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What would a permanent home for Sheffield's Festival of Debate look like?

Proposals include a debating chamber, a climate resilience nursery and a look-out tower – all constructed from sustainable materials.

Exchnage Street 2

The main building, designed by Mia Coles, is an expansive and permeable space made mostly from timber.

Mia Coles.

A few weeks ago I tagged along with my friend Luke to the Sheffield School of Architecture's 2023 exhibition. The annual show gives students the opportunity to showcase their work to their peers and to their parents, as well as (gulp) prospective employers.

For one project, students were asked to respond to the old Castle Market site with a building for community use. I was surprised to see that one fully-realised proposal was for a permanent home for the Festival of Debate.

Like Now Then, Festival of Debate is an Opus project. Each spring, we bring writers, activists and academics to South Yorkshire for the UK's biggest politics festival. It's a many-headed beast that each of us at Opus has poured countless hours into, whether as a curator, an events organiser or working the door on the night.

The proposal for the festival's new home, by Architecture and Landscape masters student Mia Coles, turns a three-acre site stretching from Exchange Street to the river into a festival campus, featuring gardens, a 'climate resilience nursery' and a main hall.

Lecture Hall

The Assembly Hall is a "flexible space" that could open up onto Exchange Street.

Mia Coles.

Coles told Now Then that she became aware of the festival through her tutor, Live Works director Carolyn Butterworth, and that her interest in the project "stemmed from the desire to explore agency over public space."

"This came from the need to address the diminishing sense of place that is universal in many of our towns and cities,” she said. "I wanted to understand how to create places that celebrate a distinctive character and, in turn, foster a sense of belonging for their citizens."

The central building, known as The Exchange, is an expansive and permeable space, mostly made from timber. In keeping with the aims of the festival, it features a series of interconnecting rooms designed to foster collaboration and an exchange of ideas.

The design is centred around the Assembly Hall, a large space on the ground floor that looks a bit like a parliamentary chamber – but one designed to encourage cooperation and understanding, rather than division.


The project's public realm links Waingate to Castlegate and Victoria Quays.

Mia Coles.

Around this is a flexible exhibition space and a canteen, which would use ethically-sourced local produce. During the festival itself, this would be joined by a range of independent food trucks across the site.

Coles said that Assembly Hall is designed to be a "flexible space", with design features that allow the room to be physically opened up to nearby Exchange Street.

"This allows people to passively interact with the debates being held here without the need to enter the building, recognising the potentially intimidating nature of traditional debate settings," she said.

Facilities on the other two floors include workshop rooms, a lecture theatre, archives, spaces for community use, and offices for a permanent 'Planning and Placemaking Department'. The latter would be a year-round organisation advocating for city identity and sustainable planning, and would include members of the council, the Environment Agency and the Local Area Committees.

Exchnage Street

Coles says the site could become home to other festivals throughout the year.

Mia Coles.

The high point of the proposal, quite literally, is 'The Tower', a timber look-out point that connects festival visitors to the green and blue spaces around them, from the nearby River Don to the parts of the Peak District that border the city.

As well as Festival of Debate, Coles says the building could become home to other annual events in the city, including Festival of the Outdoors, Sheaf Poetry Festival and the Castlegate Festival.

As such, she's incorporated a series of outdoors event spaces into the landscape. These include The Secret Garden, a circular space not unlike the amphitheatre behind the station, as well as research sites such as the Heritage Nursery and Climate Resilience Nursery.

Accessible walkways snaking around the site would take visitors over the de-culverted River Sheaf and allow them to view the ruins of Sheffield Castle, as well as connecting Waingate with Castlegate and Victoria Quays.

Site Plan

A full site plan for the Centre of Debate.

Mia Coles.

Coles said that she chose to put social and environmental sustainability “at the forefront” of the design, with two "blue roofs" to slow the flow of rainwater and reduce flooding.

“The materials consist of reused rubble left on-site from the demolition of Castle Market, as well as primarily bio-based and natural materials, such as the timber structure and cladding," she said.

Her design also uses more experimental materials such as hemp panels, which sequester carbon and prevent it from being released into the atmosphere.

"Designing this new home for the Festival of Debate allowed me to situate the project in an already successful movement for active citizenship within an inclusive environment," she said.

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