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A Magazine for Sheffield

Brutal Sheffield

Techno futurist Martin Dust finds alternative futures and utopian visions in the city's postwar buildings and spaces.

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Martin Dust.

A new book of photos by Martin Dust, a long-time member of techno outfit The Black Dog, looks at Sheffield's forward-thinking buildings of the sixties and seventies and asks why the new world they promised never came to pass.

We spoke to Martin about Brutal Sheffield, the architecture of electronic music and how the rise of individualism changed the city of his adolescence forever.

Tell us about the project.

I’ve been working with The Black Dog on a project about Sheffield, documenting the sounds of the city and as part of that, I started taking photographs to feed into the creative process. We’ve always worked with as many sources as we can so it made perfect sense to do this, but what came to the surface pretty quickly was how much the city has and is changing – sometimes not for the better.

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Martin Dust.

With photography, you're always looking for your subject or your style, something you will be known for. I find it’s something many people struggle with – what’s “my brand”? – if you will. It really works to undermine your confidence but for me, I’m happy to just be a photographer, that’s it. People can box me in if they want but I’m out taking photographs while they’re typing bullshit on Instagram.

The start of this journey began by trying to find all the old rooms I’d used for practice with the old bands I’d been in. Only one of those nine places still existed and it was there that I set about telling the story of the building, finding its lines without making it look like something an estate agent would take.

That sounds easy but it isn’t. I didn’t know “banalogy” (the art of taking boring pictures) was a thing before I started. I like to find the expression of the building.

A lot of the photos depict buildings that were intended to form part of an idealised society. Was there a conscious political aspect to the project?

The project tore me to pieces and I nearly didn’t continue with it because I didn’t want to paint Sheffield as a run-down dump with its best years well behind it. You see this happening to a lot of places like Detroit, where they only focus on one aspect. It made me question everything. It also made me question what’s happening to the city and why parts of it could be anywhere in the world. I’ve always loved how quirky Sheffield could be and I’d hate it to lose that.

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Martin Dust.

Sheffield has always looked like it was built for an episode of Doctor Who or Ken Loach’s version of Blade Runner – the architectural lines of Park Hill will always look like the future but politically, they require support. Architects will always say they build spaces for people and if they fail, it’s the fault of people. I think this is incorrect because over time, things like work, people and culture change. This should be taken into account and you don’t get to walk away.

The rise of individualism has changed a lot of things in Sheffield and that's coupled with all the heavy industry closing down, which has also had a big impact. For a while, we lost our purpose, but I think the utopian aspect comes from fiction and the media. You can’t separate out the politics when people are living and working with each other 365 days a year. With industry long gone, I think we can re-evaluate the buildings and the city as a whole, but it feels like there’s a lot of work to do. There’s so much I don’t understand about Sheffield and I live here.

What's the link between modern architecture and electronic music?

Well, apart from Alvin Toffler’s book The Third Wave, which is where the name Techno came from, I think visually, it’s the lines and the use of space that's very similar to what electronic music does internally. While the concrete invokes shapes that can’t be made from normal building materials, electronic music is often formed from sources that don’t exist in the natural world. I think we can translate that into looking like the future. At the same time, the irony isn’t lost on me that I’m now selling a book and prints of places most people once hated.

Which is your favourite of the buildings you photographed?

That’s a tough call for many reasons. When I see what’s left of the little mesters, I hope there’s a band inside practicing. I know I had some great times in those places.

If I had to pick just one building I think it would be the Manpower Services Building at the bottom of The Moor. There are many lines and angles to explore with that building – for me, that place feels like a full stop at one end of town.

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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