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Last Updated: Monday, 11 September 2006, 10:00 GMT 11:00 UK
Is Sheffield Britain's most cutting edge city?
Tower block with 'I love you' graffiti
Park Hill estate, in a city that "finds romance in the gutter"

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Its industrial heart ripped out, for years Steel City watched as neighbouring Manchester and Leeds sped ahead. But now, chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale, has Sheffield's time come?

As an architectural jewel, Sheffield doesn't take much beating. Locals describe it as "a mucky picture in a golden frame", a former steel working centre nestling amongst the crags of the Peak District.

Yet here it is, showcased alongside the likes of Tokyo, Istanbul and New York at the glamorous Venice Biennale of Architecture, which opened on Sunday.

British pavilion
The British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
If Sheffield is representative of anything, it is of a post-industrial regional city seeking to regain its footing. There are many such in the world, hence its selection to represent the UK at the biennale, where the theme is the relationship between urban architecture and social dynamics.

Martyn Ware, the Sheffield-born founder of Human League and deviser of the British Pavilion's soundscapes, says what makes Sheffield everytown is that it's trying to reinvent itself and its workforce.

"Sheffield lost 70,000 jobs in the steel industry, and it's now turning to the service industry, IT and all that. That's very typical of a city its size in Europe, let alone Britain. Where Sheffield is different is in its attitude - locals call it the biggest village in Britain. It's got a reputation for craftsmanship and honesty, and it has opened its arms to giant numbers of students. That boosts its vibrancy."

Iconic carbuncles

Sheffield has taken quite a drubbing over the years as its prime source of income dried up and its handful of once-iconic buildings fell into disrepair. Today, it's on a mission to tart itself up with a £120m project to redevelop the city centre.

Demolition of egg-box
Demolishing the "egg box" in 2001
The "egg box" extension of the Town Hall pictured right has been felled by the wreckers' ball to make way for an elegant super-conservatory, and a vast, blighted inner-city housing estate - the notorious Park Hill estate - has been earmarked for redevelopment.

And the disused cooling towers at Meadowhall - symbolic of the Sheffield of old - may be transformed into giant artworks in Channel 4's Big Art project.

All very much in keeping with the new Sheffield. The area near the train station has been re-dubbed the cultural quarter, a loose collection of creative and multi-media firms with the Showroom Cinema and Workstation Cultural Industries Business Centre at its heart.

Is there a risk, in pushing the creative side of Sheffield, of further alienating those dispossessed when the steel industry shut down?

Ware is unapologetic. "The older, perhaps more conservative, elements are the people going to Meadowhall [an out-of-town shopping centre]. That gutted the city centre when all the shops moved out.

"Sheffield's tactic now is to repopulate the city centre. These new flats often cost a fortune, but at least now when someone makes some money, they don't automatically want to move to the country."

If you build it

Architecture has been hailed as the city's saviour several times before, and has come up wanting.

City Hall, Sheffield
Sheffield had 72.8% of 16- to 64-yr-olds in jobs in 2003
Average for England 74.6%
'Knowledge workers' make up 23% of workforce - average for England 28.8%
Average before-tax weekly pay £420 in 2003
£439 in Leeds, average for England £483
Only city in region with negative growth in working-age population 1981-2001
In Leeds this growth was 6.1%; average for England 9.3%
16.5% of 16- to 74-yr-olds with degree or more
19.2% in Leeds 19.2%, average for England 19.9%
15.2% of 16- to 74-yr-olds with no quals
13.9% in Leeds, average for England 14.8%
Source: Centre for Cities at ippr

A reminder sits slap-bang in the middle of the much-vaunted cultural quarter - the silver drums of what was the National Centre for Popular Music, which opened to great fanfare in 1999 and closed with indecent haste. Too few visitors, too much debt. Today it is a students' union, with the tatty edges that implies.

Decades earlier, grim terraces above the city centre were torn down and replaced with the Le Corbusier-inspired Park Hill flats. Completed in 1961, the vast block was hailed as a revolutionary approach to inner-city housing.

Fast-forward a few decades, and it was derided as a carbuncle. Fast-forward to today and it's a listed building.

Jim Dale, a design lecturer who has lived in and around the city since the age of four in the 1970s, says physically Sheffield is a very strange city.

"It feels the need to tear itself down and rebuild itself every couple of decades. The new buildings that have come in are great, but knowing Sheffield's record, what will we think about them in 20 or 30 years when something else is in fashion?

"But it's funny that the iconic carbuncles that have fallen from favour - the egg box, the wedding cake [a circular 1970s register office] - all had rather affectionate names. That's Sheffield humour for you."

'Sheffo' on the up

Because there is not one defining landmark of the city - other than Sheffielders themselves - the British pavilion at Venice uses soundscapes, a digital "warts and all" mural and photography of streetlife to convey the city's essence.

Echo City, part of the pavilion
Martyn Ware, founder of Human League
Ian Anderson of internationally acclaimed graphic design studio The Designers' Republic
Jeremy Till, Director of Architecture at the University of Sheffield
Team leader Jeremy Till, director of architecture at the University of Sheffield, says one reason Sheffield got the nod was the calibre of people involved.

"There are incredibly good creative industries in Sheffield because you get these slightly maverick people who are not interested in the mainstream. Think of the People's Republic of South Yorkshire against Margaret Thatcher - it's always been slightly on the margins."

Arty types have long sprung from the loins of the city of steel and cutlery, among them Human League, Pulp, Moloko, and not one but two of this year's Mercury Prize nominees.

Mark Lucas, a web developer who took many of the photos on this page, says Sheffield has been transformed since the dark days of the 1980s. "It was a parochial, culturally barren industrial city. Today, although it doesn't match Leeds for urban chic, it offers a better balance between quality of life and the commercial and cultural energy of a big city.

"The presence of the two universities has added significantly to the city's quality, attracting students to settle, as well as helping to jump-start creative and thought-powered industries."

Jim Dale says he's never managed to put his finger on what he loves about the city. "My old boss put it best when I left my job in Newcastle to move back here - 'there's just something about the place'.

"There is, but I still don't know what it is."

Some of your comments on this story:

I'm glad that Sheffield is finally being recognised as a city that Britain can be proud of. The improvements to the city have come on in leaps and bounds, I wouldn't live anywhere else in the world.
Matt Rice, Sheffield

I studied in Sheffield for 3 years until I graduated last summer. I thought I had 'had enough' of the place when I left. The cold weather, the miserable-looking buildings (of which I lived in one) to name but a few. However, like in the story above - there is something about the place. It's just so different to other cities with their surrounding towns. Sheffield is like a big village, with a heart in the middle. I just can't keep away!
James T, Birmingham, UK

Thanks to the 1984 drama-documentary Threads (about a nuclear strike on the UK) there is a generation of TV viewers who. to this day, still associate Sheffield with the atomic bomb!
Jane MacGregor, Epsom

Visit Sheffield - you'll see a dozen no-go estates, neighbourhoods where crime goes totally unrecorded due to fear of retaliation. A nice City centre, surrounded by miles of dying industry and a generation void of any skills, with outlooks on life as grey as the city's skyline.
Geoff, Dronfield

What a city of contrast. You can be no more than 5 minutes from the modern up-and-coming city centre and back on a cobbled street with dilapidated buildings occupied by small businesses. Then look up and your eyes are rewarded by green trees, with the silhouette of terraced roofs on the skyline.

The healthcare facilities are excellent too. I sometimes have to remind myself how fortunate I am to live in such a great place. And in Sheffield you are never more than 20 minutes from the countryside. What a brilliant place to live.
Ian Cambé, Sheffield

The first time I went there to an open day (before attending the uni for 4 years) I got lost at the end of Trippet Lane. A local lady came up to me, established I was lost, and then took me (not just gave me directions) to the uni. Fabulous people, fabulous times and some wonderful memories.
Helen Q, London

I have lived in a couple of the northern cities, Sheffield being one. It's the only city I felt truly scared in. I witnessed car robberies, assaults, vandalism, car theft, break-ins, and, in one case, murder.

I feel this re-generation is a good thing. Although, how long will it take before it falls back into the same old rut?
Russell Jacques, Wirral

It's true - I came to Sheffield to study and ended up staying 18 yrs. I work in one of the few remaining steelworks left in the area, and feel proud to be carrying on the Sheffield tradition. I have watched the landscape of the city unfold like a flower amid the urban decay, yet the human character of the city remains intact - it's why I love it here!
Mac, Sheffield

Turning towers into art
08 Jul 06 |  UK

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