Essay by Tom Keeley, artist, printmaker, writer and co-author of the fanzine project GO
Sheffield, as you may or may not know, is a city in the north of England. It’s a city that’s had its name stamped all over the world on knives and forks, at your house and mine. It’s a city whose songs and bleeps and wit have been top of the pops. It’s a different kind of city; a city of hills with terraced houses that tumble down the valleys; a city with the ever-present nothing of the moors lingering just over the next Peak; a city that I called home for nearly seven years; a city that’s home to the Tinsley Cooling Towers.
I went to Sheffield to study. To learn, to leave home, to grow up. I couldn’t have picked anywhere better. It’s a funny kind of place, not necessarily lovable at first sight. This city doesn’t have the showy skyscrapers, conventionally beautiful buildings and international icons that you see elsewhere. It’s much more subtle than that, a cult city. I don’t know, maybe it’s just shy? You have to wait for the city to open up to you. But open up it does, and that’s when it hits you. You’re in love.
At first glance the city might seem to be all desolate ring roads, big box retail warehouses and black-bricked steelworks. It might seem like there’s nothing to see here, that you should stay in your homes, but it’s got some personality, there is a very different proposition at play: a city that exists over the hills, independent and refusing to conform.
Sheffield is a city with history. It’s been places and done things and has the scars to show it. It’s tried big ideas before, be they political or physical. They haven’t all worked, but the city carries on, works it’s way through. This is a city that doesn’t have the tourist brochure glossy photos and mini break friendly sights. This isn’t somewhere to visit, it’s somewhere to live. To absorb and to appreciate.
In the last 15 years or so, many cities in the North of England have been tarted up beyond recognition. They now sit preening and swinging their shopping bags before grabbing a cappuccino to go. Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, they’re all at it. Glamming it up on the weekend, drinking champagne and pretending you’re in Monte Carlo rather than Pontefract. This consumption, this airbrushing and botox-ing of the built environment, never fully made it over the Pennines.
But despite this difference, the virtues you don’t get elsewhere, Sheffield was changing, or at least trying to. Those in charge had ideas of their own, that Sheffield should be a city of distinctiveness, a city of European significance. This might seem like a good idea, but their idea of distinctive turned out to be new pavements and benches, with a shiny new branch of H&M thrown in for good measure. They didn’t seem to realise that for all the reasons mentioned above, Sheffield already was a distinctive city; they just needed to open their eyes and build on what was already there.
As a reaction to this, a friend and I started a fanzine – Go – to voice our concerns with the direction things were headed. It was a call to arms to try and play a role in the future of Sheffield, and a mouthpiece against the bland, instantly decaying regeneration that was going on in much of the city. It seemed like an appropriate format, lo-fi and scruffy, like the city around us, and it was something tangible, something to hold and keep; you could never treasure a blog like that. It also seemed like an appropriate time to do it. The old Sheffield might have been disappearing, but the shiny new future certainly wasn’t set in stone. It was this limbo, this in-between of the before and after, that was really exciting. It felt like anything was possible.
Over the course of eleven issues and four years, we extolled our love, frustration and pride in the city, as well as coming up with new ideas for what the city could be. One of these involved a couple of abandoned cooling towers on the edge of the city, next to a big shopping centre called Meadowhall and the M1 motorway.
The cooling towers were one of the only things you’d see of Sheffield if you drove from the south of England to the north. The remnants of a long-gone power station that fuelled the steelworks of the valley beyond, left standing because they were too close to the motorway to safely bring down.
The city proper hides behind the rolling hills, but as you drive, the valley suddenly opens up. You’re thrust across a double decker motorway viaduct. Industry and Meadowhall on one side, the towers on the other. It’s incredibly dramatic, exhilarating even, whizzing across the tarmac and past these elegant and simple structures acting as guardians and gateways to the North.
You could see these towers from everywhere in Sheffield, peeking out across the skyline over garden walls from the hills miles away. Looming out of the valley when you suddenly went round a corner, they silently stood in the distance doing their thing. Always there. Always watching.
It started, as with many great ideas, in the pub. Sitting and thinking ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if the towers were used for something else’ transformed into ‘a new artwork for the city’. Something positive. Something that showed Sheffield had changed from (but not forgotten) its industrial past. Something that built on this past, and framed it in a way that looked to the future. We couldn’t think of a more fitting symbol of the city’s rebirth.
We already thought the towers were beautiful, but it seemed somehow necessary that they should be transformed in a way to show the outside world that Sheffield had changed. We wanted a world-class artwork, something thoughtful, challenging and beautiful. Something that broadcast this other, aberrant Sheffield for all to see.
We started campaigning. We launched an international design competition. We blagged our way into national publications with our 20 Euro prize money. We held an exhibition of the best ideas, and got talking to bigwigs and local politicians. People started to notice, but at the same time still nothing really seemed to be happening.
Then came the TV cameras. Channel 4 (a national British TV channel) was producing a new programme, documenting the journey of six possible art projects across the UK. Anyone could nominate a site. It could be your front garden, your local park, your Nan’s house, anywhere. You just had to prove why your site in particular deserved it more than anywhere else.
We got everyone we knew, and everyone they knew, and then more still, to nominate the towers as a potential site. We were visited by curators and producers and various art world types. It seemed possible, like it actually might happen for the first time.
After galvanising the support and goodwill of the city, against all odds, we managed to win. Time (you might think) for a celebration, but the owners of the towers immediately announced their intent to knock them down. Thus our fight to save them truly began. And continued for another two and a half years. It turns out fighting a multinational power company (called Eon – if you’re with them it’s time to change) from a room in an old factory in Sheffield was more difficult than we’d anticipated.
We tried everything from listing them as industrial monuments to trying to find a rich benefactor to buy them. We visited examples of places where industrial architecture had been transformed with new purpose. We visited the Ruhr Valley in Germany to see old gasometers and coking plants that had been reborn as awe-inspiring cultural centres and art spaces. There the authorities had the vision to wait and think about re-use before knocking their industrial structures down, inviting artists to occupy the space as a creative stop gap before the next stage.
This rollercoaster carried on for some time. One minute we were nearly there, we had money, we had an artist, we had the real possibility of a temporary intervention into the towers, a six-month requiem before their final demise, a fitting send off for a local landmark. Sadly this wasn’t to be. Eon and the Sheffield City Council had other ideas. The decision had been made. The towers were to go. End of story.
We’d been arguing and suggesting and presenting alternatives for God knows how long, but nothing we’d done had managed to change their opinion. Instead, a new biomass power station would be built on the site (although nothing would be built on the footprint of the towers themselves), and a new ‘artwork’ would be built elsewhere on the site. It was a crushing disappointment, especially when it felt like we’d been so close to doing something amazing.
We decided to change tack a little. Rather than just keep shouting until they came down, we were going to do something positive on our own. We decided to produce all of the memorabilia that you’d normally find for a civic icon — tea-towels, plates, mugs, postcards, jigsaws — and sell them in our own shop. If the towers couldn’t physically stay, we figured at least they could live on in people’s front rooms, on their mantelpieces. It was to be a limited-time offer. Knock down prices, everything must go. The shop was meant to be open for two weeks. Everything sold out in four hours.
The Tinsley Cooling Towers were demolished in the early hours of Sunday 24 August 2008. Hundreds of people made their way to the site to watch them fall. After all the hope attached to them, their end was quick. With a bang and crash these parts of the jigsaw that made up the city’s history fell to the ground in a matter of seconds. It was an abrupt and violent end to their story. Boom, bust, rubble, dust.
The current vision for the future of Sheffield now seems to be in flux. Since the demolition, the credit crunch and economic bubble has burst, and work on towering penthouses and regeneration led by consumption has ground to a halt. No more shopping centres. No more mixed-use developments. Gaps in the city have reappeared, like ghosts of the plans that never quite made it. This state of limbo continues to this day.
This might just be one story from one town in the north of England, but it’s really about more than that. It’s about who decides what goes on in our neighbourhoods, our hometowns. It’s about whether multinational businesses should make the decisions about our landmarks, or whether it should be the people who have grown up with them who choose. It’s about whether our cities should become one-of-a-kind clone towns or whether they should have personality and embrace their differences. I know what I think, and maybe, in the next battle, Sheffield, or anywhere, might win.
Tom Keeley is an artist, writer and co-author of the fanzine project Go. His practice investigates and celebrates the built environment with an emphasis on what makes places special and distinctive.
www.mrtomkeeley.co.uk | @_tomkeeley