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The Corn Exchange, Leeds. Cuthbert Brodrick (1821-1905). 1860-62 (inscribed ERECTED A.D. 1862); converted to a shopping centre with offices above, 1989-90. Listed Building. Faced with rough local sandstone on a rusticated base, with millstone grit for the banding, and an iron-crested dome roofed in dark grey slate, now with additional glazing. Inside are coloured brick walls and a cast-iron gallery. Call Lane, Leeds.
Looming at a busy junction, this solid, rather forbidding edifice is an impressive tribute to the city's trading past., when farmers and cornfactors gathered to transact their business (see "Corn Exchange" for more on the Leeds exchanges). Victorian corn or wool exchanges were often splendid places, witness the old Wool Exchange in nearby Bradford, and the fine Corn Exchange in Cambridge. This one is more remarkable than most, not immediately appealing from the outside perhaps, but nevertheless widely considered Brodrick's finest work. Indeed, Derek Linstrum calls it a "building of national, maybe international importance" (425).
Brodrick had first visited France in 1844, and was evidently much influenced by the similarly oval Halle de Blé in Paris. But his Leeds building has many noticeably individualistic touches, including the rosettes above the top windows (his hallmark, found also at Leeds Town Hall) and the garlands and ox-skulls above that, the decoration breaking up the mass yet emphasizing the oval shape. More important is the general harmony of design, with the building's main entrances approached through what Linstrum picturesquely calls "two projecting ears" (425), one being the grand semi-circular arcaded porch with Tuscan columns, the other being a matching bay giving access to the upper floor. These also serve to emphasize the unusual oval shape.
The interior is much brighter and more airy than might be expected, partly because of the new panel of glazing on the north side of the dome (as Linstrum points out, though, this is the only asymmetrical element of the design), but also because of the openness of the plan. The idea was for the cast-iron gallery to separate the first-floor offices from the main buying floor and the basement below that, where the corn was stored. Despite the more recent alterations, which included removing part of the ground floor to give access to the basement, the interior retains most of the original furnishings, including even the merchants' desks, sample trays, etc., while the "new ironwork and staircases copy Broderick's original designs" (Linstrum 426). So we can still have a fair idea of what his 1860s interior must have looked like.
The single most impressive part is the dome, described in technical terms by Linstrum as having a central "elliptical occulus," and longitudinal ribs "drawn together in the apotheosis of the curve behind a large cast-iron lunette" (426). Asa Briggs describes it in more homely terms by comparing it to "the inverted hull of a ship" (180). The long swooping effect is brilliantly augmented by the encircling arched windows and curving balcony rails. Although the glazed panel is new, there is something here of the exhilerating architecture of the iron and glass railway sheds now springing up all over the country, and of the arcades and City Markets that would later grace Leeds town centre. As Briggs says, the Leeds Corn Exchange is a "fascinating and unorthodox" (180) building.
Briggs, Asa. Victorian Cities. Berkely: University of California Press, 1993.
"Corn Exchange." Discovering Leeds: Markets (Leeds City Council site). Web. 22 July 2011.
Linstrum, Derek. "Corn Exchange." Yorkshire West Riding: Leeds, Bradford and the North. By Peter Leach, Nikolaus Pevsner and others. The Buildings of England series. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009. 425-26.
"Corn Exchange, Leeds." British Listed Buildings. Web. 5 July 2011.
Last modified 17 October 2011