Tuesday, 19 June 2007

A Sheffield Icon Under Threat

After yesterday's hopeful news, today brings a more disappointing story - or rather, a challenge to avoid one.

The Tinsley cooling towers stand alongside the M1, England's principal arterial motorway, as it crosses the Lower Don Valley on the edge of Sheffield. Familiar to millions of drivers, they are as striking a roadside landmark as Antony Gormley's rightly famous Angel of the North. But unlike Gateshead's iconic figure, the towers' aesthetic impact is incidental to their origin - as part of the Blackburn Meadows Power Station, demolished nearly 40 years ago.

More recently, the towers have become icons for something larger and less tangible. It happened because of two indecently talented young men, both named Tom, who started a fanzine called Go! Sheffo - a visual and lyrical love letter to an undersung city, and a rallying call to defend its distinctiveness against a tide of blandness masquerading as regeneration. They found a voice which resonated with all kinds of people in the city. And one of the best things they did was to organise a competition to turn the towers into a work of art.

Out of that competition came a campaign that seemed like it might succeed, that gathered media coverage and endorsements from the great and the good. Finally, however, it seems to have hit a wall with the towers' owners, the electricity generator Eon, who announced today that they're going to demolish them.

It's a strange thing to get excited about, a pair of cooling towers. Especially when there's a primary school next door to the same stretch of motorway which should have been moved elsewhere years ago and still hasn't. (Though there's no reason to set the two causes against one another.)

But the message Tom and Tom just sent out gives a sense of what they've come to stand for:

We’ve always said that Sheffield needs something to represent the changes that this city has gone through, and the good things that happen here. A new icon.

We’ve always said that the cooling towers are perfect for this. They’re in a perfect position, and represent both Sheffield’s ugly past and its potentially beautiful future...

This is crunch time. We need someone else to put their money where their mouths are. We haven’t got the resources or the time to mastermind a process that ends up with two old cooling towers transformed into new symbols. We don’t get paid to do this. Maybe the people who do, should.

If the leaders of this city want to see the cooling towers transformed into spaces for international works of public art, like the Tate Modern turbine hall, like the Gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany, it needs to happen now.

If our leaders really want Sheffield to be ‘a Distinctive City of European Significance’ then do something to make it distinctive. This is an organic, positive idea, that only Sheffield can do. No-one else has two massive structures next to the M1. No-one else could change what their city means at a stroke. Not Newcastle, not Manchester, certainly not Leeds.

And here’s a message to the city.

Unless you do something big and bold soon in the regeneration of Sheffield, no-one will care. Literally, no-one outside the city will care. No-one will care about a city with the same shops as everywhere else, the same flats as everywhere else, the same cafes as everywhere else, but slightly uglier buildings.

For the last two and a half years, we’ve been trying to make a good idea happen. We still believe it’s a brilliant idea. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

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This blog was my online home between 2006 and 2009. Today, you'll find me scattered across the internet. To start looking, go to my personal website: http://dougald.co.uk/

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