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
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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
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 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.
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’.
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.
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.