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Millennium Galleries & Winter Garden, Sheffield - Sheffield: it's the vision thing

Nonie Niesewand, The Independent

Design: Sheffield: it's the vision thing

CALL ME an old fashioned modernist but my heart leapt at the brave new world unveiled in the opening shots of Sheffield in The Full Monty. Big steel blast furnaces glowing white hot. A symphonic skyline of chimney stacks and big bellied buildings staggered against a blue sky. A shopping centre dripping with flowers, real ones, even if they are brash annuals.

This little bit of archive film, shot in 16mm in the early Seventies by James Coulthard, puts a good spin on a modern city. It was shown in Sweden and other steel-producing countries to encourage investment and tourism.
Its use in the film about out-of-work steelmen, which has turned out to be the most successful British film ever is, of course, deeply ironic. Sixty thousand jobs have been lost in the steel industry alone since the city's industrial heyday. Now the fifth largest city in Britain, famous for having its name on a knife blade, is at the cutting edge of design again. But this time it will be nothing to do with manufacturing and everything to do with leisure, the industry of our age. Among the most important of these in a city which was home to the Human League and the two Cockers, Jarvis and Joe, is the National Centre for Popular Music, which its architect, Nigel Coates, refers to as "a jukebox of pop culture". The pounds 15 million lottery-funded project, designed with Doug Branson and with acoustics by Philips, will open in January 1999. Four stainless steel drums are themed to tell the story of pop and the technology of making music, with a shop, a cafe and an exhibition space linked by a glazed ground level in the core. Above each drum, a cowl rotates in the wind to ventilate them and reinforce the jukebox feeling. "The galleries are all ears, eyes and hands-on space. We want the building to reflect this, but at the same time to catch the spirit of Sheffield's industrial landscape," says Coates. 

A few minutes' walk away is the site of the proposed Winter Garden and Millennium Gallery, a pounds 120m heart-of-the-city project financed by a pounds 20.5m grant from the Millennium Commission, with money from the EU, English Partnerships, the Government's Single Regeneration Budget, Sheffield Hallam University and the private sector. The city council will provide the site of its unloved "egg box", as the town hall extension is known. Designed by Pringle, Richards Sharratt on a masterplan by Terry Farrell, designer of the MI6 building in London, the complex includes an hotel, new council offices and three public squares. If it is granted planning permission, it will amount to the biggest urban regeneration programme this century. Counting against it is the fact that Sheffield already has two well known galleries - the Mappin and the Graves - that don't attract enough visitors. Sheffield silversmith and steel designer and manufacturer, David Mellor, doesn't see the point of the new gallery. "One and half miles away in the Sheffield botanical gardens there is the most marvellous glass house by Paxton, who built the Crystal Palace. It's been left in appalling decay and now has got lottery money to restore it. So why build a rather more second-rate gallery so close?" Destination Sheffield, the non-profit-making organisation designed to raise the city's profile, defends the new complex by stressing the Continental- style piazzas set about with sculpture. 

In the adjoining indoor garden you will step inside the temperate zones of Australia, South America and the Mediterranean. This winter garden, designed to cut the chilly blast of the wind off the Pennines, will be a temperate zone glass house for eucalyptus, wattle, savannah grasses, and mimosa. It'll be open from 6pm till midnight and opens into the Millennium Gallery, lit by a vaulted roof. Now even sport moves out of real time to become as easy as strapping on a virtual reality helmet for a game of football. Football World is planned as a major interactive centre at Meadowhall to reflect Sheffield's pivotal role in the history of the national game. 

The oldest club in the world is Sheffield FC, founded in 1857, and the world's oldest ground at Sandygate is still home to Hallam FC, Sheffield's local rivals. Football World is working closely with the special policy adviser of the Secretary of State for Education - one of Sheffield's own MPs, David Blunkett - to bring educational aspects of football into the project. A building will be developed in association with Meadowhall to house the exhibitions, a new sports, leisure, retail and catering outlet. All-weather football pitches will be built in association with Football World Trust. Every town that ever reinvented itself from an industrial base to a service- based economy has opted for two panaceas for recession - shopping and sport. Across the city, there are signs everywhere of the late 20th-century leisure city which Sheffield has become: the clubs, pubs and restaurants, the dry ski slopes, before moving on to to Olympic-sized indoor pools, football arenas and sports centres. The escalators of the Meadowhall shopping centre carry more than 30 million visitors a year. In Europe's largest food court, Med Oasis, you can buy any food from Japanese to Tex Mex. Now Sheffield is "an up and going place," as Coulthard called it. He wants to shoot some new footage for a new tourist video, made by Destination Sheffield. He could start filming at the Players' Cafe, an old stone schoolhouse, which projects live sporting events and pop concerts on a two-storey screen as its customers eat. It was there that the video of the Full Monty was launched last Monday. And if the scale and size of these awesome post-modern buildings troubles you, why not take the Full Monty coach tour of the unexotic locations featured in the film, from the canal to the working men's clubs, on offer this month at the British Travel Trade Fair?

Link: The Independent 5th March 1998

© The Independent 1998