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Millennium Galleries & Winter Garden, Sheffield - Giving heart to the city

Giles Worsley, Daily Telegraph

Giving heart to the city

Sheffield has been revitalised by projects in a Victorian style - but some of the original vigour has been lost, says Giles Worsley

When the massive Meadowhall shopping mall opened on the edge of Sheffield in 1990, life seemed to be sucked out of the city centre. Who was going to climb Sheffield's hills when they could park with ease beside the motorway?

If the centre was to fight back it had to rethink what it offered, and what it could offer was urbanity, as against blandness: culture as well as commerce, buildings with a bit of punch, restaurants, galleries and theatres, not just shopping.

That called for a radical change in thinking, because urbanity had not been a quality valued by the city fathers since the Second World War.

There seemed little sense that Sheffield was special. Ring roads had been rammed through and dismal buildings allowed to breed, symbolised by the dire 1970s extension to the noble Victorian town hall, universally reviled as the "Egg Box".

Fortunately, the lottery meant that the cash was there to be radical, and from it grew the £120 million Heart of the City project, which has reached a climax with the completion of Pringle Richards Sharratt's impressive new Winter Garden, the centrepiece of the whole development.

Recasting a city centre is not an easy job, particularly when there is a complex mix of Millennium Commission, European, central and local government and private money involved.

European funds never seem to work in kilter with lottery money and business works to different rhythms altogether, so instead of arriving with a bang, the Heart of the City project has emerged in dribs and drabs.

The Peace Gardens beside the town hall opened nearly three years ago; Pringle Richards Sharratt's Millennium Galleries were completed 18 months ago; and the privately funded elements, including a hotel and a new square that will link the Winter Garden to the Peace Gardens, have yet to be started. But at least the Egg Box has gone.

For Pringle Richards Sharratt, the slow gestation has been particularly frustrating. The firm won the competition for the Millennium Galleries and Winter Garden in July 1996, shortly after John Pringle and Ian Sharratt left Michael Hopkins's office, where they had been key partners since 1981.

This was the first competition they entered after setting up with Penny Richards, and when they won, it seemed that life on the outside was going to be easy. The reality was rather different and only now, nearly six years later, is that first building complete. Even so, it will not fully serve its purpose until the commercial elements of the project are complete.

Demolishing the Egg Box was a dramatic moment for Sheffield, opening up the town hall, which until then had seemed to be treated as an embarrassment, and making way for the Winter Garden.

Given that Sheffield is a fundamentally Victorian city, there is something appropriate about the way Pringle Richards Sharratt has taken such an archetypally Victorian building style and rethought it for the 21st century.

Traditionally, winter gardens were exotic escapes to be found in municipal parks on the edge of town. Here, the architects have made it a fulcrum around which this part of the city will revolve.

A dramatic, soaring structure of parabolic glue-laminated timber arches rising 22 metres high in the centre, it is perhaps best described as the Palm House at Kew meets the Galleria in Milan.

It will be a place where people can sit and talk in comfort even in the depths of winter, but also a through-route across the city. At one end is Tudor Square, with the Crucible and Lyceum Theatres, the Central Library and the Graves Art Gallery.

At the other, when the commercial work is complete, will be a new square opening on to the Peace Gardens. The Millennium Galleries form a link to the university quarter and the railway station. Even with relatively young plants in, it is impressive.

When the palms and trees have had a chance to grow and fill the space, it will be a delightful addition to the city.

The Millennium Galleries, which open off the Winter Garden, rethink another Victorian speciality, the covered arcade penetrating through the urban fabric, a convenient shortcut as well as a pleasant place to linger and shop.

Here, the architects have taken the increasing crossover between retail and cultural spaces to its logical conclusion, replacing shops with a row of galleries opening off the arcade.

There is the Ruskin Gallery with its collections of the Guild of St George, a metalworking gallery celebrating the city's great industrial tradition, a crafts gallery and a new gallery for important travelling exhibitions.

Art is no longer set apart, entered reverently through imposing doors, it lies at the centre of the city, part of everyday life.

All is faultlessly done, but somehow it is the close Victorian parallels that leave one unsettled. The standard is high, the idea carefully thought through, there is nothing that jars, but ultimately it is a bit bloodless, as is often the case with the work of the second-generation of High-Tech architects.

The Modernist tradition that Pringle Richards Sharratt represents owes much to the Victorians, as the Millennium Galleries and Winter Garden make clear, but the reduction to structural principles that underpins this interpretation of architecture has led to a loss of the vigour that enthused Victorian buildings.

Stripped of all detail, with the elevation of the Millennium Galleries to Arundel Gate expressing the structure of the building behind, there is little sense that there might be excitement within.

Shopping centre or art gallery? There is no way of telling the difference. Perhaps that is right. Perhaps that is what accessibility is about. Somehow, one feels that Ruskin would have hoped for a little more.

Link: Daily Telegraph 14th January 2003

© Daily Telegraph 2003