010 in the world.

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) decided that this architecturally eccentric David, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, was more than equal to the Goliaths produced by practices including Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, which employs more than 1,000 people across several continents.

There's more to this unexpected accolade for Leeds than the cliche "Let's hear it for the little guy".

The Broadcasting Place building is a fine example of how talented, although not world famous, architects can bring something really fresh and engaging to unlikely pockets of our towns and cities.

Megalithic towers of power are de rigueur in the corporatised ghettos of the world's financial centres. But it's when taller buildings are inserted into physically complex settings that much more engrossing and civil architecture can result. The Leeds building is a £50m mixed-use development on the edge of the city centre, created via a partnership between the Downing property group and Leeds Metropolitan University. It contains offices, student residences and a Baptist church.

The other buildings garlanded by the CTBUH are a trio of the massively usual suspects: the Burj Khalifa in Dubai which, at 828m, is more than 11 times higher than Broadcasting Place; the 163m Pinnacle@Duxton in Singapore and the 366m Bank of America tower in New York. They are all tall, they are all structural marvels and they are all, with the possible exception of the unusually articulated Burj, oddly lumpen.

Such is the self-inflicted curse of skyscrapers, although not all. Towers like the Hancock and Sears buildings in Chicago remain utterly spellbinding decades after reaching for the sky. And when Renzo Piano's Shard and Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partner's Leadenhall Street buildings are completed in London they promise to set new standards in supersized elegance. Which makes Broadcasting Place all the more remarkable.

It rises, in five twisted chunks, from a very tight and irregularly edged site hemmed in by a church and other historic buildings. Furthermore, the architects have made a brusque, almost 1960s Brutalist virtue of the form by cladding it in rust-guaranteed Corten steel.

Feilden Clegg Bradley, whose Cambridge housing scheme won the coveted Riba Stirling Prize two years ago, are masters of subtly modulated forms and materials – and they admit that Broadcasting Place is freakish by their normal standards. But there is logic at work: the tower ruled out the need to clutter the site with three or four separate buildings, and the 16 facets of the facade optimise the amount of natural sunlight let inside and set up particular views across Leeds. But the key point is that the design isn't gratuitously weird. Absolutely no wow-factor was intended, and it adds no spurious gloss to the government's promotion of its misconceived World Class Places programme in our towns and cities.

Championed by English Heritage and Leeds City Council, Broadcasting House was voted the third most popular building in the city within months of its completion. Architecture like this reminds clients and developers that they don't need slapdash architectural drama. They need excellently designed, contextually sensitive buildings. Broadcasting Place has nothing to do with world class places – whatever they are – and everything to do with a pocket of Leeds.

And it is not quite alone in demonstrating the meaningful contribution that towerettes can make to the important shades of architectural difference in our towns and cities.

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