Open mike - Bands such as the Arctic Monkeys have put Sheffield on the pop-cultural map. Now, their energy is feeding into the debate about the city’s regeneration
If architecture is frozen music, as Goethe said, then regeneration is the thawed-out stuff – all freewheeling improvisation, attack and decay, rock ’n’ roll. You can look at a Frank Gehry and imagine trumpet blasts or a crash of cymbals. The heavyweight structures of Louis Kahn might take you down among the bassoons and timpani. A Chipperfield building is all flutes. But take a look at the city and it is songs, albums and whole musical careers that come to mind.
Just as linguists observed that the Mancunian accent hardened in the 1990s in reflection of the city’s growing confidence, the Happy Mondays captured another essence of Manchester – funny, soulful, crude and distinct. Manchester built the Bridgewater concert hall in this period, but it is the sound of Shaun Ryder & Co, not the Hallé Orchestra, that best evokes that city’s rebirth. Some of the smoother city-centre apartments built more recently may be more Simply Red than Stone Roses, but Manchester’s regeneration in the 1990s danced to a baggy beat.
More than a decade later and, on the other side of the Pennines, the regeneration of Sheffield has its own soundtrack, provided by Arctic Monkeys. This group have tapped into a zeitgeist that is shared by architects and developers. It is a spirit that is iconoclastic and fresh and comes as Sheffield decides whether its regeneration should strike out its own path or simply ape its neighbours.
Arctic Monkeys are part of a creative undertow in “Sheffo” that takes the urban environment as its starting point. In their videos, the band shows the looming Park Hill estate – an eyesore to many, a brutalist masterpiece to a few. They sing about the pimps and prostitutes who live there and infuse them with energy and humour. Sheffield’s grim urban landscape, memorably described by the professor at the city’s architecture school as “a graveyard of modernist dreams” is just presented as it is.
That professor is Jeremy Till and he is curating Britain’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale – a kind of highbrow Eurovision for architecture that kicks off this September. Sheffield is the theme and he has even booked another hip band from the city, the Long Blondes, to kick things off.
At one point, Till didn’t even include any architecture in the show. Then his arm was twisted and he threw in a handful of schemes
But what’s really interesting is the way Till is questioning the way that architects see regeneration as being about buildings. His team includes the spiky editors of a fanzine called Go, which celebrates “Sheffo – the best city in the world” and attacks the council’s for trying to be the next Leeds or Manchester . Till has also hired an acclaimed graphic design company called Designers’ Republic; Martyn Ware, the former frontman of Heaven 17, is producing a soundtrack.
At one point, Till didn’t even include any architecture in the show. Then his arm was twisted and he threw in a handful of schemes, including the provocative redevelopment of Park Hill estate.
It’s all a long way from the architectural explorations of many other pavilions, and has already raised disapproving eyebrows among the architectural heavyweights in London – snobs that they can sometimes be.
The project tries to connect with what really makes cities exciting – the people who use them to do extraordinary things. It is miles from the urban renaissance idea of transforming grubby English towns into places of Continental sophistication. Often the result has been substandard squares fringed with tacky coffee shops and bland one- and two-bedroom flats. The Sheffield gang who are preparing to exhibit in Venice are fighting against that tendency and we should thank them for it. Manchester’s Hacienda may have been turned into yuppie flats, but in Sheffo, the beat goes on.
Rob Booth is a freelance journalist and former editor of Building’s sister magazine BD