Sunwin House inspiring next generation of arts and enterprise organisations

Built for the City of Bradford Co-operative Society in 1935-6, Sunwin House is a beautiful and rare example of the International Modernist style of architecture. The architect WA Johnson travelled widely throughout Europe in search of inspiration and was particularly influenced by the work of the German Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn and his design for the Schocken department store in Stuttgart.

When his tribute opened, the Co-operative Emporium was the envy of its rivals, with the first escalators to be installed anywhere in a Co-op store and lifts and stairs tucked around the edges of the open shopping area. The building even warrants a mention in Pevsner Architectural Guides, companion to Britain’s most significant buildings of the era.

Times change, as do consumer habits, and the doors of old Sunwin House have remained shut for the last decade since TJ Hughes gave up the ghost. But hopes are rising that a city partnership could bring together an exciting new purpose for this Grade II-listed building. The Architectural Heritage Fund has awarded a £5,000 project viability grant to Freedom Studios Ltd to start exploring potential new uses for Sunwin House.

Alex Chisholm, co-artistic director at Freedom, said: “We are thrilled that the AHF has shared our vision and belief in the future development of Sunwin House and its potential impact on Bradford. The partners – Freedom Studios, Impressions Gallery, BCB Radio, East Street Arts and Yeme Architects – are passionate about bringing this iconic building back to life for Bradford, and the AHF has given us that vital first support to do so.”

Matthew McKeague, CEO of the AHF, visited the building and met some of the partners behind the project. He said: “Sunwin House is an impressive building, which retains many of its original, high quality features. It represents the challenges facing many similar stores and shops but equally an opportunity for the likes of Freedom Studios and its partners to reimagine what we want from these buildings and what we want our city and town centres to provide for us. This grant will help support the development of their exciting plans.”

The plans aim to rejuvenate Sunwin House through art, culture and enterprise and would strengthen what we are calling Bradford’s “ring of culture”. This is the growing network of institutions new and old that circle City Park and include the Science and Media Museum, Alhambra Theatre, NEC Arena, Impressions Gallery, Art 21 Gallery, Brick Box Rooms, Kala Sangam Arts Centre, Bradford Playhouse and St George’s Hall. All strong players in their own right. Together, this is one ring to rule them all.

In a concept visual created by Yeme Architects, Sunwin House is presented as a multi-functional space to host the merged activities of established organisations and businesses.  These would include a culture hub with Bradford Literature Festival and City of Film at ground floor level, a multi-use event space on the first floor, an arts hostel and communal kitchen on the second floor, enterprise co-working space and training centre on the third floor and rooftop with allotments and pop-up cinema. Giving a new lease of life to Sunwin House could drive new interactions in the city, broaden collaborations between arts and enterprise, stimulate footfall and tourism, reflect the dynamism of our young population and raise aspirations. I’m looking forward to it already.

Of course, there is a long way to go to transform this idea into reality, not least making the finances stack up in a way that works for all parties, but this is a big and bold vision to reimagine a landmark high street building for the post-internet age. It offers a stage for our brightest and best homegrown organisations. And it would provide another compelling reason for visitors to come to our city centre, day and night.

In our economic strategy for Bradford District, one of our priority actions is using our unique architecture, heritage and cultural assets to create compelling investment propositions and an environment for growth. We have a wealth of historic buildings that are both highly attractive and highly affordable. By building partnerships between local, regional and national organisations, we are developing ways to bring them back into use.

The original architect WA Johnson went to Europe to find his inspiration. He found it in Stuttgart at the Schocken department store. That building was demolished in 1960. Johnson’s tribute is still standing tall. And I’m delighted to see the old Emporium providing new inspiration for today’s generation of arts and enterprise organisations.

• Dave Baldwin is chairman of Bradford Economic Partnership and chief executive of Burnley Football Club

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