It’s escaped pin-striped bling – now paradoxical Sheffield must grab its chances

Sheffield is a much loved city. It’s hard to know why, really. On the face of it, it’s pretty down at heel. Achingly so, if you believe the cliché. If you have no connection with the so-called Steel City, it probably brings to mind Robert Carlyle and co dancing to Hot Chocolate in the mid 1990s. And Sheffield is often chosen by TV mockumentaries as the typical northern post-industrial hive of inequity.

These portraits aren’t false. But they are one-sided – Sheffield is often also voted the happiest place to live in the UK. And Hallam is one of the richest boroughs in the country with allegedly its highest concentration of professionals.

The real paradox is how Sheffield’s locals manage to maintain such pride in a city which is, on the surface, pretty crap. 

HS2 will not stop at Sheffield, but at its retail hub, Meadowhall. Ah yes, the ‘M’ word. That shopping mecca developed by a scrap metal dealer on the site of Hadfield’s massive Hecla Works using one of Thatcher’s Enterprise Zone non-plan deals. Nothing symbolises the shift from industrial production to post-industrial consumption more.

That rumbling sound is Nairn turning in his grave as Sheffield Council’s cabinet member for business, skills and development dances on it

They say Meadowhall killed Sheffield city centre, but the councillors have done a pretty good job on their own, ever keen to raze any building of note in order to create a tabula rasa for ‘regeneration’.

Last week’s Sheffield Telegraph sported on its front page an ‘artist’s impression’ of the future of the Castle Market site. The markets designed by Andrew Derbyshire in the 1950s have had heavenly praise laid upon them by that Holy Trinity of architectural criticism, Ian Nairn, Owen Hatherley and Jonathan Meades (I may have made up the last one, but I’m sure he’d love it as much as Cedric Price did). But the site looks like a bouncy castle aside a grassy knoll fit for mediaeval battle re-enactments. That rumbling sound is Nairn turning in his grave as Sheffield Council’s cabinet member for business, skills and development, Leigh Brammall, dances on it.

Or maybe it’s the bulldozers demolishing more of the city centre which looks something like a ghost town, most of its traders being given their compulsory purchase marching orders. Down the Moor (the central pedestrianised shopping area), shops are empty or demolished. Last July, after years of indecision, developer Hammersons finally pulled out of negotiations to develop the New Retail Quarter, a Liverpool One style state-of-the-art privatised shopping precinct enveloping the city centre. Sheffielders’ response was a typical shrugged ‘it’s not for the like of us any road up’.

Actually, it’s given Sheffield a stay of execution and what could have been a city with all the character of the pin-striped bling of Leeds, now has a chance to be half decent. So what are Sheffield architects doing about this? 

Building Fantastical Cities – on the street.
Building Fantastical Cities – on the street. · Credit: Tony May

A recent initiative of the Sheffield Society of Architects invited local practices to join a day-long charrette investigating the opportunity that the New Retail Quarter hiatus afforded. Councillors like Simon Ogden (head of city regeneration), Isobel Bowler (cabinet member for culture, sport and leisure), and Maria Duffy (interim head of planning) were invited for an end of day crit to see the proposals and comment on it. We all know that architects can get a bit heady when given some blank sheets of paper, coloured crayons, and an urban problem. But sometimes that’s what’s needed. The key idea that the decision makers should have taken away was based on Marcus Westbury’s ideas from Newcastle, Australia. Westbury recently visited the university to talk bottom-up, independent, cultural, and creative regeneration – that you need to attract people into the centre and then they will spend money there. If Meadowhall is going to be the retail hub, then the historic centre could be a culturally charged civic centre. Without battle re-enactments.

Few cities do festivals better than Sheffield with its generous archipelago of public spaces. It hosts the DocFest (claimed as the Cannes for documentaries), Grin Up North (England’s largest comedy festival), and Tramlines (an independent urban music festival). At festival time, the city feels relaxed, generous, friendly, open, creative, pregnant. Julian Dobson of Sheffield based Urban Pollinators comments that Blairite language like ‘New Retail Quarter’ misses the huge opportunity that presents itself to Sheffield to define the first of a new model of city centres rather than the last of the old. A centre promoting cultural and civic engagement might be such a model.

If Meadowhall is going to be the retail hub, then the historic centre could be a culturally charged civic centre. Without battle ­re-enactments

Director of RIBA Yorkshire Emma England says the Sheffield chapter is the most active in the region, due to the two universities being involved, the city being so willing to engage in its activities, and a more design conscious community. The large Sheffield practices, BDP, HLM, HCD and Bond Bryan, are also very supportive of its activities, and smaller practices such as Norton Mayfield Architects, which works mainly in London but is based in Sheffield, is also proactive in its engagement. They co-organised and hosted the Fantastical Cities workshop for children, for example, as part of Sheffield Design Week, where the road was closed in front of their studio and kids invited to design a fantastical city from cardboard, gaffer tape, bubble wrap, and various other off-cuts.

But the micro-practices really excite me. Those like Studio Polpo, set up as a social enterprise to plough its profits back into benefiting the city, working with Architype on larger projects. Director Mark Parsons proactively engages with people in the area on small initiatives that are original, work, and fun. Remember fun? A micro allotment network uses small parcels of unclaimed front gardens to grow vegetables. Its River Commons initiative encourages people to get involved in opening up the many hidden rivers under and behind Sheffield, particularly around the Upper Don valley. Polpo has also worked as part of a larger team to save Portland Works from being ‘developed’ – instead it’s been bought by a collective to be turned into artists’ workspaces. Forget guerilla tactics. This is architectural practice, Jim, but not as we know it.

In 1961, Ian Nairn wrote of Sheffield, ‘it is typical of this exciting, exasperating city that it never seems to assume its true importance.’ Therein lies the clue as to why it is so cherished – it just doesn’t know how good it is.