Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Why The Piece Hall is my favourite building

Halifax's Piece Hall reopens today after a major refurbishment, which is terrfic news for my local town. I wrote this back in 2011 when asked to write about my favourite building.

The Piece Hall in Halifax is a Grade I listed Georgian masterpiece that encapsulates perfectly why John Betjeman described Halifax as “a town of hidden beauty”.

Following a public meeting in March 1774, a group of wool manufacturers resolved to build a market place to be funded by subscription. Work began in 1774 and the Piece Hall opened on 1 January 1779. The term ‘piece’ refers to the pieces of cloth that were sold.

An open design competition was won by a local architect, Thomas Bradley, who had previously designed the nearby red brick Square Chapel (also Grade 1 Listed) and who would subsequently go on to become the chief engineer of the Calder and Hebble Navigation. Remarkably, when building work began on the Piece Hall, Bradley was 22 years old.

The Piece Hall comprises a large open courtyard that is surrounded on all four sides by elegant, galleried walkways. The upper level comprises a colonnade of Tuscan round columns. The middle level, which is the ground floor level at the top of the sloping courtyard, is supported by Rustic columns of chamfered square pattern.

The lower ground floor level has squared piers supporting Tuscan arches. The three ascending orders and the regular intervals of columns and levels surrounding the courtyard create an harmonious, spacious, little bit of Italy, right here in Yorkshire.

Like all good buildings, it perfectly combined form and function. The walkways provided access to 315 individual rooms that were leased by the manufacturers for the sale of cloth to merchants. One of the key requirements for cloth halls though was security for the contents, which is why the rooms are fireproof and the exterior of the building is largely unadorned.

Beyond the function though, the contrast between the unrevealing exterior and what is to be found inside still surprises visitors today. At its opening and in its early years, the contrast with the congested buildings and narrow, largely medieval street patterns of the town must have been breathtaking.

What I really love though is the fact that the wool merchants in a town in the West Riding of Yorkshire had both the brass, and the brass neck, to conduct their business in surroundings that emulated the grandeur of Imperial Rome.”

Following decades of steady decline the Piece Hall is currently home to shops, cafes and an art gallery, as well as hosting occasional events such as children’s fun days and concerts.

Calderdale Council is, though, pursuing a Heritage Lottery Fund grant that will transform the courtyard into an elegant public space and create workspaces for creative businesses, restaurants and retailing within the building itself.

An Interpretation and Education Centre is to explain the history and importance of the building to visitors. Having been described by English Heritage as perhaps Yorkshire’s most important secular building, it is hoped that these proposals will secure the building for another 230 years and act as catalyst for the regeneration of Halifax and the wider area.

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