The big picture: the decline and fall of a utopian social housing scheme

In 1934, the newly installed housing director of Leeds city council, RAH Livett, toured Europe inspecting the latest modernist housing blocks. Quarry Hill flats in Leeds city centre was subsequently modelled on Karl Marx Hof in Vienna. When the housing scheme opened in 1938, it offered 3,000 residents modern kitchens with integrated waste disposal, as well as communal nursery and launderette facilities in what was then the largest social housing complex in Britain. Within half a century, however, Livett’s utopian project had fallen into decay and disrepair and was abandoned and subsequently mostly demolished.

The photographer Peter Mitchell caught only the last act of the project’s life. Having settled in Leeds after college in London, he documented the terminal phase of Quarry Hill in his 1990 book, Memento Mori. George Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick supplied an introduction to that book, which also included documentary material about the initial community dreams for the flats and the way things turned out. Mitchell’s work was, Crick suggested, “no easy polemic against utopianism or modernism in architecture and planning, even though Quarry Hill failed”.

Recently, Mitchell – recognised as a key figure in the evolution of British colour photography – has been going through his archive of Quarry Hill photographs and has produced a new book, Epilogue, which includes previously unseen images. Here, the white horse grazing on the wasteland beside two of the derelict concrete blocks nods ironically toward arcadian ruined cottages, that staple image of the English pastoral, nature reclaiming human ambitions. The Quarry Hill area has been redeveloped as an arts and entertainment centre and is now home to the Leeds Playhouse and the BBC Yorkshire building. “Times change,” Mitchell notes of his long association with that place, “and I know there was no point in keeping Quarry Hill flats. But what it stood for might have been worth keeping.”

Epilogue: The Demise of the Quarry Hill Flats by Peter Mitchell is published by RRB Photobooks (£45)

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