Daniel Chapman | Writing etc

“Who do you think has been the greatest person in the world?” – John Poulson & City House

As above, so below; and Leeds station has long since been the place where above and below combine to form the one thing. The buildings above the tracks above the arches above the streets above the water below; if you go down there, you can tell a lost visitor, you’ll end up up there.

Above it all is City House; above, below, through, but invisible if you set your mind to it. That lost visitor will almost certainly have noticed the thirteen storey office block as tall as rain over the entrance to the station, but long-time Leeds residents have managed to blot it out. “Oh, that thing,” they’ll say, when you point out that facing due south of City Square you can not see the sky.

From there you can not see how deeply City House is embedded into the city, either. Its foundations were drilled through the piers of the Dark Arches themselves, concrete forms placed upon shale thirty-five feet below ground, great concrete columns rising from the depths to the sky. Over Neville Street a 110 foot steel table is both a bridge to the station and a foundation for City House. The engineering effort was admired around the world. The building, however, was not.

City House has been physically empty for a decade; spiritually, it has been empty since the day it opened, in 1963. Leeds was remarkably resistant to the corruption of John Poulson, the unqualified architect who defied his lack of ability by paying his way into building projects across the north, with only the not-so-Olympic International Pool slipping through. And we even grew to love that, even while the council tried to claim nearly £300,000 back from Poulson for his negligent design.

What John Poulson did have a talent for was identifying the most efficient uses of his backhanders, and the right gifts to the right people at British Railways opened up building opportunities in towns and cities across the country. £5,870 in cash, £2,000 in soft furnishings, clothes and a brand new Rover were enough to gain preferential treatment from the official in charge of 270,000 acres of valuable building land, and returned more than £400,000 in fees in four years of breakneck work.

Poulson’s systemic corruption made him “one of the most powerful men in Yorkshire business” by 1969, a reputed millionaire favoured by front-bench politicians, presiding over the largest architectural practice in Europe. And while he couldn’t design a building to save his life, he also couldn’t satisfy his greed, not even with the self-built manor house outside Pontefract or the suite at London’s Dorchester Hotel.

Web of Corruption, the book by Raymond Fitzwalter and David Taylor that plots Poulson’s rise and fall, tells a story about Poulson driving through his Pontefract domain with one of his company’s architects, a man named Clamp.

“Who do you think has been the greatest person in the world?” Poulson asked. “I don’t know, Mr Poulson.” “Well Clamp, I think it must be Jesus Christ. But I am as near to being perfect as it’s possible for a human being to be.”

He was also as near to a fall as it’s possible for a self-appointed angel to be. Poulson was not so different from the man impressing his grandeur upon Clamp when, on 3rd July 1972, a morning’s questioning in the Wakefield bankruptcy court left him sobbing, collapsed, led away to hospital and a diagnosis of severe shock; because he hadn’t changed, the shock was all the more severe when his web unravelled. When Poulson was eventually jailed in 1974, for seven years, he was described by the judge as “an incalculably evil man”. Poulson remained unrepentant. “I took on the world on its own terms, and no one can deny I once had it in my fist.”

His fist still reigns above, below and through the core of Leeds city centre. Dismantling his structural corruption took years and cost millions; dismantling City House would be just as expensive, and just as difficult.

Its concrete and steel is strong enough to elevate it not only above the water, the streets, the arches and the tracks, but above Poulson, and his ego, and his corruption, and his fall. City House is not only a fact of Leeds, it’s a feat, a marvel; Poulson’s grand scale meant that, occasionally, the talented architects and engineers he attracted to his office pulled off a grand achievement. Embedded in arches behind the old brick walls of Neville Street are glimpses of steelwork on a scale that will make you gasp the way the thirteen storeys of vacant office above does not.

That space is in the hands of developers now, who are trying to bring beauty and use to the tower; reasons to look at it, reasons to go in it. They have a task arguably more difficult than that of the engineers who embedded it into the city’s soil: connecting it to the city’s surface, and the city’s people.

John Poulson was part of everything, with a heart of nothing, and John Poulson fell; City House won’t fall. City House is above and below and through Leeds. Fill it, and one day it might really be part of it.


First published in TCT