21 Sep 2014

Wakefield, West Riding

There is a lot to like about Wakefield and a lot to admire, but a visit there will also make you despair about the impotence of planning and architecture in the face of the unbridled power of over-mighty business to dictate the future of our cities. The Hepworth Gallery and thoughtful renovation such as  Crown Court may give you hope but by the malls of the recently-built Trinity Walk shopping centre  you sit down and weep.

Not a backwater 

Few people realise that Wakefield is one of England’s dozen or so largest cities, with a population of 325,000. But this is because the West Riding of Yorkshire is about the only part of the country where cities have sensible boundaries, incorporating their natural hinterlands. So Wakefield’s population includes towns like Castleford and Pontefract and many other smaller places. Wakefield proper, the former county town and cathedral city, is really a much smaller place with a population more similar to Lincoln or Exeter. It resembles these, most especially in its lively market town feel and the strong visual relationship with the surrounding countryside. Today Wakefield has been conscripted into the ‘Leeds City Region’ which attempts to reinvent a sub-regional structure for the West Yorkshire Metropolitan County that Mrs Thatcher abolished in order to centralise power in Westminster. But Wakefield is not part of the Leeds conurbation and, like the other big West Riding towns, is very much a place with its own identity. Its skyline, dominated by the spires of its cathedral and civic buildings, is quite unlike the prospect of Leeds’ towers of Mammon.

Glad about Kirkgate renovation but pub needs to be on the 'to do' list too

A smart new station

Metro tiles return to the railways (after Homebase)

Wakefield has two stations but if you arrive at Kirkgate, close to the Hepworth gallery, you will wonder where the hell you have come to. The train service is appalling - those awful Pacers especially reserved for Northern Rail. Londoners could not conceive of how slow, rattley and uncomfortable they are, and of course they don’t have to. Kirkgate station is more desolate than you can imagine, although the impressive frontage buildings of the 1860s are , finally and commendably, being renovated. However the approach to the city centre remains utterly dismal. Westgate Station is on the main London line and has recently been rebuilt. The new station building is quite smart in a flashy way, a sleek black and glass box above a long, sinuous frontage. This faces a small green square which incorporates a jolly art work representing local landmarks stuck on poles. There is a covered bike park by the entrance (good) and (not so good) a ginormous new car park clad in shades of grey Trespa with a bit of yellow. However this looks sensitive and considered compared to what we will see later.

Well planned but poor finish

Opposite the station is Merchant Gate, a mixed use development by the English Cities Fund to a master plan by Carey Jones and landscape architects Camlin Lonsdale. It is then an example from an almost forgotten era when public agencies sought to promote the reshaping of cities along the general lines of Towards an Urban Renaissance. It half works; there is a recognisably urban structure with clear pedestrian routes and new public spaces; the scale is right and works well with surviving older buildings. What goes wrong is that the buildings are mostly executed cheaply and crudely, no doubt reflecting realities of provincial property values. Almost worse, the intended active uses of the ground floors, that shibboleth of New Urbanism, have just not materialised and anyway the units would only be suitable for the usual chain suspects. It is sad to visit Burgage Square, a reference to the ancient burgage plots of the medieval town, meant to evoke the distinctive characteristic of the adjacent urban grain. The masterplan promises it will provide ‘the setting for the public life of the new mixed-use quarter and conceived to offer a broad range of leisure opportunities akin to a river, where the backwaters and eddies provide refuge from the main flow of movement’. When I visited it was deserted apart from a few office smokers.

City sensibilities - the Civic Justice Centre

The Art House – a bit of a let down

Nearby the Civic Justice Centre, actually a spec office building by Carey Jones, is less pretentious but more successful. It is fortunate in being able to respond to a curve of the highway engineers’ new road, and to the Georgian chapel and graveyard behind. It is a modest building employing brickwork and a good rhythm of fenestration, and all the better for that. It contrasts with Allen Tod’s strident, over mannered pattern of cream and red brick for the new Art House opposite; this apparently at the behest of English Heritage. Given the number of characterful buildings in the city centre crying out for a new use, commissioning a fairly banal new building as art studios seems like a strange decision. The dignified old library on Drury Lane is being converted to studios, and nearby too is the Regency Orangery converted to a gallery.

Wakefield One – mixed feelings

The largest element of Merchant Gate is Wakefield One, new offices and library for the City Council, sitting behind the magnificent County Offices. Wakefield One is fusion architecture, taking up the more sober style and classic proportions emerging in the architecture of Austerity Britain, but unable to resist show-off Alsopesque playfulness. So below a severe palazzo cornice the fenestration arrangement is tricksy and window reveals are from a Dulux catalogue, although the cladding is from the sober end of the Trespa range. The large recessing windows at the foyer entrances display the names of all the constituent towns and districts of the borough – a nice touch, but the flat imprinted civic crest is horribly mean – even in Osborne’s Britain cities have a right to a bit of civic pride, surely. Internally the atrium is underwhelming but the building does deal effectively with the sloping site, something the private sector can’t manage any more, as we shall see.

Northern Civic – Coronation Gardens

Beside the Town Hall

Wakefield’s civic buildings, reflecting its historic county town importance, are its glory, and they make a fine ensemble along Wood Street as it gently rises up the hill. The original Town Hall is on Crown Court, a handsomely repaved and landscaped little square off the street behind the Mechanics Institute. The Mechanics is in that restrained and self confident Grecian style of the 1820s. Up the street the Town Hall of 1877 speaks eloquently of confidence and civic pride; the architect also designed the façades of London’s Savoy Hotel. Pevsner calls the style ‘free Tudor’. The front is symmetrical, but the great spectacle of the building is the asymmetrically placed tower crowned with a pyramid roof. Next to this are the severely classical Courts of 1810 with grand Greek Doric portico and pediment.

County Hall

Townscape and brutalism

West Riding County Offices at the brow of Wood Street are the most flamboyant, designed in 1894 in opulent metropolitan style, which Pevsner calls ‘a very effective composition with a polygonal corner tower crowned by a dome, the third main accent of the Wakefield skyline after the Cathedral and Town Hall’. But the setting of the County Offices is a disappointment: what should be a square is a strange space, Coronation Gardens – not sure whose coronation but there is a vicious statue of Queen Victoria and a war memorial with recent paving and landscaping. Around the space are a hotch-potch of buildings: a Regency terrace, a concrete multi-storey car park (not a candidate for listing) and an interesting 60s office tower, designed by the County Architect, and, highly unusually with a Civic Society plaque on it. The tower is faceted and stone faced with banding to Bond Street and has a nicely detailed entrance; unfortunately it is less interesting towards the gardens. To the north are the hulking volumes of dumb cladding in strident colours which everywhere signify ‘tertiary college plc’, in this case Wakefield College, complete with enrolment hype.

St John's Regency

St John's North - half way between Spitalfields and Leith

Wakefield was the centre of the Yorkshire clothing trade in the C18th but was quickly overtaken by Leeds and Bradford. Behind the Courts is the Tammy (Cloth) Hall of 1777, later converted to a police station with a Peeler’s head as key stone. The city’s early prosperity shows in the grandeur of its parish church, which has the tallest spire in the county and in the many Georgian buildings often stranded by later developments. There is no Georgian quarter but good Georgian terraces can be found at South Parade and around St John’s Church of 1795. In places like Westgate the eighteenth century town with verdant countryside close at hand can still be conjured. Wakefield sits on a low hill above the broad valley of the River Calder, and that relationship and the slope of the land is important to its townscape qualities. The three main historic streets, Westgate, Northgate and Kirkgate provide a fairly clear structure to the town although the plan becomes complex and confusing where they meet at the cathedral, which still looks like the parish church it used to be until 1888.

Westgate west

Westgate details

Wakefield is fun

Westgate east

Westgate is the most interesting street, an eclectic mix of Georgian survivals, unpretentious 19th century market town, the splendid later Victoriana and Edwardiana of grand banks, commercial buildings, music halls and exuberant pubs like the Elephant and Castle but let down by run of the mill 20th century shopping parades. Today Westgate has a somewhat sleazy, run down feel, the grand buildings given over to vertical drinking and its follow-on vices, but the Opera House has been renovated as a theatre and the Co-operative Society is being restored, the building at least. What makes Westgate really attractive despite the hideous dominance of traffic is the view down the hill to the nearby countryside beyond, reminiscent of Exeter. The other great thing about it is the courts and alleys to either side of the street, one of the most interesting features of the city. The group of narrow tightly packed streets including Cheapside and King Street are highly distinctive and almost Genoese in their urban intensity, despite a lot of gap sites. Although run down they are full of interest, a real ‘creative quarter’ if ever I saw one. They don’t need the heavy hand of ‘regeneration’ but a conservation strategy would be sensible.

King Street creativity

Happy streets and poorly dogs

Dutch inspiration - paving and planting at the Bull Ring

A network of friendly small shopping streets north of the Cathedral leads to the irregularly shaped Bull Ring. What should be a lively market is largely given over to  ‘shared space’; a half hearted effort in depressing grey paving. The Dutch who originated the concept would have done it so much better. Close by is David Adjaye’s ill-starred market building which the Council plans to demolish after only a few years, allegedly because the punters hate it. I assume Adjaye’s building is the token decent bit of architecture, the shame-faced price of planning permission for DLA’s abhorrent Trinity Walk shopping centre which expunged the old market. It is certainly striking in its grey rectitude and clearly was very carefully considered. But it is over-controlling for a market, which needs a vibrant anarchy. The open section under the grand roof works better than the enclosed market hall which, despite many empty stalls, seems claustrophobic, cluttered and confused, not big or open enough. Of course markets everywhere are struggling and it’s mostly not because of the buildings but the consequence of juggernaut retailers. But some of the most successful markets are actually the simplest, like Birmingham’s sheds. Adjaye’s building is a heroic failure.

Heroic failure – Adjaye's Market

The wrong trousers

Trinity Walk by contrast is a shameful commercial success. I have drawn comparisons between Wakefield and Exeter but sadly this does not extend to their new shopping centres. Whereas Exeter’s Princesshay intelligently provides for the retail demands of the chain stores within a context that respects the historic city centre and makes a virtue of this relationship, what you get at Trinity Walk is a complex that has just been thrust (that's the polite term) into the urban fabric. It is one huge box which capitulates to the crudest demands for standardised retail units and anodyne mallscape without any intelligence or design creativity. And because malls are only interested in their own plastic internal world and can’t do changes of level, you get the crassest relationship with the outside world – great fat backsides hanging out and forced into ridiculous combinations of cladding, alternately trying to be very jolly or not to be noticed at all – some hope of that!

Following the street layout (through gritted teeth)

With your face like a group hug ... like a world weary onion   

The sad reality beyond the facade

What is so utterly depressing is that Trinity Walk represents the new norm. There is a nod to urban design nostrums – one mall is an open street and the main drag is a glazed arcade, so it’s ‘permeable’ and that makes it ok, right? Well no, actually it makes it worse as it exposes the utter banality, cheapness and poverty of architecture of these new ‘streets’. Compare and contrast with the interest of the streets around, now overpowered by this hulking brute. This is not just the fault of the architects or the planners. It represents something which we should all be very ashamed of, cowardice in the face of market bullying and our failure to shape civilised cities.

The towers originally had more integrity - see here

South of the Cathedral is The Ridings, which was the first under-cover shopping centre in Yorkshire and is a bit of a period piece with its ‘exciting’ glass lift and food court. The Ridings is tucked away behind Kirkgate and more like an arcade on two levels – in fact an extremely long arcade and a bit claustrophobic. In part it is an extension of the high street shops on Kirkgate but it does have its backside of servicing and car parks; the car park above the newish Morrisons is, strangely, designed as a brick warehouse ruin. There had been much rebuilding of the shopping streets around the Cathedral in the 30s, 50s and 60s. Most of this is very standard, although occasionally interesting like the moderne Boots, and all employ more finesse and provide much more interest than you’ll find in Trinity Walk today. What makes this area attractive is the Cathedral, sitting right there opposite M&S on Kirkgate. Internally it is not exciting (unless you like Kempe’s stained glass windows, which I do), but its close relationship to the bustling street, the spire soaring above you, provides wonderful townscape and reassuring urban continuity.

Cathedral meets pedestrianisation – Upper Kirkgate 

Upper Kirkgate (near the Cathedral) is pedestrianised with a promenade of trees and seating, almost as though it was on the Mediterranean although the weather did not oblige on my visit. Lower Kirkgate is long and gets progressively more run down. It is dominated by unusual tower blocks with groups of projecting floors making the towers look precariously balanced. And of course all Wakefield’s tower blocks are now jazzed up with silly hats and jolly colours, which makes them look sad. Along the street beneath the towers are continuous serrated shops with canopies. It is a striking ensemble which would not be out of place in, say, Minsk. Opposite are the pleasing lines of a Deco cinema, but held behind netting indicating terminal stages of dereliction.

The fall of civilisation – (Lower) Kirkgate

It is a long and unrewarding walk down Kirkgate to the Hepworth Gallery. The road becomes completely traffic-dominated and hostile, but it could be redesigned to provide a broad landscaped sidewalk – not the Ramblas but you know what I mean. This could be extended to some sort of decent approach to Kirkgate station but seems unlikely to happen.

Uplifting, powerful and sober – a must see

One of the best new galleries in the country

The Hepworth Gallery is a world unto itself, beyond even the last fringes of the city centre, under the railway bridge and across the ring road gyratory, next to the River Calder. But it is the interesting world of boatyards with the drama of the water and the weir. The wider context of the area is light industrial sheds and Chipperfield’s concept seems particularly apt and honest for this location. After all the horrid shiny cladding we had seen in Wakefield, trying to make ugly-sister volumes look acceptable - FUN even - the light grey concrete geometric form of the Hepworth looks miraculous, well considered, calm and austere. It is monolithic but so carefully (and appropriately) sculpted; it rises from the water in the most dramatic way. The approach across the pedestrian bridge is a fine visual sequence, everything so carefully detailed - the external seating, the signage; minimalist but perfect. Internally the galleries provide excellent exhibition space, and the particularly fine Hepworth sculpture collection has a superb room with a window onto the weir. 5 stars.

Not a bad a start – Wakefield Waterside

Riverside character and potential

Warehouse renewal

Behind the Hepworth is a vast brick-built Victorian mill complex which is evidently intended to become further exhibition and art space, The Calder. Optimistically inviting you to see ‘What’s Inside?’ the answer seems to be nothing much yet but clearly it has enormous potential for the future. Next to this is Waterfront Wakefield, ‘a dazzling new waterfront destination’. Indeed, the waterfront of the broad Calder Navigation, with its grand locks to bypass the weir and the Hepworth, is impressive. The new development, which incorporates the renovation of the stone Navigation Warehouse, is a fairly standard mix of offices and apartments in brick, render, wood and assorted cladding. It’s not bad by waterfront regeneration standards, but evidently not the destination it was hoped to be as, like Burgage Square, none of the restaurant and bar units are let. The problem here is that the complex is just too isolated from the city centre, cut off by horrendously over-engineered roads. Pedestrians don’t stand a chance. Which is a pity as this is an interesting area, including the original medieval Calder bridge with its magnificent Bridge Chapel, one of the finest of the few survivals of such medieval chapels, albeit very heavily restored. The bridge alas leads nowhere except to a light industrial estate, beyond which you can pick your way to Kirkgate Station to ponder on the wasted opportunity whilst you wait for your train. Surely there is the potential to create a new urban park here which could draw together these important elements of Wakefield’s infrastructure, history and character in an environment of which the city could be proud?

Glimmers of hope beside the Calder

Better than the Shard

From its urban centre Wakefield surveys its green contrada. You can see the stupendous, listed, Emley Moor TV tower built in 1971 and, at 330m taller than the Shard, more iconic and much more useful. The West Riding moors are glorious countryside and here below Emley Moor you find the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the grounds of Bretton Hall. The YSP is genius, the interface of grazing sheep with Hepworth, Moore, Goldsworthy etc. It has rightly been voted Museum of the Year. The discreet visitor centre by Fielden Clegg Bradley leads to the striking Underground Gallery, not exactly underground but built into the slope with great south facing windows and a green roof (with robotic lawnmowers). This stages excellent exhibitions and there are smaller converted galleries nearby. Exhibitions are also held in the sober stone chapel of 1744 – currently a thoughtful Ai Weiwei collection of Chinese chairs. A mile or so across the valley is the Longside gallery, modern barns simply converted by Bauman Lyons, a masterstroke. The walk to them is through superb countryside.

After visiting Hepworth why not see The Yorkshire Sculpture Park?

Discreet Visitor Centre

Bretton Hall was built in 1720 but its present character with Greek Doric porch reflects major rebuilding in 1815. The beautiful classical Gatehouse is of a similar date. In 1947 Bretton Hall became a teacher training college and new buildings were provided on the wooded slope behind the hall. Pevsner says ‘they are lightly and freshly handled …. Any dependence on the style of the house has been avoided. Yet there is emphatically no clash …. The style of the C20 marries happily with (the Hall)’. More buildings in a similar vein were constructed in 1960-3. The campus was designed by the West Riding County Architect's department, the architect Derek Linstrum who later wrote West Yorkshire Architects and Architecture. His sensitive designs are good examples of the skill and dedication of municipal architecture of that period; well considered and proportioned with excellent, imaginative landscaping so that they fit well into the wider structure of the park. More recently the college was acquired by Leeds University and summarily closed down, so the complex is now empty. Of course the listed Bretton Hall will find a new use but the future of the light, small scale campus buildings, now apparently owned by Wakefield Council, seems very precarious. I was told I needed a permit to photograph them. Well somebody needs to take notice of their qualities before it's too late. One for the new C20 Yorkshire Group perhaps?

Erm, excuse me, don't you think this is really good?

Get on the Bretton Hall College case C20!

Thanks to Patrick Nixon for photos of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Bretton Hall College

3 Aug 2014

Sheffield: This is Hardcore

Sheffield is heroic. It’s like a boxer struggling back to his feet after a series of knock-down blows; down but not out. Sheffield is masculine, raw and powerful. But it is Pittsburg, not Detroit, still optimistic that its past, improbable, greatness can be rekindled. And it is often wrong-headed about how to do this.

Takes your breath away

An ungracious but entertaining city centre  High St

Clinging to the steep valleys at the edge of the Pennines its location is extraordinary and its views spectacular but the topography is challenging for a big city. And with a population of 550,000 Sheffield claims to be the fourth city of England, although this ranking doesn’t reflect the larger conurbations of Manchester, Liverpool or Newcastle. Sheffield is certainly a city of two halves, struggling post-industrial to the east around the husks of the heavy industry which had made it such an economic powerhouse, but highly des res to the west beyond the University, giving onto the superb Peak District landscape. Betjeman described Broomhill with its stone built villas as ‘the prettiest suburb in England’. The city centre is not gracious – Ian Nairn said ‘the old buildings are something of a joke’, but you can trace a Georgian grid and there is a coherent and characterful area of austerely detailed late Georgian houses on the slope plunging down the Don valley from the Cathedral. There are remnants too of the myriad cutlery workshops of independent craftsmen, the ‘little mesters’. The city had an industrial structure more like Birmingham than, say, Leeds, and has followed a similar economic trajectory.

Georgian townscape plunging down the Don Valley  Bank St

A post war pub  Park Hill

What makes Sheffield so interesting is the ambition and confidence of its post war planning and public building programme. Nairn said in 1961 ‘without any doubt, the buildings put up in the last ten years and projected for the next twenty are as interesting and exciting as all the older buildings in the city put together, and this, for Britain, is quite an achievement’. That new world was of course kicked in the groin by over 30 years of the government’s non-industrial policy. Sheffield’s Modernist heritage is now seen as a badge of economic failure. The city wants to put its future behind it and re-invent itself as an imitation of flash Leeds and Manchester’s northern cool, to make itself more ordinary. Now Osborne says he wants Sheffield to be a constituent of his ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Well there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth …. but whilst this may be a welcome and long overdue recognition of the North’s potential, adding HS3 to Alsop’s M62 City is hardly a realistic prospectus, more an enthusiastic Year 1 student’s flight of fancy.

Ostalgie for full employement 

As you approach the city by train its setting amidst the green hills and moors is remarkable. From a distance the city centre looks impressively metropolitan, with towers piled up on the hill above the Sheaf valley, although in closer views these quickly disappoint. On the other side of the valley the monumental and marvellously Brutalist Park Hill flats become the topography.

Strangely thrilling  Tinsley viaduct

From the M1 you see the different topography, the broad lower Don valley, an archetypal post industrial landscape, the steel mills replaced with sheds, malls and dereliction. Although Sheffield still produces prodigious volumes of steel, it just doesn’t employ many people. The valley is spanned by the iconic two-level Tinsley viaduct, an unusual steel box construction of 1968. Sadly, the adjacent much admired cooling towers that formerly announced your official arrival in The North were demolished in 2008, despite a strong campaign. Just so we know our place in privatised utilities world.

Well at least they haven't knocked that down  Institute of Sport

Skulking below the M1 viaduct is the glittery Meadowhall shopping mall, an utterly vacuous and claustrophobic incubator of consumerism, the anti-city centre of Sheffield. Built as a response to the ‘Full Monty’ wreckage of Steel City’s former raison d’être, it was a spectacular own goal of Sheffield’s planning, but other efforts to regenerate the swathes of dereliction were more imaginative, like the venues for the 1991 world Student Games. However the striking Don Valley stadium, Britain’s largest athletics venue other than the Olympic stadium, was closed in 2013 and has been demolished as part of the Olympic legacy. National scandal. Next to the demolition site is Faulkner Brown’s English Institute of Sport, elegant in a confidently modest way, despite its size.

Attercliffe city centre

Sheffield still looks convincingly industrial along Attercliffe Road, which also retains the ghosts of extraordinarily grand shops, commercial buildings and the amazingly exuberant Adelphi Cinema of 1920. Closer in to the centre industry gives way to a post-apocalyptic world of Tesco Extra, in the most lurid (red) cladding I have ever seen, so awful I laughed out loud, though future generations may appreciate it. Next to this and in silent reproach are the magnificent Wicker arches of the closed Manchester-Sheffield railway. These frame the view of Wicker, once an important high street as can be seen in its eclectic buildings, which now eke out a marginal existence as some interesting alternative shops.

Welcome to Sheffield

Sheffield is just two hours from St Pancras. Sheffield station, if not quite as stupendous as the Midland’s London outpost, is extremely fine and an excellent introduction to the city. Designed by Trubshaw in 1905 it is unlike the Midland’s other great stations, being classical and built in ashlar stone rather than brick and terracotta. Like Nottingham and Leicester it has a magnificent porte-cochère, here long and low and now enclosed in glass to provide a fine new entrance, part of an excellent restoration and enhancement scheme initiated by the city with typical initiative and determination. It is a pity that the qualities of the space are now debased by the indiscriminate and cretinous advertising of the carpet bagging privatised rail companies.

In fact, you're more than welcome

Sheffield’s topography is a challenge as well as an asset. Its post Blitz reconstruction spectacularly ballsed up the relationship between the station and the central business district up the hill, which makes the city initially incomprehensible to visitors. Nairn talks (approvingly) of plans to completely deck over the Sheaf from Park Hill to Castle Market. Well, that would have been heroic, and certainly disastrous, but it didn’t happen. Sheffield’s city planners have boldly tackled the inherited disconnect between the station and the city centre by creating a new pedestrian axis. The formerly dismal setting of Midland station has been transformed by the creation of Sheaf Square with its inspired steel wave water feature. This both enfolds the square and leads you towards the city centre via Howard Street, which has been repaved with impressive confidence. It incorporates artworks and water features with some amusing mosaic bling: someone had clearly been to Barcelona. And it works – at least as far as Arundel Gate.

The successful cultural quarter 

Persistence Works Studios

Opposite Sheaf Square is the Cultural Industries Quarter, a considerable success which has helped to animate Sheffield’s lively arts and music scene with new studios and galleries, mostly conversions of modest older buildings. There is a striking conversion of thirties car showrooms, all jazzy faience and Crittall windows, now cinemas and workspace. Nearby, the ill fated silver drums of the National Centre for Popular Music by Branson Coates, converted to a students’ union. The best new building by far is Persistence Works by Fielden Clegg Bradley, completed in 2001 and still looking very sharp.

Arundel Gate welcomes you

Hells bells

Arundel Gate, inspired apparently by Manzoni, is a dual carriageway reinforced by massive, lumpen and inwardly focused buildings lacking any meaningful relationship to the over-engineered street or indeed to each other. It forms a very effective defensive palisade to the motte of the city centre. It didn’t have to be like this, as Birmingham’s Smallbrook Ringway shows. Worthy attempts to improve things by narrowing the carriageways and introducing pedestrian crossings are dashed by the sheer awfulness of the buildings such as the black glass Novotel, a burly gangster with shades, which blocks your direct route to the central area. This dates from the ‘desperate response to de-industrialisation’ phase of Sheffield’s planning history, circa 1990, along with Meadowhall. Next to it is Conran’s dumbed down 32 storey tower, which should have been so much better. If Allies and Morrison’s car park of faceted steel panels is also defensive it is at least appropriate, arresting and visually satisfying.

Tacky additions

The original buildings of Sheffield Hallam University, designed by Gollins, Melvin, Ward and Partners between 1953-68, also turn their backs on Arundel Gate, but the 12 storey Owen Building and the lower Surrey and Norfolk Buildings are ‘impressively simple and well related’ (Pevsner City Guide). Their street relationship is not improved by various tacky additions but the atrium between the blocks, introduced in 1992, is a dramatic and successful space.

A real come down  Sheffield Bus Station

Across Pond Street is the vast, amorphous, underused and deeply dispiriting bus Interchange. Sheffield’s bus services, once famous for cheap fares and high patronage, were naturally privatised by a vindictively ideological government. The poverty of the environment of bus stations, and indifference to their architecture, is one of the really telling class issues in Britain. Yet few things can lift the quality of a city as much as well designed public transport infrastructure, as the Jubilee Line stations show, or Southampton University bus station for example and indeed Sheffield railway station. The sensible thing would be for Hallam to extend its cramped campus onto this site and for Sheffield to commission a series of inspiringly designed smaller bus terminals, better related to the city centre. But that would require decent funding and effective regulation of buses, so no chance then.

Sheffield fights back  with swimming and slides

North from the station along the traffic hell of Sheaf Street you spy a shiny new building, all glass, cladding, curves and angles which is, well, not as bad as most of its genre. But it is not clear what it is. I guessed a PFI tertiary college, partly because of the aggressively authoritarian signs – private property, you are on CCTV, no smoking, no loitering and definitely no skateboarding. So fuck off then. Turns out it is Electric Works, creative industries workspace designed by Leeds’s finest, Carey Jones. Beyond this is Pond’s Forge, another legacy of the World Student Games, a strange building where a bog standard leisure centre seems to have collided with what would have been the impressive proportions and restrained classicism of the international pool.

The exciting Park Square

Park Square is one of those fanciful Sheffield squares that are really giant roundabouts, this one on steroids. But the good thing is that, like Fiveways in Brum, it is so big the pedestrian walkways become almost majestic in scale. From the Supertram bridge you can survey the evolution of Sheffield’s visions of the future.

Park Hill - still an amazing post war achievement

Do you remember the working class?

Park Hill flats, which command the eastern slopes of the Sheaf Valley, are undoubtedly one of the greatest constructs and constructions of the C20th. Conceived by the City Architect J. Lewis Womersley in 1953, and designed by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, it was completed in 1961 and became hugely influential giving Sheffield international acclaim. Nairn said ‘from the outside the flats look terrifying; towering slabs form a wall half a mile long (but) inside the scheme this feeling disappears; each flat has a glorious view …. and the effect of a big block is almost taken away by the brilliant use of the street-decks’. But really the layout is more about the generous landscaped courtyards than the famous 'streets in the sky'. Park Hill was freighted with political symbolism from the start and, as a product of idealistic socialism, it is hardly surprising that the right wing made this a totem for municipal housing failure. After decades of deliberate neglect of the structure, and its listing in 1998, it is richly symbolic that Urban Splash-isation was the only politically acceptable renovation solution, in other words pouring public money into the yuppiefication of spacious, well located public housing. Read Owen Hatherley on this and it will make you weep. In fact only a small part of the complex has been renovated. Despite Urban Splash slick advertising, like its marketing appropriation of the graffiti ‘I love you will U marry me?', renovation progress has been remarkably slow in the two years since our last visit, but now virtually all the council tenants have been evicted and the flats are tinned up. You can still wander through the empty, eerie courtyards, which retain their remarkable spatial qualities and legibility and admire something that was truly exceptional.

Told you it was hardcore

Tasty refurbished concrete but new sickly panels  

The renovation of this magnificent Brutalist structure (to designs by Studio Egret West and Hawkins Brown) is obviously to be welcomed and certainly has its good points, like punching through to create a four storey high entrance. But why does the social cleansing of the old Park Hill have to be celebrated with garish yellow to red panels, so at odds with the character of the buildings? Hatherley perceptively points to the irony that Urban Splash fetishises the concrete Brutalism of the flat interiors whilst deliberately emasculating the extraordinarily raw power of the structures themselves with these spivvy colours, to make it look more like standard apartment clichés.

Beyond Park Hill (and the surprisingly sylvan villas at the top of the hill) is the even larger Hyde Park complex. This was, like Southwark’s Aylesbury estate compared to Heygate, a step too far in scale and severity, and the original design has been changed beyond recognition by demolitions and recladding. Strung out along the expressway below, which leads to the M1, are a numbing array of boxy brick and render flats with cheap tin roofs, the sort of thing which is the approved norm in regeneration-world. You wonder why nothing has been learnt.

Always a winner: canal-side conservation

North of the expressway is an attractive enclave around the restored canal basins of Victoria Quay. Some good stone buildings and viaducts, traditional brick warehouses, the precocious steel frame and concrete 1895 Straddle Warehouse, water, boats and some very nice paving just about absorb the deadly dull Hilton hotel. The view back towards the city centre between the warehouses is the glittering vacuity of the iQuarter tower, by Cartwright Packard, a typically place-neutral piece of recently promoted regeneration. Next to this is North Bank with its clichéd wonky piloti, marketed as ‘a striking piece of architecture which defines the progressive nature of Sheffield’. Designed by BDP it won an RIBA award and is certainly better than Aedas’s Wicker Riverside which looks like a nervous breakdown. This is the sort of thing Sheffield wants to replace Castle Market, opposite on the south bank of the Don. But at Lady’s Bridge you can feast your eyes on one of the most striking sights in Sheffield: Royal Exchange Buildings of 1899, a riot of glazed brick, crow steps, battlements, chimneys and lovely iron work, and the smaller Royal Victoria Buildings, which will restore your soul.

What, who, when, why, how? Brilliant. 

Goodness me

Makes you want to write a song about it

So that's what Richard Hawley was on about  Lady's Bridge

Nairn loved Castle Market, completed 1965 and part of Womersley’s extraordinary legacy to the city (the actual architect was Andrew Darbyshire). 'Like all of Sheffield, it has a sloping site; a simple concrete and glass exterior conceals an elegant dovetailing of two market floors with gaps in the upper floor to look down on the lower and a half-way level which runs into the pre-war meat and fish markets – a staggering perspective of hooks and flesh …… everything flows together, as it ought to, and so shopping becomes a pleasure not a chore. And because it has been designed carefully and sensitively, life comes rushing up to meet it – as it always will, given the chance'. Like Park Hill, Castle Market was a symbol of the excitement and confidence of Sheffield in the sixties. Its sculptural form is thrilling, especially the abstract skyline composition of stairs and ventilation towers and the spiralling ramps to the rear. The adjacent two-level precinct of shops has a wonderfully confident, spare geometry which was evidently too subtle for the Council and subsequently jazzed up with silly ironwork, like the entrances to the market itself. All life has now been crushed out of the market, forlornly shut up and like the precinct awaiting the bull dozer, 'cos it was a concrete monstrosity, see. Lets have some cheap, shiny, wonky offices and apartments instead. And exhume some poxy foundations of a castle demolished in 1648 with a fake reconstruction as a tourist attraction. God strewth!

Castle Market democracy to be replaced with a symbol of feudalism 

Across Waingate admire the Magistrates Court of 1978 with its very robust rough textured ribbed concrete. Above this the main elevation has a smooth concrete grid with elegant glazing. You enter via a thin bridge across an internal courtyard. This is confident stuff. Further up the hill the Old Town Hall, built in classical style between 1807 and 1897, is empty and mouldering, euphemistically awaiting a new use. Down Castle Street see the fine granite splay of the Co-op department store, designed 1959 with nice contemporary features. Of course it is empty. It now faces a Premier Inn of spectacular banality, basically stacked-up and rendered portacabins. At this point Sheffield seems terminally dispiriting, but it does get better.

Towards Castle Square

The once famous ‘hole in the road’ at Castle Square, which made subways cool, has been filled in, another step towards urban anonymity. Arundel Gate leads south towards the ‘Heart of the City’. After the traumas of the eighties and the appeasement of Meadowhall, Novotel etc, the city recovered its nerve and initiated this ambitious and imaginative project to create a series of new public spaces and public facilities – urban regeneration in its true sense.

Pedestrian friendly stuff near the Crucible


Up Norfolk St the stark, angular elevations of the Crucible Theatre of 1971 clearly express its ambition to be cutting-edge. Next to this is a quintessentially fin-de-siècle extravaganza, the Lyceum theatre and, facing Surrey Street, the Beaux Arts Central Library and Graves Arts Gallery. The new square between them is partially successful but a somewhat austere space, the big sculpted planters seeming faintly aggressive. Facing the square is the superb Winter Garden, the design competition for which was won in 1995 by Pringle Richards Sharratt, together with the adjacent Millennium Galleries. The winter garden is a brilliant idea for a city centre and the design does not disappoint. Twenty one parabolic arches of laminated strips of untreated larch together with slender purlins and glazing bars create a fine glass house, the central section 22 metres high. This is inspired architecture and civic enterprise at its best, an object lesson in regeneration, but it is a pity it is not better maintained, whilst the moronic music pumping out of its café unfortunately ruins the intended tranquility.

The Millennium Galleries which front Arundel Gate are deliberately understated. They are intended as part of the new pedestrian axis from the station to the city centre but the route through the building struggles to assert its legibility against the adjacent bullying Novotel. The lower level, giving onto a small plaza, contains a café. The upper level has exhibition space and an excellent permanent collection of metal and silverware, the galleries cleverly lit by natural daylight. Through the Winter Garden is another, irregularly shaped, new square flanked by fairly standard new offices, restaurants and a hotel. These commercial elements have attracted criticism, but seem quite decent to me compared with much of Sheffield’s recent development.

Everything working well together

Quite utopian really

The Peace Gardens are the ‘pièce-de-resistance’ of the Heart of the City, a master-stroke of design that makes this immensely popular space feel like an exotic oasis. They provide just the right balance between intimacy and spectacle. The water is both tranquil and exciting, the integral artworks are impressive and fun, the herbaceous borders very welcome in the hard world of city centre paving. The gardens provide the setting for the florid French or Flemish style Town Hall with its swaggering campanile. This grand town hall was a long time coming, compared to Leeds or Manchester, begun in 1890 with extensions in the 1920s, reflecting the city’s late developing civic pride. Nairn says the detail is right - but ‘it is absolutely stone cold dead as a building’, a typically inscrutable announcement.

One of the moments when Vincent Harris did alright 

By contrast, he says the City Hall (concert hall) is ‘dourly and urgently alive’. Designed by Vincent Harris in 1920 its ‘Classical Re-Revival style’ is not what you would expect Nairn to praise, but his great gift was to confound expectations and received wisdom. He was especially struck by the semi-circular apse at the rear, with giant columns rising above the hall supporting a colossal curved entablature to astonishing effect.

70s ceramic brutalism – Fountain Precinct 

To either side of the City Hall are interesting offices from the seventies and eighties. Fountain Precinct, clad in buff and brown tiles, has a generous open ground floor, a very civic gesture. The former NUM offices with thin columns and stripped down stone with black glass are unusually confident, an example of what might be called contextural Modernism. They are empty and fenced off, but with planning permission for a 24 hour casino and restaurants. So endeth the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire.

More high quality public space stuff 

City Hall faces Barkers Pool, another in Sheffield’s great series of public spaces; it really knows how to do water features. Opposite is Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall’s 1965 John Lewis store, clad in their characteristic white tiles. This was a prototype for the ubiquitous JL box, but here it seems well mannered, with a happy relationship to Barkers Pool. However its future is uncertain, apparently not now big enough for the retail behemoth. Sheffield’s retail offer, like its other services, is surprisingly small for such a big city. Of course Meadowhall didn’t help. Now the city is promoting a big expansion with a development along the lines of Liverpool One – open (privatised) streets and real buildings designed by a pride of architects. The masterplan by BDP involves shifting JL several blocks to the rear in order to ‘anchor’ the new scheme, but the market is not playing ball; Hammersons have ditched the project and now the City with admirable enterprise is trying to reboot it. The problem is that the masterplan goes against the grain of the Georgian grid and requires the demolition of interesting streets, buildings and townscape, including the 1965 store and the contemporary, diminutive, well mannered tower of the Grosvenor Hotel, once a showpiece of the rebuilt city. This is a difficult dilemma, especially given the government’s recent approval for a major expansion of Meadowhall. Yet Sheffield loses a lot of its identity in pursuing what really ends up as a standardised, glossy, in-town shopping centre, which will anyway take years to achieve - a self fulfilling prophecy of blight and neglect. Ironically Telephone House, opposite the Grosvenor and a real bit of rough from the same era, is apparently to stay and be duffed up as ‘luxury apartments for students of discerning taste’.

The Moor

Power (the substation)

If Castle Market was an outstanding example of post war retail planning and architecture, The Moor, rebuilt after the Blitz in plodding style, represents its mediocrity, although there are some interesting touches like the crumpled corner of Fox House. Now relegated to ‘value retailing’ it will be helped by the relocation here of the market to a new building largely tucked away behind the shops. This falls between an attempt at ‘architecture’ and a basic shed but the stalls still provide a lively atmosphere. The Moor is terminated by Moorfoot, which Owen Hatherley calls a ‘thrillingly paranoid Cold War megastructure’, a red brick Ziggurat of government offices from 1978. You have to admire the balls. Nearby the Brutalist Moore Street sub station by Jefferson, Sheard and Partners (1965) is an absolutely stunning tectonic creation, and quite rightly has become a Sheffield totem, its allure enhanced by dramatic lighting at night.

And then the planning department took a trip to Barcelona

Division St, leading towards Sheffield University, is a lively place. Its mix of ‘heritage’ buildings from the stone classical Water Works offices at Barkers Pool to mad Victorian polychromatic brick facing Devonshire Green, and with interesting former metal works, chapels and a stunning Mussolini-esque former fire station on the way, manages to absorb newer infill which is mostly not very exciting. Devonshire Green is another, rather charming, attempt at Park Güell.

Division St

What makes Division St buzz is students – lots of them. There are over 60,000 students studying at the two universities, hence the array of bars and restaurants. The universities, as in the other Core Cities, are huge drivers of Sheffield’s new economy, and their dynamism, creativity and financial clout has a profound impact on most aspects of city life. Whilst this is overwhelmingly positive you might wish for a more considered, informed and intelligent approach to procuring new buildings. In 1967 Nairn wrote ‘the university scheme has gone from success to success, an amazingly consistent achievement, without a bad building, yet completely free from monotony …. Perhaps the best place in the country to see modern architecture in all its variety settling down happily with older styles and shapes’.

Mum, I think I'll go to Leicester Uni instead

You could hardly say that about Sheffield University today. If you arrive by tram you will immediately perceive the problem. The tram stop is in the middle of a roaring ring road. Around you a visual chaos of university buildings, some just boring, some interesting like the quirky recording studios built literally like a sound box, others simply vile like RMJM’s computer library in hideously strident blue-green. Are they really so lacking in confidence? The new Jessop West building is all attention-seeking strips of coloured glass and it is difficult to agree with the architects, Sauerbruch Hutton, that it ‘forms a harmonious relationship with the adjacent Victorian and Edwardian buildings’. In any event few of these survive – the area is now a construction site for the huge new Diamond Building, which will feature an all enveloping diamond lattice screen (shades of Mecanoo’s Birmingham library rings) and will be ‘a statement to celebrate the city’s Engineering excellence and heritage’. Or just a simplistic marketing device – too early to say.

I can see why Steve Parnell likes concrete

The campus has the misfortune of being divided by two major roads, but at least with Western Bank it turns this to advantage. A quad has been created taking you below the elegant rising viaduct carrying the A57 and thus providing a dramatic entry towards the original university buildings, hard red Accrington brick in an Edwardian Tudor style. Next to this is the 1971 Alfred Denny Building, originally conceived by Gollins et al as a curtain wall but built of brick to ‘fit in’. It is actually a very powerful and uncompromising statement, not fitting in at all.

Pitch perfect - The Arts Tower

World class

But you will have come to see the Library and Arts Tower, sublime buildings of another era and another world. Designed by Gollins et al as part of a masterplan for the post war expansion of the university, the horizontal library was built in the late fifties and the superb Miesian tower in the early sixties. They are amongst the best post war buildings in the country and the view from the adjacent Weston Park is just wonderful. The clarity of design and the carefully minimalist detailing are an absolute joy, like the relationship between the tower and the ground plain, and between the tower and the library, linked by a first floor bridge. You ride the tower in a paternoster. It is all the purest satisfaction. Across Weston Park is the quiet and organic Geography and Planning Building, a series of hexagons designed by William Whitfield in 1968.

There's more of it!

There is a lot more of the campus east of the ring road but much of this seems run of the mill, the tone set by the pompous Wrenaissance Sir Frederick Mappin Building and reaching its nadir with the weak classicism of buildings like Mappin Court by HLM, 1991. But opposite this and contemporary with it is the red brick box of St Georges’s library by BDP. The Pevsner City Guide says ‘minimal classical details point to the influence of Aldo Rossi and Italian Neo-Rationalism’.

Activity and banality

An unfortunate downside of the great expansion of universities is the flood of dismal, cheap and anaemic student barracks going up in all big cities, and of which Sheffield has more than its fair share: telling evidence of the commodification of – well just about everything. By comparison with this dreadful norm West One, a savage and overpoweringly arrogant pile by Carey Jones glowering over Devonshire Gardens, does at least has some guts and drama.

West St

West St leads back to the city centre, an inherently handsome street but scarred by some crass new buildings as described above. Its former role for upmarket shopping is suggested by the quality of buildings like the super terracotta Boots store, designed by Bromley, as is their original department store in Nottingham. Nearer the centre the Edwardian elegance gives way to more stripped down inter war motifs. However the street gets overwhelmed by overscaled and dumbly articulated flats. It is not just the crude disjunction of scale; if these buildings had any design interest whatsoever the scale would be worthwhile, but they are just gross.

Are we in Leeds? Velocity Tower

Still made in Sheffield (off Hillbroad Lane)

An alternative route back from the university along Hillbroad Lane (actually the A57) shows you an interesting juxtaposition of Sheffield’s traditional industrial base of many workshops all jumbled up in the valley with the expected future, the vast concrete office blocks of the formerly Midland Bank Pennine Centre (to me at least impressive), and the present future represented by the glassy speculation of ‘Velocity Village’ opposite. Hardly a village, it’s fifteen stories high. I have no idea where velocity comes into it, or why it is here.

Paradise Street

Nearby is Georgian Paradise Square, one of the townscape delights of Sheffield, but not quite what it seems as the square had become largely derelict and was restored and partly rebuilt in the sixties. The town houses face across the steeply sloping setted square given over entirely to car parking. Sheffield Cathedral is higher up the slope. Essentially a medieval parish church done over in 1880 with advice from George Gilbert Scott, there were grand plans for its extension in the twenties and the fifties, but what you see today is actually much more modest, what Nairn calls ‘an eerie design by Ansell and Bailey which …. inspires astonishment if not respect’.

The Cathedral

From the Churchyard, with the proud Cutlers’ Hall opposite, you can take a tram through the Don Valley to Meadowhall. Forget the city centre, this is the new powerhouse for the Sheffield City Region as intended by Osborne and his pals. Whitehall has rubber stamped a major extension to the shopping centre for Lord Wolfson of Next, that champion of planning, overturning Sheffield’s sensible planning decision to focus new retail in the city centre. So much for localism.


Even worse are the plans for Meadowhall to be the HS2 station for Sheffield. But hang on, this is four miles from the city centre; how is that going to help improve the accessibility and commercial attraction of Sheffield? Surely this project is intended to regenerate our big northern cities, not sideline them. The implications of HS2 are disastrous for Sheffield, which, like Nottingham, has foolishly supported this folie de grand projects that ends up marginalising their city centres, the focus of regeneration strategies. The irony for Sheffield is that journey times to London from Midland station could be drastically reduced at a fraction of the cost of building HS2, and without the idiotic need to change trains at Meadowhall. London expresses could use the shorter and underused Erewash valley line rather than diverting through congested Derby, and will anyway be further speeded up by planned line improvements and electrification to the Midland route, which would benefit all passengers. And why would Sheffield need HS3 when there is already the disused Great Central line to Manchester via the Woodhead tunnels? The imperative to electrify and speed up services to Leeds now, not in 2032, is obvious to all outside the circles of Whitehall mandarins and ministers.

Gleadless Landscaping

Deserves better maintenance and refuse collection

For more than thirty plus years after the war Sheffield was an economic powerhouse, ambitious, innovative and confident. This was expressed in some powerful architecture which has yet to be fully appreciated, largely because its purposes have been trashed by an overwhelming conservative political agenda. Gleadless is a good example, a large estate of Council houses and flats, designed by Womersley and contemporary with Park Hill. The site is dramatic – a steeply sloping wooded valley – and the response to that is hugely imaginative, especially in the Rollestone area. The terraces and flats make a great virtue of the difficult terrain, and as at Gaer (Newport) and Penrhys (Rhondda) on similar precipitous sites, create striking relationships. The views are spectacular, the landscaping is magnificent, using the original trees in the most picturesque way. The house designs use a simple language of modernism in a sophisticated manner; it could be Span housing, but being in depressed Sheffield, this has no cachet. This is still a community where the children play hop-scotch on the pavement but it is neglected; the paint is peeling, there is too much litter, the pubs have closed.

So much skill and variety

A world heritage site? Get on the case C20!

In Berlin recently we visited the housing schemes at Britz and Seimensstadt which, like Gleadless, are remarkable examples of social housing design. They have been declared World Heritage Sites. Their ambience, maintenance and prospects are a world away from Gleadless. Why? Well it's because of the impoverishment and disempowerment of industrial cities like Sheffield in the last thirty years, which was deliberate and gratuitous.

Imagine if this was in north London

What the Meadowhall-isation of the conurbation shows us is the unfettered power of capital and the impotence of local democracy. Within that reality Sheffield continues to struggle for its future by planning often creatively and with considerable energy, if sometimes wrong headedly. Sheffield is not short of patronising advice about how to accommodate itself to the realities of the government’s neo-liberal agenda. But just don’t believe that we are all in this together.

A much fuller critique of Sheffield’s post war and recent architecture and planning is found in Owen Hatherley’s ‘Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain’ (Verso)

Ian Nairn’s essay on Sheffield has been re-printed in Nairn’s Towns (Notting Hill Editions)

The Sheffield Pevsner City Guide by Ruth Harman and John Minnis (Yale University Press) is very comprehensive, and published in 2004, relatively up to date. It is invaluable.