The Heart of the City Project – Colin Farmer – 5th December 2016

Colin is an architect who was employed by Sheffield Council.  He ran   the property function of the Council with the aim of making the Council’s property work more efficiently.  Colin was involved in the Heart of the City Project as architectural adviser from 1994.

He explained that it is important to get the design of a building correct at the start because a building is a very expensive undertaking and it may have to last for many decades.  He told us that if the design of a building works then nobody notices the design, but if the design doesn’t work then everyone notices it.  He showed us slides of many impressive buildings and bridges in several European cities to demonstrate his point.

The Heart of the City Project (HOTCP) aimed at increasing employment opportunities and productivity in Sheffield.  Sheffield lagged behind Leeds in terms of GDP since the steelworks closed, with Sheffield’s GDP being only 71% of the national average compared to Leeds 95%.  The project hoped to rectify this.   He mentioned that the Peak District National Park is the second most visited park in the world, with only Mount Fuji attracting more, and the aim was to get many of those visitors to the Peak to come into Sheffield.

Not every Sheffielder sees the Town Hall and its surroundings as the city centre.  As a boy, living in Shiregreen, the centre to me was the area around Fitzalan Square and the Castlegate markets because that was where our bus dropped us.  However, the HOTCP saw the Town Hall area as the centre so that was where the development was aimed.  The Project was always going to be constrained by the city’s finances.

The Council owned the land and buildings around the Town Hall and decided to start there.  Colin showed us many drawings and plans for the area but the Peace Gardens development was the first step.  The building opposite the Town Hall was valued at £200,000, but after the Peace Gardens were finished the value increased and the Council sold it for £2.25 million.  The plan for the Town Hall extension (the ‘Egg Box’)  was to change it into a shopping mall, but this was dropped as being too expensive and also because it would block the way to the city centre from the station.  The original idea was to direct station arrivals along a tree-lined walkway from the station to the city centre, but the traffic department ran a dual-carriageway along Arundel Gate and cut it off to some extent.

The ‘Egg Box’ was sold to developers, who demolished it and erected the current building for the Council and a hotel.  Also the Winter Gardens and the Millenium Gallery were planned and erected, although there were some alterations to the Gallery.  This was because the V&A, who were involved in stocking the Millenium Gallery, required hermetically sealed garages where they could unload their stock, so plans were changed to accommodate them.  The lighting planned for the galleries was diffused, reflected daylight but the V&A covered the roof windows and blocked out daylight. The Council offices were designed to have a comfortable, calming atmosphere in the waiting and interviewing areas because people visiting are usually there looking for help.  Colin also mentioned that the Town Hall and the Central Library buildings (and others) are showing their age and will be expensive to renovate.

Altogether an interesting and enlightening talk with such a volume of slides and information that it is difficult to cover it all.