For many years, as I looked out over Sheffield, the first tall building I’d clock would be the Arts Tower. “There she is,” I’d say fondly to myself, whether grinding down the Parkway after a week away or soaking up the panoramic view from Redmires. And I’d remember an architect’s words, “If you want to […]

For many years, as I looked out over Sheffield, the first tall building I’d clock would be the Arts Tower. “There she is,” I’d say fondly to myself, whether grinding down the Parkway after a week away or soaking up the panoramic view from Redmires. And I’d remember an architect’s words, “If you want to understand who held the power at any time in a city’s history, look at who built the tallest buildings.”

I can’t quite say why I’m so attached to the Arts Tower. Maybe it’s just because I live near it, so it’s a marker for home when I’m a few miles away. Or perhaps it’s something to do with the pattern of lights that shine from the building at night. Is that to warn passing UFOs or are those upper floors home to some really dedicated worker bees?

For such a tall building, the odd thing about the Arts Tower is that its architectural brilliance is really only apparent from close up. You have to approach on foot from Western Bank. Suddenly you’re looking at this…thing – monolothic and yet full of rhythmic details, dull grey yet shimmering silver. It stands on the very edge of a windswept cliff like some ancient henge, with tiny people scurrying in and out from the ceremonial entrance in the dead centre of its base.

It’s a monumental statement by the University of the 1960s. They put their Arts Faculty on their most prominent site, standing high above the city. “Good people of Sheffield,” said the Tower, “I am a beacon of the future, of civilisation.” You know that’s the message, whether you think it reassuring or patronising. The University must think it dated now though, as in the past few years they’ve built bright young things around its feet to push it backwards and bring it down a peg or two. It’s ironic that they did this at the same time as giving the Arts Tower that subtle but expensive facelift. “OK,” said the Tower, “Give me the botox if you must, but don’t make it obvious. I’ve got my dignity, you know.”

I like the idea of tall buildings talking to each other. Until the middle of the last century, almost all the tall buildings for miles around were churches. The dramatic landscape of Sheffield meant you could usually see about a dozen at a time, and it’s easy to imagine them gossiping archly amongst themselves, like the ones in the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’. Then, 50 years or so ago came the secular preachers: those stern, idealist lefties at Park Hill and Hyde Park, setting up a permanent picket line and ranting at anyone who’d listen; the Hallamshire Hospital, born frumpy, banging on about the NHS; the blunt-talking blocks of flats offering an alternative to old terraced slums, and the charming, snooty Arts Tower, making high-minded pronouncements about this and that. It’s harder to pick out one voice, but there’s certainly a hubbub going on up above our heads.

2011. No-one ruins a party quicker than a loudmouth with nothing to say. Unfortunately this has happened to Sheffield just as it has to most other cities, when the power to build tall rests not with religion, academia or the state, but with private finance. “Hey, what’s the craic?” booms St Paul’s Tower as he butts into the conversation. “Oh, it’s him,” say the others. They try to ignore him and get back to what they’d been chatting about, but he’s very tall, and he stands completely in the way like that guy who always turns up in front of you at gigs, just as the main act comes on stage. His bluster is cover for his identity crisis. He’s bankrolling the Heart of the City, but he knows he’s only presiding over its backside. When you’re in the Winter Garden or the Peace Gardens, or gurning into the shiny balls in the otherwise desolate St Paul’s Square, you don’t notice the enormous tower behind you. It has no grand entrance and no relationship with the spaces around it, other than to block out the light. When you’re on Arundel Gate, it’s just another lump in a lumpy streetscape, totally upstaged by Europe’s most interesting car park.

The trouble is, now I can hear the other tall buildings getting bored of trying to talk over and around their unwelcome guest. They’re beginning to fall quiet and stare at their feet, and none more so than my friend the Arts Tower. She does have her dignity, for sure, but her facelift reminded her that she was getting old, and she can’t be bothered to shout and pout so much these days.

Photo by Chard Remains Photographical

Andrew Wood.