Architecture as Metaphor

Quarry Hill, Leeds

Quarry Hill House, Leeds. Fondly known otherwise as the Kremlin.

I had a meeting in the Kremlin yesterday. No, not that one. The one in Leeds, the monumental testament to architectural excess glowering over the city centre at the end of the Headrow.

The Leeds Kremlin is in fact a building more properly known as Quarry House which houses two government departments: the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions. I think I’ve got that right. It changes so often, it’s hard to keep up. It has been known popularly as the Kremlin since it was built in 1990, which is interesting because it looks nothing like the real Kremlin. It is more an English idea of how one might imagine the Kremlin would look.

The real Kremlin is surprisingly beautiful; so much so that when I first saw it I simply couldn’t believe this was the fearsome place where (as I had been brought up to believe) those pesky Commies plotted the downfall of the West. Quarry House, on the other hand, looks much more like the sort of sinister institution from which Stalinist regimes might plot murder and mayhem. It has an air of hubristic totalitarian excess and callous indifference to its environs. It is, in short, an overlarge blot on the local landscape.

But after 20 years in Leeds, I had never seen properly inside, and I was amazed to discover the reality. The massive structure incorporates two quadrangle gardens, each referencing and informed by the regional countryside. On one side, ducks paddle on a pond fringed by Japanese-style paving and picturesque planting. Connecting the two courtyards is an internal passage with a beautiful carpet of blue and green waves streaming from side to side.

The most amazing spectacle however lies at the front. The monstrous oversized central glazed section (which plays a pivotal part in the disturbed sense of scale of the building viewed from outside) turns out to be a remarkable atrium window from within, providing stunning views across the city centre. I could have stood there for far longer, scanning the extraordinary panorama. And behind me on the rear wall was a vast abstract painting, not particularly good, but apparently originally intended to be lit and viewed from without at night. I would like to see that at night; but I can honestly say it’s a work of public art which has passed me by and no doubt most of the city. (I’ve got some great pictures, but can’t seem to download at present so I’ll save them for another day)

It felt like a world within a world, shielded from the reality of Leeds. The glowering fortress with its secret gardens and ducks; impenetrable from the outside, yet an all-seeing eye out onto the city from within.

Did the architects intend this as a spooky metaphor for government?


One response to Architecture as Metaphor

  1. Looks more like ‘Lubyanka’ would be a better Moscow parallel!

    But the surprise you experienced reminds me of when I went to a meeting in The Treasury, a great monolith in Whithall, which inside is open and minimalist and brightly lit by open central atriums. Maybe it’s ‘UK gov style 1990’?

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