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How I came to meet the lead designer of The High Point

Around seven or eight years ago when I was a freelance filmmaker between jobs (unemployed in other words) I found myself on one my many aimless and depressed days standing on the roof of Kirkgate Market with a fairly entry level digital camera. I didn’t know what I’d gone up there to take photos of but on that day I took my first proper photo of The High Point building.

Shortly after taking the above image I was asked to move on by a bafflingly angry security guard. Anyway, after I’d processed the image I was so pleased with the results it started me on a path away from filmmaking and into photography. It took me a few years and thousands of awful failed attempts to discover what kind of photography was for me, but one subject I kept going back to was The High Point and for years now I’ve photographed the building from all angles and in all weathers and lighting conditions. I couldn’t tell you in any specific detail what it is I find so compelling about the building as I'm still trying to put that into words myself. A psychiatrist or a very honest friend might offer me some insight on that. For some reason the building has captured my imagination and my on going exploration of the history of it is leading to some very interesting personal and professional developments.

A few months ago I finally made the decision to bring my work on the building together in one place and do something with it. Since vaguely announcing to the public that I’m “working on a project” and risking making a total fool of myself the help and support I’ve received from almost everyone I’ve approached has been staggering and it continues to grow. Anyway, I digress.

One day back in November while hours deep into an obsessive High Point Internet rabbit hole I discovered a short video about Brutalist architecture on Vimeo by a man called Matthew Tempest. Through further searching I discovered that Matthew was not only a fellow advocate of The High Point but was also the son of it’s lead designer John Tempest (who was also involved with the controversial and recently demolished Bradford & Bingley building, though not as it's lead designer). I approached Matthew by commenting below his video and was delighted when he very quickly replied and we began exchanging emails. After a while he agreed to pass on my details to his dad and introduce him to my project. It took a while before I could actually get to speak to John himself but I was very keen to pick his brain so I continued to pester Matthew. It turns out people have lives.

Luckily Matthew didn’t tell me to go away and leave his family alone and just before Christmas I finally received a call from John who I found to be courteous and incredibly forthcoming. We exchanged a few more phone calls and emails after that in which he was trying to get to the bottom of what it was I wanted from him, and on Monday this week I found myself in The Sparrow on North Parade on my day off having a very interesting and enlightening three hour conversation about architecture with the perfect gentleman that is John Tempest, the lead designer of the High Point building.

John is a native Bradfordian who studied architecture in Leeds in the early to mid 60s before going on to work with John Brunton & Partners for much of his professional life. Around this time the Bradford Permanent Building Society (BPBS) were expanding and in need of a new HQ, which was to eventually become the High Point. After a merger with Huddersfield in 1975 the building became the new HQ for the Bradford and Huddersfield Building Society, which later became the Yorkshire Building Society (YBS) in 1982.

John’s professional relationship with the Bradford Permanent Building Society and the design of their new HQ on Westgate began at a meeting with the board of directors on 1st September 1971 and ended the day the building was completed in 1973. He has not had anything to do with it since. That considered it must’ve been odd for John after all those years later to have a complete stranger track him down on the internet, ask to meet him and start sending him multiple photos of his own work. After all the High Point is not something he thinks about every day and it was completed 44 years ago. However, after agreeing to meet me in a public place and discovering that I’m not a dangerous internet psychopath John very kindly offered to write me up some notes from what he remembers and meet up again to continue our discussions. I couldn't be happier that he has shown such an interest in my project and agreed to take such an active role.

After leaving The Sparrow we took a walk through Rawson and onto John Street, stopping occasionally to discuss the surrounding architecture until we eventually arrived at The High Point. It had drizzled all day and the building always looks at its worst in the rain. As we stood on the corner of John Street looking up at the building he talked me through some of the design decisions and considered the current state of it. I couldn’t help but detect a hint of concern and maybe even sadness as he regarded the shameful neglect of the building.

Of course John is not ignorant to the criticism the building has received over the years and continues to receive. Despite the negative critiques John maintains that the project was largely a success and that the creative decisions made were not only carefully considered with regards to the local surroundings and building materials but were also respectful to the architectural history of Bradford and the surrounding areas. This is something I will go into in more depth at a later date. When I asked him if the constant barrage of hatred for High Point bothers him he paused, gave the question some thought for a few moments then smiled and simply replied “No.”

I am approaching this project from a photographic and journalistic point of view and I have a lot to learn about architecture. Thankfully John is very generous with his knowledge and insights and I will learn a lot from him. This post is only intended as a brief introduction and the things I discover through our discussions will form part of my final piece so there is a lot more to come.

Love it or hate it the discussion about the future of High Point isn’t likely to end any time soon as the building is simply impossible to ignore. I cannot imagine any other major city in the UK that would allow a structure of this size and dominance be left to slowly decay on the skyline. Then again the same could be said of much of Bradford's architecture, regardless of the era in which they were built. For what my opinion is worth I feel the building is a significant piece of our history as a city and I would love nothing more than see it come to life again in some form. I will be following the ongoing discussions closely.

Thanks for reading.

“For architects buildings are an end in themselves. For clients they are a means to an end."

– John Brunton.

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