02 May, 2009


Posted by: admin In: Tate

Sheffield, for me, is a city that would be impossible to sum up in one blog. Then again, I’m slightly biased in my love for the place, having spent the last seven years there. It’s definitely a city where all is not what it seems. A mystery, a cult classic.

When I think of Sheffield I think of hills, amazing people, and a rose-tinted view of the concrete, brutalism, and music; the history of a city that has stuck it’s neck out. But what comes to mind when you think of Sheffield? Hillsborough? Cutlery? Pulp? It’s tricky. This is a city without a single image visible to the outside world, in other cities it’s easier. Liverpool has it’s Pierhead and cathedrals; Newcastle has bridges and vistas galore. Sheffield remains a famous name without a face.

Sheffield city centre

Like many cities, Sheffield is currently going through a massive period of change. Some call it regeneration. Vast swathes of the city are being tarted up and reinvented for the post industrial economy. Cafe bars and call centres are popping up next to new shops and the obligatory city living flats.

This has happened before. Post-war, it was a city that was rebuilt for the future, but it was a future which never quite materialised. Before the paint was dry, many of Sheffield’s groundbreaking new landmarks were relics of a failed era.

The biggest example of this has to be Park Hill flats. Snaking across a hillside like wallpaper for the city, Park Hill was the product of huge post-war slum clearances. Inspired by Le Corbusier’s efforts at the Unite d’habitation in Marseille, council architects Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn took a similar tack in South Yorkshire. They thought that advances in technology and engineering really could create a utopia for all.

With ’streets in the sky’ and all the facilities in one building, Park Hill was built with new ideas and hope at its core. Yet now it’s vilified as a failure. I can’t help but ask whether the architecture really was at fault, or whether it was simply neglected and poorly managed. After all, the Barbican is a similarly brutal structure but remains one of the most desirable addresses of London.

Park Hill

Park Hill

Fortunately for Park Hill, Manchester developers Urban Splash are coming to its rescue. Hopefully with a little TLC and a fresh batch of ideas and enthusiasm Park Hill will smile again. But I wonder, must it be the grand plans of the civic authorities that will define the city? Can the city be reborn because a few people decide it so? What really holds the key to somewhere’s identity?

Maybe with Sheffield it’s the industry. This city was transformed in the Industrial Revolution from small ‘Little Mester’ industries (the name comes from the cutlery fabricators who would rent floorspace in factories to ply their trade), to a centre for steel production on a massive scale. Often in this country this industrial heritage isn’t celebrated and there’s an element of shame attached to the dirty factories that propelled us into the modern age. Sheffield’s Lower Don Valley is the perfect example of this, a vast chunk of the city that still creaks with the weight of the mills, yet is neglected and overlooked in favour of showpiece squares and fountains.

The best examples I’ve found (bar the Tate Modern of course) of reusing redundant industrial structures are in Emscher Park in the Ruhrgebiet in Germany. The area around Essen, Dortmund and Duisburg has been transformed from a scarred hinterland of coal mines and power stations into a new landscape that re-uses its industrial past intelligently. Coking plants have been turned into artists studios, design museums, galleries and restaurants. Slag heaps and gasometers are now platforms for new art. The turnaround culminated in the region’s status as European City of Culture 2010.

Rem Koolhaus' museum in the Zollverein, near Essen

You need to build on what’s there already – Emscher works because it has a relevance and resonance with the surrounding area. It needs to be appropriate development rather than development for the sake of it.

For me, successes in architecture and design come when the ingrained identity of the place feeds and informs every aspect of the new building or redevelopment. Maybe this is the biggest challenge facing the TM2 extension? Making sure the building is firmly rooted in the community and in its relationship to the local area.

Read the original post on The Great Tate Mod Blog


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