Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Steel Yourself

An extended footnote to an already long chapter in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, in which I stalk Sheffield, again. I don't know why I care so much about this place - it's weird, creepy even. Southampton obsesses me because it's where I'm from, I dote on south London because it's where I've chosen to be, Moscow or Berlin intrigue for politico-historical reasons, Warsaw opens itself up because my girlfriend lives there and tries to negotiate the space inbetween, but Sheffield? An ex-steel city of half-a-million or so inhabitants that I've never lived in, and only visited for the first time in spring 2009 (I've been half a dozen times since, but nonetheless)? It's like indulging an obsession with a person you've only been on one date with. It's like stalking, and not in the Tarkovsky/Strugatsky sense. I said this to A as we walk towards the Supertram bridge, and she said derisively 'you sound like you're rehearsing your memoirs'. Maybe so. But this isn't about me - honestly - it's about what this place seems to represent. Places like the photograph above. It's one of the many Things That Are Not There, and we will come to it presently. First...

Tend to Offend

We begin, as one should, in Castle Market. This is a complex, multi-level structure built into a slope in the depressed north of the city centre, where the poorer Sheffielders go to buy everyday whatnot and enjoy a cup of tea or several in its excellent grease-caffs. It's one of the earliest, and most ambitious attempts at pedestrian planning in the UK, both cavernous at its depths and fearlessly open at the top, in the walkways you can see being used unassumingly by the clientele of Cafe Internationale.

I've written before about this place, and have done so also in the book. The gist is that it does all the things Jane Jacobs (or her epigones, so they say - I bought a Jane Jacobs book for the first time on this visit to Sheffield, and may have things to say about it, when I read it) says you shouldn't do, completely abolishing the traditional street, and in so doing it is all the things she claims to want streets to be - lively, diverse, bustling. I'll save remarks here to the news. Sheffield's Lib Dem City Council got wind of a proposal to English Heritage to list the structure, immediately loudly made their opposition known, and have tried to start a letter-writing campaign. In response to this, and given they'd once stolen an article from me, I tried to interest the Sheffield Star in a defence of it, but they ignored me. Most things about the possible listing on the internet are besmirched with dozens of comments along the lines of 'its ful of chavs drop a nukleer bom on it lol', which makes clear what's really at stake. The Castlegate area of the city is where working class people come to shop, meet people, hang around. It's been left to rot for over two decades without serious maintenance, and the council have a lot of money riding on the prospect of building a crap simulacrum of Leeds here - when the nearby Castle House, a building with incredibly expensive materials and built-in artworks, got listed, they appealed (and lost). They want this place, and these people, out.

Unfortunately this place, and those people, are what make Sheffield different from Leeds, or Manchester, or Birmingham - it has a city centre which can still accommodate those who are elderly, or poor, or (from the looks of it, often) ill. It's a unique survival, architecturally and socially, which needs decent upkeep and little else - it's well-used, even on this miserable Monday morning. However, when Sheffield's civic fathers decide one of the modernist monuments left by their socialist forerunners might as well be preserved, they can't just let it be. Not only the people in it, but the fabric of the building itself has to be stripped out.

The thing with Park Hill (and see passim) which upsets Lib Dem councillors and those who vote for them, is that it's so terribly visible. Almost everywhere you go in the centre, you can see a big building full of proletarians. This, of course, was originally the point. When Urban Splash tore the building apart, English Heritage decided this would be ok if the place passed 'the squint test'. This drizzly view is as squint test as you can get, and it's the least offensive way to see its redesign, merely adding a brighter accent of colour to it. It's when you can see it up close that it gets alarming.

A downhill view like that would once reveal something like this.

This photograph - I can't remember where on the internet I found it, if anyone wants to claim it please do - is one of my favourite architectural images of any sort, anywhere. Someone on a certain boosterist architectural forum described Park Hill as 'a wet dream for Communists and social fantasists'. Well, yes. This is a photo of Hyde Park, the even more crazily ambitious Park Hill Mark Two that was built further uphill, whose remains we will come to presently. Sheffield's architects obviously worked out that the thing which made it interesting, topographically, was the landscape, the extraordinary slopes and dips which got Ruskin so excited when he visited, and decided to make that the focal point of the entire city - gigantic buildings which would rise out of the peaks and crags, a massive, metropolitan and wholly northern architecture that actually owes very, very little to any real precedent - darker, more raw, less arty, less Mediterranean than Corbusier, closer perhaps - but craggier, both more organic and more sober - to the skycities Erich Kettelhut designed for Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Look here at how it rises, in gradients, from the terraces and 1930s tenements below, with each block higher until you reach the 18-storey peak, with real human activity palpable in the façade, in its walkways and balconies. It's a completely original new urbanism, which only survives now under sufferance. Sheffield should have been incredibly proud of the fact it was capable of this - some people still are proud, as a read of many comments under this will attest.

The thing is, Agata's idea of Sheffield was cruelly mediated by both the fact half of her favourite bands are from here, and the fact I've gone on about the place incessantly. In reality, after Sheffield's Icarus-like fall in the 1980s, a huge amount of the new architecture looked like the place above, where the bus station joins onto one of the very few pre-19th century buildings in the city. I usually just block this sort of thing out, but when someone else is with you, bleary and tired, it's difficult to pretend it isn't there. I had the feeling one has when watching a film you love with someone you love, and you keep looking over to try and ascertain what they think of it, gradually realising they're just not convinced. Actually I think the city eventually swayed her, perhaps because of the impeccable Human League qualities of things like this.

Proper Northern Urbanism of a less organic but equally aggressive sort to the streets-in-the-sky schemes, this is the 'Epic Building' - a car park, cinema, and disco built, again, into the slope, with multiple possible entry points, a building whose lavatorial tiling and ostensible minimalism is a mask for great complexities. Both because it would piss off various idiots, and because it deserves it, I'm quite tempted to put in a listing application. You can see here that Sheffield was half-way through trying to become Leeds around the time the financial crisis hit, and is full of craters.

Almost all the new buildings built here over the last thirty years have been appalling, pomo then pseumo, of equal lack of inspiration in both cases. There are but four arguable exceptions - oneblock of studios by Fielden Clegg, one university building by Sauerbruch Hutton, a car park by Allies and Morrison, and this, the Winter Gardens/Millennium Galleries by Pringle. I didn't mention this in the book, so I would like to correct this oversight here. It is officially Quite Good. I don't know if these four things are enough, but there they are.

But it's surrounded by business park bullshit you'd expect to see on the Great West Road or Reading, their nothingness a sort of anti-matter trying to vapourise the thrilling smoke-blackened aggression of the Town Hall clocktower. So here I intend to start a campaign to list all the interesting buildings in Sheffield until it makes Paul Scriven and Nick Clegg cry. Like the concrete relief above.

Or the walkway that connects it to John Lewis.

Or the contextual-modernist National Union of Mineworkers building.

Or Yorke, Rosenberg Mardall's John Lewis itself, which I'm actually surprised no-one has listed yet...

Or this piece of Czech cubism, which Pevsner has nothing to say about, unaccountably. The reason why this would be a good thing has nothing to do with Heritage - but because these attempts to build something that aggressively points outwards, and forwards, can point others outwards and forwards. Sadly, one can't list wastelands, but if one were to do so, the following would be an excellent candidate.

Here is a spot where on one side you can see two extraordinary buildings written about much inNew Ruins, a substation and an office block, some cutlery works, and a pile of rubble where you can stand and survey it all.

The lone boy here with the ball noticed us trying to get up this pile of rubble, and pointed out that there was an easier way up. Which was very useful of him. I'd like to be clear don't admire this space out of a romanticisation of the joys of mess and poverty, I like it because it's a space to breathe, a space where no money is being made, where the mind can wander.

Others have clearly noticed the liminal qualities of the area, and have signposted it accordingly.

As soon as you're out of this space, you hit the City Living. THE TRIGON! Even in its name, it insults its nobler precursors. Like many of the 'dromes round here, it's aimed at students, people as insecure and indebted as the council tenants, except without the benefit of Parker-Morris flats.

From here, the ring-road, you can survey New Sheffield. A redbrick fire station, replacing another redbrick fire station round the corner. A tower by 'Conran', clad in plastic after the developer went bust. A barcode façade car park. Rubble, this time fenced off. Graffiti on said fence, by one Kid Acne, declaring 'EVERYONE'S A WINNER'. This is an area bought by the retail developer Hammerson, who want to level it and build an attempt at Liverpool One in its place. They originally had state funding for this act of enclosure, which has recently been withdrawn. This is where the markets will be moved to, if they're not listed, and if the outdoor mall ever gets built. You can see here that the death of urban neoliberalism has just made councils hold out until it all comes back, until they can follow their plans circa 2007 for clearances and class-cleansing, without the crisis influencing them one iota, except to put public art on the fences that screen the disaster from view.

We had to get out of here, and there was only one way out.


Here, at the bottom of the hill, various educational buildings face off against each other. Sheffield College, designed by City Architect J.L Womersley, and its new buildings by Jefferson Sheard, awaiting completion. This is a different sort of civic modernism to Hyde Park/Park Hill, less crazed and spectacular, but the openness and simplicity still look pretty impressive when compared with this:

You know the drill - atrium, barely functional wind turbines, brightly coloured panels, and at the corners where nobody is looking, windowless sheds where they could be cloning an army of nano-tech creatures for all we know. Next to it, a faith school. One of the depressing things about the Tory-Whig government is that we almost end up needing to defend the highly uninspiring likes of this against the barbarians.

This tilted roof is the entrance. It is tilted because the tilt makes it iconic.

After all this there are some lovely, austere and Calvinist Victorian villas and a view. No matter how bad the new architecture is in Sheffield, the landscape flatters it, reduces it to abstract shapes nestling in a voluptuous hillscape.

Even the Cholera Monument anticipates the space age, aware that the city's moment of glory will be when a society where once hundreds used to die from filth and pestilence is able to explore above the clouds. Which brings us to...

Once again, Park Hill

This is the end of Park Hill nobody photographs, where it meets the rugged Victorian villas all around, picking up their scale. It's also here that you can walk onto the streets in the sky. Were it not undergoing Enclosure, you could walk from here to several floors up a 14-storey block without having to walk up any stairs.

From the streets in the sky, you can see how careful it all actually is, the way it encompasses large, lush open spaces, in a way the developers of THE TRIGON and its ilk would find economically improbable.

The dark secret of Park Hill is that it works. It's pedestrian and futuristic, quiet and friendly, everything it was always intended to be - ie, not utopia, but a functioning piece of city. People might quite possibly deal drugs here (and the fact 3/4s of it is empty is no doubt a massive incentive to that), but alas, they do that in terraces and semis as well. I've been here half a dozen times, walking along the streets in the sky, and every time I've done so, there's been people hanging around, in the parkland outside, in front of the blocks, and in the streets themselves - the last couple of times I've noticed that the tenants of the flat above always have chairs outside their door, to sit and talk to those who walk past. Every time someone talks about how this was a failed experiment in social engineering, be assured that this is simply, straightforwardly bullshit. It's an alibi for class war, it means 'the proles were too violent, lumpen and unsophisticated to understand this building, but a Better Class Of Tenant will'. Every time someone says this, think of the 'decanting' of 600 people from their flats because politicians and property developers have decided they aren't economically lucrative enough, then using as their excuse for this the claim that they can't be trusted to be decent human beings.

That said, I had a moment here where I thought I was going to get the everybody-hates-a-tourist kicking that I'm thoroughly due. The streets end eight or so storeys up, where dereliction and enclosure take over, and here - not trusting the lifts - we decided to walk down the staircase, unperturbed by the music blaring out from halfway down. When we got there, we found a group of teenagers sat on the steps, blocking our way, listening to music on a portable stereo. We asked if we could get through, but I stupidly decided to try and step over the stereo, in the process knocking it over - as it hit the concrete, the battery cover snapped off it. There was no way out. As I started to try and minimise the likely damage, I was enormously surprised to find that the four youths didn't seem remotely bothered, piecing the stereo back together, saying 'it's ok!' and letting us pass without so much as a cross word.

I don't think Urban Splash sit there in Mancunia rubbing their hands with glee at their evil deeds here - I don't even think they think they're going to make that much money off Park Hill. By some accounts they've been working with the tenants, or at least those they didn't throw out. I don't hate them, I hate the political conformism that let them happen - the idea that the only way to save the place was to clear it, knock out every one of its flats, and throw out three-quarters of its inhabitants - even if that was more expensive than the other option of simply cleaning and restoring it. It isn't even pragmatic, even on brute economic terms it doesn't make sense - it's a gratuitous transfer of assets from the poor to the rich.

As for what is happening to the architecture - well, you can see the difference above. The concrete has been repaired, and hooray for that. But the subtly multicoloured bricks, completely intrinsic to the building's Ruskinian physicality, are gone, replaced with bright, jolly, grinning coloured panels which, combined with the existing irregular pattern, make it look like a building by AHMM. The Sesquipedalist describes the results as 'flat' and 'two-dimensional', and that's entirely the point - it's designed to take a building of intense, corporeal presence, and make it into an image that will be seen most often pixellated, on a screen, on Urban Splash's website when they start selling the 600 non-'affordable' flats that there will be here, when the creatives and/or buy-to-let predators move in (but should I put my name down? Answers in the comments please). It's not supposed to be real. And after it's finished - scheduled for 2017! - it's not supposed to age ever again.

The aforementioned Kid Acne approached the developers, asking for a pop at the concrete walls of the playground of the school that used to be here. I can't quite decide if this is typical public art smuggery, big south yorks clichés in big letters on a big south yorks building soon to be housing the big society - or if it's a mordant comment on the whole thing. Tha Knows.

Most of Park Hill is derelict, except the clad side and the inhabited side. That it isn't being squatted en masse is inexplicable. It needs to be taken back.

The Ghosts of Hyde Park

Mick Jackson directed two television films in the mid-1980s, both set in Sheffield, that occasionally haunt my dreams. One of them, Threads, has been written about well by all sorts of people, most recently Reading the Maps ('returned again and again' indeed). The other is A Very British Coup, a film which stitches together the inspirations of MI5's plots against Harold Wilson and the other September 11 to imagine a Sheffield steelworker - so much more convincing a leader of the Labour Left than Viscount Stansgate - running a socialist government which is eventually occluded by the sound of helicopter rotorblades above parliament. The Prime Minister lives in Hyde Park, the gigantic tower in the background of the photo above. In the context, it is an alternative centre of power to the turrets and pinnacles of the Palace of Westminster. It was demolished in 1991, as part of the effort to give the city a friendly face when it hosted the World Student Games. Everything else was reclad - even the '30s tenements you can see in the pic were given pediments and columns at the front. The effort of staging these Games bankrupted the city, and according to some it is still paying off the debt. The following structures, and more happily the Supertram, are its legacy.

The tallest block went, leaving two lower structures, and a flat-roofed terrace which is now unrecognisable, redesigned in the Let's Pretend We're In Slough style favoured in 90s Sheffield. At best, they might have better insulation. Maybe.

The two streets-in-the-sky blocks left were clad in brick and plastic, and in one area in glass bricks...

If the inhabited part of Park Hill, for all its desolation, has life, noise and energy left in it, the post-1991 Hyde Park is eerie in the extreme, largely depopulated despite the fact it's all still inhabited. Part of the planning scheme still survives - the two blocks, extremely high above the city, curve around a churchyard, where the gravestones have been inlaid into the ground. The Modernist chapel at the centre is unaltered, but here you can only see the eldritch spire of the earlier Victorian church, scraping above the emptiness.

It's a bit of a shock when you first realise you're walking on gravestones.

I suspect the effect was different - more or less sinister, I don't know - when they led to concrete and brick rather than this stuff.

In one corner, concrete walls enclose a garden of waste. A slogan reads 'LIFE STYLE 2000'

Now, look at these two images of the same place, and think about how much money and labour must have been expended to make this transformation possible...

Even by Sheffield standards, Hyde Park is a strange place. The absence at its heart is palpable everywhere, the sense that this is somewhere which has deliberately tried to make itself less special, as if it was a burden to be cast off. And like the new bit of Park Hill, it's a failed attempt at making the place less corporeal, less physical, to replace surfaces which age with surfaces that are wipe-clean. The hope is that these places and the embarrassing dreams they carried with them could dematerialise as well.

Funny how it's the churches that always survive. Several of the estate churches designed in post-war Sheffield are listed, sometimes surrounded by the holes left by their former parishioners' unlisted flats. Given how people talk of the problem of Park Hill being the obsolescence of its function as council housing (there may be as many as 90,000 people on the council waiting list. Remember that), it's interesting how the seemingly far more obsolete CofE endures.

Here, a signpost points away from Hyde Park to The Pinnacles Student Accommodation. On the other side is the local headquarters of Capita, the outsourcing vultures who will be stripping the Welfare State over the next five years.

The Pinnacles is one of those achingly Regeneration names - see also The Cube, The Icon, there are lots of each - and these, though less notorious than their cousins in Thamesmead, should be profitably compared with Park Hill. Here is what new public space looks like.

On close inspection, the place is far more cheap and inhumane than Park Hill or Hyde Park ever were, but - and here's the rub - they certainly pass the squint test. If I blur my eyes or wear dark glasses and look at them ascending and descending along the Supertram bridge, they look exciting and metropolitan. That's about as good as it gets.

On the other side of the Park Square roundabout is the first incursion of Regeneration into the Castlegate 'quarter' - a stock brick office block, some tacky landscaping and a redbrick car park which Basingstoke would be embarrassed by. Click on the image, and you can see in full who is responsible. It's 'a development by Carillion', who are specialists in PFI. It's funded by the European Union as part of 'Objective 1 South Yorkshire', though I can't imagine any other EU country building something as shoddy as this. It has an iconic name, with a definite article - The Square. Because this, not multi-level traffic-free markets, is real urbanism, real public space that people want to use. Just try and ignore the fact that there's no fucker here and hundreds in Castle Market, just next door. This is the urbanism that will replace it, partly courtesy of Deutsche Bank Property Holdings, and the new markets will be by these architectural giants.

If they're allowed to destroy it, that is.

Old pics nicked from Iqbal Aalam's photostream.

Originally published on Sit Down Man on 2/8/10.


  1. The point about not having your head kicked in by the yoot on the stair well, is the point about Sheffield in comparison with other Northern cities (Or talking from experience, Manchester).

    If this had happened in Manchester you would have had your head kicked in and possessions taken. Or at very least suffered verbal abuse. Some how Sheffield is much less threatening, maybe even more friendly, despite appearances. I'm not saying there is not trouble to be had, but the place is less menacing/attitude laced than Manchester.

  2. That photo of the Co-Op, can you tell me where that is please? I'm assuming it's William Mitchell's work but can't figure out where it is by searching his name....

  3. Aha, it's ok, I just found it. It is Mitchell and it's Burgess Street:)

  4. Perfect work you have done, this web site is really cool..Robert Michael Furniture offset patio umbrella

  5. "Every time someone talks about how this was a failed experiment in social engineering, be assured that this is simply, straightforwardly bullshit. It's an alibi for class war, it means 'the proles were too violent, lumpen and unsophisticated to understand this building, but a Better Class Of Tenant will'."

    Except that's exactly what Hyde Park and the associated building were, a social disaster.
    The mistake made was nothing to do with architecture, but bad planning. Instead of moving people en masse together from their communities in the scuzzy tenement blocks these modernist buildings were replacing, they moved people in at random and the social structure that existed was replaced by a bunch of strangers lost in these fancy modern buildings. And it wasn't exactly a great success shall we say. What you experienced at Park Hill was very, very different from how things were in 70s + 80s when Hyde Park still existed and Park Hill was full.
    I was actually told this by Enid Hattersly, [Roy's Mum] who was around whilst this mistake was being made and she was very much part of the left wing 'prole' supporting Sheffield Labour party. I have had friends who lived there too, apparently it was nice [and very warm] once behind your front door, but getting to your flat could be like running a gauntlet at times.
    I came across a great photo of Park Hill when it was brand new at the recent and rather rubbish Grand Designs exhibition in Birmingham. It was in the display on how homes and housing has changed in the UK over time.

    As for Sheffield's Castle Market here a great video filmed there featuring some more modern musicians and very aptly a Sheffield music legend from the 60s.