Bradford, the eternal poor cousin to trendy, Harvey Nichols-equipped Leeds, is finally on the des res map. The £100m project which reinvents Lister's Mill by Lathams Architects has kickstarted the transformation of a derelict site that in the late 19th century was famous as one of the world's mega-producers of silk and velvet. Today, Samuel Cunliffe Lister's vast sweatshop contains 131 apartments, slate and oak floors and razor-sharp minimalist decor.
Work on a new tranche of apartments, by developers Urban Splash, is already under way in the second of the mill's huge sandstone buildings. The total floor area of 27 acres gradually degraded when production tailed off after the war before ceasing several years ago. Bradford's incredible architectural hulk looms over the city's Manningham district where, in 2001, riots left a slew of wrecked property and burnt-out cars.
But when the Silk Mill marketing suite opened for business, hundreds of prospective buyers queued round the block to look at apartments ranging in price from £89,000 for studio flats to £285,000 for duplex penthouses. Comparable apartments in Leeds would cost up to double those prices.
The Lister's Mill development suggests that Bradford, which has the highest density of listed buildings of any town or city in England, will gradually haul itself out of a slough of urban despond.
There's no doubt that the involvement of Urban Splash - arguably Britain's most innovative backland developers - has put down an important marker. The Lister's Mill development will be a magnet for local professionals, and property speculators. So, too, will the more piecemeal development of the Little Germany section of the town: run down, but already fundamentally elegant.
But even Urban Splash needed encouragement. And that came three years ago with the roll-out of the city's latest urban masterplan, devised by the high-profile architect, Will Alsop. The scheme, under the auspices of organisations including regional development agency Yorkshire Forward, and Bradford Centre Regeneration, proposed new "landmark" architecture as a kind of brandmark.
Alsop's proposals are an architectural Gestalt therapy - urban pattern-making on a grand scale, designed to give Bradford a new, holistic central physique and a freshly charged psyche. Abstract art, the tap-root that feeds Alsop's architectural expression, is involved. And so too is an acknowledgement of the need for destruction. If the scheme goes ahead in its entirety, dozens of architecturally regrettable post-war buildings right in the heart of the city will be razed. It's not yet a fully clarified vista. But the urban dream, the brazen virtual future it suggests, is crucial. Alsop's vision of Bradford is a series of perceptions whose drama challenges Bradford people to consider all sorts of futures - and to look with renewed interest at what already exists around them.
At the Silk Mill, Lathams Architects have turned the virtual into aspirational fact. And they've done it with a combination of historical tact and modernist detailing that never quite lets you forget that, once, 11,000 people worked on the site under the shadow of the soaring, Italianate tower that is the city's most remarkable architectural exclamation mark. Thus, the makeover is part newbuild, part listed-building conservation.
The power of the mill's original materials - florid brick, perfectly cut sandstone the colour of waxy honey, and rugged concrete - meet shrewdly arranged tableaux of white walls, shadow gaps and chic, gleaming fittings. They agree to disagree, and the effect is rather gripping.
Lathams director Stuart Hodgkinson's approach reveals something of a love affair with the original materials of the mill: the weighty sandstone cills, the rubbled concrete vaults over the corridors between the ranges of apartments - how the Brutalist architects of the Sixties and Seventies would have loved them - and the heavy but beautifully detailed new central steel staircase (engineered by Arup) add up to a wonderful palette of tough but engrossing architecture.
The apartments look like a million dollars, but they're actually an exercise in rigorous reduction. Urban Splash's success is based, increasingly, on a restricted range of materials, specifications and spatial modes. The result: improved materials and buying power, quicker construction and fit-out, and reduced "snagging". From design to completion, the Silk Mill development took just three years - an absolutely remarkable turnaround.
Lathams hadn't experienced this almost industrially systematised template to design before. But Hodgkinson admits that the practice learned important lessons from it, and will carry them forward into similar makeover projects in the future. The fact that his team managed to deliver such a strongly graphic fit-out without destroying the atmosphere of the architectural host organism says something about their attention to detail, and the way quite different materials can be made to co-exist with such demure decorum.
Bradford, once benighted, off the radar and off the commercial pace, suddenly threatens to enter a new and perhaps even fashionable phase. Home-seekers, and smart-money investors, will surely await further developments at Lister's Mill and, in due course, the Little Germany quarter.
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