Merrion Rhapsody

(This is the first post from our new contributor PB)

Working in the city centre allows aimless lunchtime wanderings, like a Northern English Flaneur, sometimes seeing how far it’s possible to walk in one direction before turning round to be a desk jockey again within the hour.  On these urban rambles it’s nourishing to look at parts of the city jigsaw and imagine how it all fits together.

One of the pieces I’ve been thinking about and one of Leeds’ least celebrated buildings is the Merrion Centre, grandly conceived as a ‘city within a city’.  It was built in 1962 at the height of the Brutalist period.  To call the Merrion Centre brutal is doing it a disservice.  Lividist would be better.  It’s a caged animal with various limbs working independently trying to escape.  The mock Georgian arcade and the Merrion market are like wounded hind legs but just wandering through it now shows how popular it is with hordes of students, shoppers, workers and bargain hunters.

There have been concessions to post-millennial modernity.  The south and east sides have had recent renovations.  The north face could become a new focus with the opening of the Leeds Arena.  For now, part of it is shrouded in mushy-pea-green nets to protect the unsuspecting from offerings of falling fist-sized pebbles that are dashed onto the outside of the multi-storey car park.

One of the teachers at Jacob Kramer Art College in 1989, the painter Patrick Oliver, claimed that the Merrion Centre didn’t exist.  A fairly wild accusation.  I never pressed him on the matter, because I was in awe of the man, and I was sure that it did exist, not least because I walked through it almost daily, passing the crazy Heath Robinson man-on-a-flying bike sculpture that dominated the lower main thoroughfare and came to life every hour.  I’ve always remembered what he said, and I do, from time to time, wonder exactly what he meant.

Maybe he had a very good reason for his assertion, maybe he wished it didn’t exist because it is and was such a concrete carbuncle, or because maybe it held difficult memories of an early fumble, or did he have fond memories of what occupied the space before the slabs were erected?  The Rockingham Street bus station, a static water tank and the Albion Brewery….. I don’t know what else it replaced when it was hoisted in 1962, could have been low cost back to backs, might have been where he was brought up.  Could be that in this city of fine buildings he thought it wasn’t worthy.

For me the winning element of the Merrion precinct is that it encapsulates a throughfare, people walk through it on their way to other places.  A similar thing happens in the St Johns Centre, while ‘The Core’ (nee Schofields Centre) is a road to nowwhere, hence it keeps getting pointless internal facelifts and hardly anyone ventures in.

In his book Salt, Mark Kurlansky referred to the paths used by animals in the US, pre human, trodden for 1000’s of years in order to get to salt pans, which would provide essential minerals.  These well-worn animal highways were then used by early humans and became trade routes and later highways.  Thinking of those animals finding the best route from A to B puts me in mind of the route through the Merrion Centre.  When Yorkshire was down by the equator, millions of years ago, hordes of wildebeest may have trod that very path on their way to a watering hole, and unwittingly laid the foundations.  So it could be that it’s success, the reason why it seems to have so many people in it, whether it exists or not, is that the backbone of it is built around and still is a pathway perfectly positioned.