Buildings Without Life.

I’d like to blog a little bit about buildings. Partially because of the RIBA Stirling Prize (winner) yesterday, but mostly because they’re everywhere. Really, you can’t walk down the street without seeing at least one.

Living in Sheffield, I’m cursed and blessed by the buildings around me. We have the superb Park Hill flats, a monument to idealised Modernist planning, an actual realisation of Le Corbusier’s “cities in the sky”. It stands proud, overlooking the train station and staring out to the city centre.

Park Hill, Sheffield

Park Hill (view from inside the estate)

It’s been bastardised by the council and its privatisation partners. The tenants (council housed) were cleared out in order for Park Hill to be gentrified, creating up-market apartments for Sheffield’s elite. The flats have been ripped out, too. It’s currently a shell.

Urban Splash have cut out all the soul of the building, and are continuing the tyranny of cladding so popular with mindless architects. This is disappointing as it changes the integrity of the building. It is the largest listed building in Europe (Grade II), but that seems to simply mean the ‘structure’ of the building. Nonsense.

It stays, though, quite rightly. It is part of Sheffield’s architectural and mental landscape.

When I moved to this city, there was a completely freakish building in the centre of town. Commonly known as The Egg Box, it was an extension of the town hall. It’s quite brilliant. A marvellous slab of Modernist Brutalism, strangely complimenting its Victorian-era counterpart.

Peace Gardens, with Egg Box.

The council tore it down after only twenty-five years.

The Winter Gardens were built in its place. In a rainy city, it’s nice to have somewhere to see and smell plants all year round. That concept was quickly overshadowed as it became clear it was a concession, offsetting the Mercure hotel built adjacent, and the office block (with Café Rouge on ground floor) across from it.

If the Egg Box was demolished because it was an architectural mistake that needed rectifying, why rectify it with more mistakes? Especially ones with less character that will date faster?

Sheffield Peace Gardens, now.

The generalist, apologetic, ‘nothing to see here’ nature of modern city building is killing cities. It is marginalising their identity. We’re all becoming Leeds.

Luckily, we have a very attractive and brave car park to tide us over.

Q Park, Arundel Gate, Sheffield. CC-BY-NC-SA me

I grew up on Merseyside and spent most of my youth in Liverpool. A city of stunning architecture charting its eight-hundred year history. Running across the city, through falling down masterpieces, going to parties in incredible Georgian town houses, monuments to Blitz spirit, breathing in maritime legacy, and taking everything on The Strand for granted.

Royal Liver Building, seen from Albert Dock.

Queensway Tunnel ventilation tower

The Sandcastle

The Bombed Out Arl Church (St Luke's Church)

I went back a couple of years ago, during the major ‘redevelopment’ brought on by the European Capital of Culture ’08 money. A lot of what I knew was taken down, or in the process of being dismantled. The journey from dock-front to city centre had become a generic city experience. It felt like the space around Birmingham’s Bull Ring: clean, and well done, but without any soul.

I was quite sad about it. The creation of a small, bubbling water feature directing people into a shopping arcade rather than to the Albert Dock (the best water feature) summed it up for me: the heart of the city was being designed away.

Last weekend, I visited for a family birthday and wandered along The Strand. I am delighted to see that Liverpool is starting to build strong, international buildings again. On Mann Island, there are a few developments that have ruffled feathers. A new glass monolith, jutting into the dock, and a see-saw like structure. One will house the Museum of Liverpool.

Mann Island in development. CC-BY-NC-SA me

This development has been described as “the biggest risk to Liverpool’s skyline since Goering sent the Luftwaffe over in 1943”. I think that’s rubbish. Mann Island shows a city that has been depressed and cowed since the war puffing out its chest and announcing its return, ready to take its place as a major international city again.

If you want to keep Liverpool as Liverpool, you must remember that it is a city that constantly broke the rules and stood strong in the face of adversity.* Pissing some people off with the addition of forward-looking buildings is key to maintaining this spirit and remembering where the city comes from.

To me, it evokes Copenhagen, another historical port city. It has kept its personality, character and beauty, but continued to grow, adding brilliant modern buildings such as The Black Diamond and Opera House to it.

Dock area, Copenhagen. (view from the Black Diamond) CC-BY-NC-SA me.

It’s easy to want to preserve the past, but that often comes at the cost of refusing the future. What urban planners, councillors and the people who want to create city branding often miss is the thing they are supposed to be curating: the spirit of the city.

Sheffield recently failed in its bid to become UK City of Culture. Not because Sheffield has no culture, but because the bid represented it in the way they think a city should be represented. Sheffield is an odd-ball, it’s hard to wrap that up neatly. It is tempting to knock down the Brutalist testaments to a period of complete economic depression, knock down the tower blocks that house so many unemployed or state-supported people, present a clean city, ring-fenced by cladding, glass walls and neat concrete.

That’s foolish though.

These buildings have to reflect where we have come from and where we are going. These buildings define the city, and define us.

Who will stand in front of mediocre buildings and say “I am from this place, and I am proud of it”?

* Some of which it is very apologetic and honest about.


8 thoughts on “Buildings Without Life.

  1. You ever read any Jane Jacobs? A great critiquer of the whims of town planners.

    Never really understood what’s so “superb” about the Park Hill flats, by the by, although I’m up for hearing argument.

  2. Ta’ for the link.

    I don’t think the intention was herding, it was utopian. Creating a space for living for the future, a community, providing for all.

    Just a shame that councils and people don’t ever live up to utopian ideals.

  3. Talking to bloggers « Minkette

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