Nowt short of an industrial utopia

Dean Clough, a former Halifax mill that has been transformed into a thriving business and creative centre, is hosting the RSA's design exhibition . Jonathan Glancey discovers why
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The Independent Culture
When you tell someone south of the Peaks that you are going to visit Dean Clough in Halifax, they are very likely to say (speaking from experience), "Who's he?". Fair question, lad. But Dean Clough is neither a Yorkshire football manager, nor some clergyman from the pages of Trollope. Dean Clough is a place and, more to the point, a gigantic former carpet mill - largest in the British Empire - set in a spectacular setting on the edge of this compact and dramatic hill town.

In the vernacular, Dean Clough means no more than "river valley". Since the mid-19th century, it has meant much more to the people of Halifax: it was one-time provider of 6,500 jobs in a mill that stretched three- quarters of a mile along the local river valley.

Crossley carpets went the way of the British Empire, and by the time Ernest Hall, a Bolton man combining the unlikely roles of concert pianist and entrepreneur, offered to buy Dean Clough in 1983, the mills were in limbo. Until then, no one had evinced an interest, or, at least, not a realistic one, in one of the most remarkable collections of solid-stone industrial buildings in the country.

"I came here with my son Jeremy," says Hall, "one cold and misty morning. Though the windows were boarded up and the courtyards desolate, I thought it was a magic place. Perhaps I was off my head, but, still, we bought it. I was 53 then and looking for a new career. Since then, I've always felt I'm just beginning. It might sound a bit daft, but Dean Clough has made and continues to remake a young man of me."

This is no idle boast, although Hall, a modest man brought up in a working- class Lancashire family during the Depression, is the last man to brag. What he has created at Dean Clough is - to adopt an overworked word from the vocabulary of PR and estate agency - unique. If you know Dean Clough, stop reading here and look at the pictures instead. If not, consider Hall's achievement. In 12 years he has transformed the mills back into the powerhouse of the local economy.

Dean Clough is the headquarters of the Halifax Building Society (rather comforting, that), and a regional headquarters for Sun Alliance, the Customs and Excise VAT people, and a plethora of small businesses, each housed in the cavernous, stone-laid floors of the old mills. Superb architecture, luxes of daylight, windows that open, views across the elevated urban freeway to hills that it would have been hard to prise DH Lawrence away from. And cheap rent, too.

And this is just the start. By persuading local and regional business to take space - lots of it - at slightly lower than average rents, Hall has brought in enough money to be able to afford to give away space - again, lots of it - to a gang of creative enterprises that could not have thrived here without such generous support.

At Dean Clough, commerce and culture work together, book-in-filing-cabinet, as happily as anywhere I have ever seen. If this was the end to the tale of the carpets-to-computer wealth generation, it would be a perfectly good one with no need for elaboration. But, this, as they say, is just the beginning. Overlain - or is underlain? - on the old carpet mills is a handsome art gallery (opened late last year), an embryonic collection of 20th-century British furniture, a design awareness campaign for British schools (Design Dimension), a museum of contemporary science and technology for children, a gym and a restaurant that (sorry) could have come straight from central London (or Paris or New York), designed by Clare Brooks of Wolff Olins.

All this, and more, has been funded privately, either by Dean Clough Industries Ltd (proprietor, Sir Ernest Hall) or by patrons, like Vivien Duffield, who have been captivated by what they have seen here and by Hall's magnanimous dream. Hall has the knack of opening doors for people at the right time. Open great timber doors here and you will encounter designers and artists of all persuasions busy at work.

Mercifully, Dean Clough is not a precious place, which makes it even more remarkable. Because it has a workaday commercial bustle and edge, and because most of the creative people working here have, like Hall, made it on their own, Dean Clough is as far removed from the hothouse of the capital's creative world as one can get. Or, at least, as far as one can get at heart. For, in terms of quality of space, opportunity and food (the restaurant and bar are very good; the chef is David Watson who has earned a Michelin star before coming here), Dean Clough is more than up to scratch, by any standards - international or Yorkshire's own.

This is has not been unrecognised. This week, and until 2 July, the Royal Society of Arts hosts an exhibition of the results of its student awards competition in the new Dean Clough Galleries. This is a big step for the RSA, as the awards and competition, the most important of their kind for British and European design students, have long been a London event. This year, a record number of students (2,975) entered the awards, of whom 87 received awards ranging from travel grants to work placements with companies sponsoring the event. This year's judges included Jean Muir, Betty Jackson, Kenneth Grange, William Brown (chief design engineer to the Humber Bridge), Patrick Head (of the Williams-McLaren Formula One racing team) and David Mellor (the cutler, not the one in the Chelsea "bedroom" strip).

The designs, appropriate perhaps for their Yorkshire setting, are, no matter how inspired, remarkably down to earth. Here you will find little of the "hot", hip-hop, baseball-cap-on-backwards, chewing-gum inspired design that London and fashion magazines gorge on, but such kindly and desirable things as a swimming costume, by Sophie Goswell, for the over- 50s, that (I cannot, sadly, speak from experience) is a piece of cake to get in and out of, and flatters the most matronly figure. Swimming costumes aside, you will also find intelligent displays of graphics, footwear, furniture, cars and - appropriately for the setting - textiles.

The only trouble at this mill is that there can never, on a day trip, be enough time to seeeverything it has to offer. Just remember the sheer scale of the place: nearly a million square feet of floorspace stretching over a cobbled site three-quarters of a mile long, 200 companies employing more than 3,000 people, a permanent art collection of more than 600 items, and growing, a programme of talks, plays, concerts and other events. Here, you can get you clothes cleaned, cars serviced, post mailed and body fit (or fat).

The conversion of the old mills, is, as one would expect, exemplary. Where individual companies have installed, to put it kindly, matter-of- fact interiors, these have all been designed so that they can be stripped out without any damage to the fabric of the buildings. Last month, Dean Clough was presented with a Civic Trust Award for the conversion of a part of the complex into the Crossley and Design House Galleries and the Design House Restaurant.

As Tricia Perks, head of the Halifax Civic Trust, says: "The conversion is outstanding and should be considered of national importance. Everybody who sees it raves about it and it's a life enhancing experience for anyone who visits." Ernest Hall describes Dean Clough as a "practical utopia", and he is not wrong. Here is Robert Owen's ideal industrial community brought up to date.

"The work that all those involved - they're so many of them - have undertaken here," says Hall, "is just a further stage in the evolution of these marvellous old Halifax mills. In 1982 they became a relic from a bygone industrial age; now they are a thriving centre for business and the arts moving confidently towards the 21st century."

Of that there should be no doubt. Despite grand stone floors, cobbled courtyards laced with redundant railway track, daunting gateways and the ghostly flap of shawls and click-clack of clogs, Dean Clough has nothing whatsoever do do with the olde worlde of the heritage business. The architectural framework might be antique (although tough and functional), but the aims of Hall and Dean Clough are somewhere high in the 21st-century sky.

"After all," says Hall, "I feel as if I'm 21 again and just starting out." Believe him and, this summer, take the trouble to go up t'mill.

For information on Dean Clough events, write to the Dean Clough Galleries, Halifax HX3 5AX, or call 01422 344555