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Millennium Galleries & Winter Garden, Sheffield - Underneath the arches

Jonathan Glancey, The Guardian

Underneath the arches

Milan, Naples... Sheffield? Jonathan Glancey is seduced by the city's new Winter Garden

The idea of a new winter garden - a very Victorian idea - must seem absurd to anyone living south of the Severn-Humber divide. In the south, shrubs are in bud, overcoats an extravagance, heating all but unnecessary. Up north, however, it is still possible to experience winter, the white stuff of Jack Frost and the novels of Charles Dickens. You might even see snow on the sheep-studded hills encircling Sheffield, a city boasting an enticing new winter garden at the heart of a newly completed covered walk through its centre, taking in the handsome Millennium Galleries opened last spring.

Rooted, in part, in the majestic shopping and promenading galleries threaded through Milan and Naples in the late 19th century, Sheffield's Winter Garden and Millennium Galleries are a generous urban ideal realised in deft modern design by the architects Pringle Richards Sharratt. The galleries bring together clear-spirited, clean-cut architecture with high-quality art of every sort, while the Winter Garden is a delightfully Gothic-spirited design that soars above the governing roofline.

Here is the sort of covered meeting place British cities have been lacking for so long. We seem to prefer to walk in the rain, rather than under elegant architectural umbrellas and sunshades like our fellow Europeans. Chester is a glorious exception, as are the fine arcades laced through Leeds, but we are still mean when it comes to looking after pedestrians in city centres. The reason for this is that, as a nation of shopkeepers and shoppers, we like to build our shops as close to roads as possible, minimising pavements while maximising profitable retail space.

Sheffield's £5.5m Winter Garden is free of charge and free of shops, beyond a small gift store and cafe. For a British city to give up so much space that might easily have been a lucrative shopping complex is almost unbelievable. And very welcome. This brave and popular new complex of permeable, public city centre buildings may prove to be a template for town and city centres elsewhere in Britain, cold or hot, north or south.

The Winter Garden itself - 70 metres long, 22 metres wide and 21 metres high - is one of the largest temperate glasshouses to have been built in Britain during the past 100 years and the largest yet built in a European city centre. Its soaring arches are made of larch culled from sustainable forests; over time, these will turn silvery grey, an appropriate colour for the City of Steel. Larch, although neither as shiny nor as unyielding as stainless steel, requires no preservatives or coatings.

"I love the use of timber," says Michael Palin, the Winter Garden's much-travelled, Sheffield-born patron. "You tend to see an awful lot of concrete in city centres around this country. It's nice to see that this is made of wood and seems a very organic building." It is. It is also descended from a long line of British garden buildings that have made sophisticated use of pre-fabrication. A nation of gardeners as well as shoppers, we can be proud of our record of conservatories, palm houses, temperate houses and winter gardens. And they are something we do well.

This botanic architecture has also informed the designs of such grand city centre buildings as Richard Rogers's Lloyds Building in the City of London - with its overt references to Paxton's Crystal Palace of 1851. Such designs can, used intelligently as in Sheffield, form the basis of an "organic" and likable alternative to conventional, box-like urban structures. For instance, they could be the end of horrid, air-conditioned supermarkets. Imagine instead street markets housed under cover in naturally ventilated, elegant buildings, plants and flowers on sale in civilised settings that could readily be used for musical and other performances.

Such ventures take time as well as imagination, drive and money. The Winter Garden took six years and was always intended to be the focal point of Sheffield's £120m Heart of the City project. Funded by the Millennium Commission, the European Regional Development Fund, English Partnerships and Sheffield City Council, it stands on the site of what was a particularly nasty concrete extension to the Town Hall known locally as the "Eggbox". It is a generous building, as lofty and as wide as an English cathedral and big enough, says the council, to house 5,000 domestic greenhouses.

Inside, the plants flourish on a heroic scale to match the ambition of the building. The architecture, though, plays second fiddle to a cornucopia of green exotica. Altogether, there are 150 different species of plant and 2,500 plants in all. These serve as a delightful reminder of how architecture itself derives, in part, from the study of trees and plants. They are reminders, too, of John Ruskin's attempt to get all of us, especially architects, to draw accurately from nature. The Ruskin collection, owned by the Guild of St George, is a part of Sheffield's Millennium Galleries gained through the Winter Garden. Ruskin's first study collection aimed at raising the cultural and ecological education of ordinary working people opened in Sheffield: the cultural and historic connections in the Winter Garden are as rich as Ruskin's imagination. And as generous.

The Winter Garden and Millennium Galleries will firmly establish the reputation of John Pringle, Penny Richards and Ian Sharratt. They have been working together since 1996, but Pringle and Sharratt were together for many years before that with Michael Hopkins, architect of the Mound Pavilion at Lord's Cricket Ground, the Schlumberger research laboratories, Cambridge, and the opera house at Glyndebourne. Together they have built up a formidable reputation in advanced, lightweight structures and sustainable, energy-efficient buildings.

With Richards, whose expertise is in the design of museums and galleries, they have crafted a number of unpretentious and meticulously resolved buildings over the past six years: the Middlesex University sports centre, Hendon (1999), the arts and science building, King Alfred School, Hampstead (2001), and Gallery Oldham, a major cultural complex that opened last year. Remarkably, the architects have won approval from that arch-traditionalist, the Prince of Wales, who admires the music school (2001) they designed for Shrewsbury School. This is a good example of how contemporary architecture can be forward looking while drawing on and looking after nature. The same is true of the Sheffield Winter Garden.

One of Pringle Richards Sharratt's current challenges is the design of a call centre for Saga Holidays in Thanet, Kent. Even Sheffield's "Eggcup" was never as nasty nor as soul-destroying as a call centre. The designs have something of the airiness and generosity of the Winter Garden and the architects might yet come up with the country's first civilised call centre. If so, they will become the patron saints of those hapless thousands who toil in one of the least humane environments devised since the "satanic mills" once loomed darkly over Sheffield.

The Winter Garden, meanwhile, is a great place to help beat the winter blues; as hot on the city's blossoming cultural agenda as it is cold outside.

Link: The Guardian 6th January 2003

© Guardian News & Media Limited 2003