learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education


I was in Sheffield earlier this month to deliver some long overdue work. Arriving in the city on a beautiful summer’s day, I found my old friend the Arts Tower sheathed in scaffolding and in the process of being wrapped in white plastic for a two year programme of refurbishment. As usual, I caught my first glimpse of the building as the train approached the city from the north-east, only this time it caught my eye for a different reason, it’s partial shiny white skin an unexpected change from the heavily weathered façade panels and single glazing that are due to be replaced.
The frankly awesome twenty-something stories of scaffolding that now envelopes the tower is practically a building in its own right. Oddly, the subtle additional width it gives to the building was (just) perceptible from the train. For so many years I’ve turned corners in Sheffield and seen it standing out from the hillside and come to recognise its form; to see it slightly wider than usual caused a strange double-take.
I spent a couple of very pleasant hours in the adjacent Main Library. This is also being refurbished, and my fingers are so tightly crossed that they don’t balls it up I may not be able to type for a while. The University of Sheffield Main Library is a beautiful place to study, one of very few Modernist buildings that I genuinely like. The means of entering and ascending up two broad flights of stairs takes you from the street to the lending hall in a gracious but functional way. The subsequent transition to the beautifully calm double height reading room that overlooks Weston Park is similarly special, carrying you from the noise of the university plazas to the tranquility of the reading room. The soft leather-topped desks are blissful to write notes on, and the atmosphere is reliably work-inducing. Any re-shaping of the Main Library in the form of the truly dreadful Information Commons across the street (the place to check Facebook and drink crap but expensive coffee) will be a heart breaking loss.
From the architecture collection (and at an upward looking angle that brings out the blueish tint of the windows) I caught sight of the scaffolding team fixing the white plastic sheeting. I imagine that this external skin will, by now, have enveloped the whole structure in preparation for the long façade refurbishment that will continue through at least one Sheffield winter.

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10 Responses

  1. 6000 says:

    Any impressions of what we’re likely to see in a couple of years’ time?

  2. Deborah Egan says:

    Unfortunatly the maintainance of significant modenist buildings
    of global importance has been proven not to be Sheffields strong point ( see current balls up of the Urban Splash /
    Smith and Lynns Park Hill/ Hyde Park development) .

    Lets hope that the University and the Planning Dept are taking their responsibilites to future generations seriously and being mindful of the elegance and delicacy of this graceful building

  3. James says:

    Deborah, I quite agree. Go and enjoy the Castle Markets before the council demolishes them… the Sesquipedalist has an interesting recent post here:


    6000: the building is listed, and the façade must be refurbished in such a way that it maintains the building’s appearance. I understand that, in order to meet modern day toilet provision standards, a new set of toilets will need to be added to each floor. At the moment, the male and female toilets are in the middle of the floorplates, in the central core next to the two staircases. I understand that the toilets will be expanded out on one side of the building to the windows, but that some active discussions have been had about how to have toilets on the ‘outside’ of the building without the glazing being affected. In theory, you shouldn’t be able to notice a strip of frosted windows running the height of the building (especially as no-one’s going to be looking in to the 18th floor bogs from outside) but who knows what will be done…

  4. Deborah Egan says:

    James – interesting – How does that sit I wonder with the removal of the markets to the Moorfoot site -aprox 2.5 miles SW – and the buildings change of use’ – the lack of development funding citywide including for this new market development – the clocks ticking – watch this space !

  5. Tim Zijlstra says:

    Dear James,

    Although I am one of few people who truly agrees with your views on both the Arts Tower and the Western Bank Library, not Main Library, I have to say I am truly miffed with your views on the Information Commons.

    As a functional design the IC is way beyond where the WBL is as demonstrated by the massively increased visitor numbers and the huge response in customer satisfaction surveys. Of course the building has its faults, but being dreadful is certainly not one of them. I also hope Sharon from the cafe will not get to read about your comments either, you do realise the IC at least has a cafe, which is more than can be said for the WBL?

    Kind regards,


  6. James says:


    Thanks for the comments. I hope Sharon gets to read my comments. I was on first name terms with her colleagues in the Arts Tower café during my studies there, and they sympathised with my complaints about the falling standards in the coffee supplied and the increasing prices. Not long after my initial complaints, they politely reminded me that they don’t source the stuff they sell, nor do they set the prices.

    In 2007 I even took a walk through Sheffield to compare the cost of ‘student’ priced university coffee with commercial outlets…


    After seven years at the University of Sheffield, I left extremely disheartened at the attitude of the university’s commercial outlets towards students. Likewise the privatisation of the university owned halls of residence, and the abolition of in-halls catering facilities. If you didn’t have a morning lecture, would you really fancy walking 10 minutes outside on a February morning for breakfast?

    On an aside, a cleaner who split her shifts between one such privatised hall and another university building once told me that since the TV room, JCR, SCR and bar had been closed, the amount of damage to the fabric of the building had increased. Why? Because students had no communal spaces in their halls beyond their rooms that wanted to use, and started loitering in halls and corridors. The large numbers of visitors to the IC is no doubt in part due to the popularity of the building, but then the university has savaged the facilities available to undergraduate students in their halls.

    And I apologise, you are right to correct me. The Main Library has indeed been renamed the Western Bank Library. This was to emphasise that it is no longer the ‘main’ university library (despite housing the majority of the institutions collections). Does that mean (by deduction) that the IC is the new ‘main’ library? Well, not really, because it has only a limited collection of key texts. And also, I’ve found it to be a horrid place to work. The subtle unwritten rules of library decorum found in the Main…. sorry, Western Bank Library, have yet to somehow translate to the IC. People chit-chat, computers (portable and workstations) have invaded most of the working spaces and the crazy ‘energy efficient’ lights make the strip lights doubly inefficient by turning them on and off whenever people pass by. It is indeed true more students are using it than the Main Library: and that’s great. But it’s not just because the IC is a better facility. It’s certainly more popular with younger students, but in turn they’re the generation now effectively born with a laptop in their hands. I just cannot abide that kind of working environment. Computers have changed my life, and make it possible for me to do a Phd remotely, accessing articles, documents and even entire books online and away from campus. But the IC is a study centre, not a library, and moves to shift the heart of the university’s academic facilities from the WBL to the IC reflect a sad erosion in the value placed on comfortable, mutually respectful and useful library facilities.

    There is also something odd about the concept of an Information Commons. From Wikipedia:

    ‘The concept of the “information commons” emphasizes some of those principles that also apply to the natural commons, such as preservation, conservation for future generations, etc. Information commons refers to our shared knowledge-base and the processes that facilitate or hinder its use. It also refers to a physical space, usually in an academic library, where any and all can participate in the processes of information research, gathering and production. The term commons refers to the land (or common grounds) that villagers shared for grazing purposes in simpler times.’

    As wireless technology becomes more and more pervasive and reliable, does the IC actually need to be a place? I interpret the concept of a shared knowledge-base as an abstract space, an online or virtual world of information. And if I can access that information anywhere, I’d much rather do it in a calm, quiet building with soft leather-topped writing desks, a view of the park and lights that don’t flicker on every time I scratch my stubborn postgraduate arse…

    With love (‘cos Sheffield will always be in my heart)


  7. Tim Zijlstra says:


    thanks for your extensive reply. You are right to point out that the IC is a study centre rather than a library. You are also correct in pointing out that the IC is used mainly by undergrads as postgrads can not be doing with the distractions on offer.

    Yet I still do not understand how a building can be deemed dreadful simply because you do not agree with its function? Surely having a building for undergrads is beneficial to postgrads who are now able to use the WBL to its fullest potential? Well at least once it has been fixed?

    I have to admit, I am a nut for the IC, I have been wanting to work there since I moved to Sheffield two years ago and am delighted to be doing so. Next time you come around I will gladly give you a tour and see if I can change your mind only a little. I assume you are not a student at the UoS any more, so you will have to let me know before hand so I can arrange entrance.

    Kind regards,


  8. James says:

    Tim… I was indeed a UoS student (2001 – 2008, with a few gaps to see whether I preferred ‘real life’ to academia : ) but I must emphasise, it’s not just dreadful because of it’s function, it’s dreadful because it’s symbolic of an absolute malaise in modern British architecture… horrible detailing (eg: skirting boards, door frames), cheap materials (tables again, although I’m afraid that despite feeling cheap they weren’t at all cheap), fragmented integration of services (why do two elevators have two command buttons? would it have broken the bank to have them integrated with each other so as not to duplicate floor calls?) and inexplicably odd design choices.

    Case in point: the entrance. The outside impresses, but the first experience of the interior is bizarre. Whereas the ML/WBL (delete according to your curmudgeoneity) has a sequnce of progresses spaces from street to reading room, entering the IC takes you through the security gates and then leaves you in a disproportioned hall with a microscopic staircase to the main level. It is, indeed, the same staircase that connects all floors, which is excellent for navigation, but it looks out of scale and is too small for such a major route into the building.

    I will be back soon, and would appreciate access. I have full graduate and SCONUL (postgraduate research student) access rights at the University of Sheffield, but because the IC is not classified as a library (and as I have repeatedly ranted, it isn’t, so shouldn’t have initiated the whole ML/WBL rebranding) I’m not permitted to use it.

  9. Tim Zijlstra says:

    Sorry for the late reply James, feel free to contact me on t.zijlstra@shef.ac.uk, if I am in Sheffield I will more than happily show you round the Information Commons.

  10. Booky Wookee says:

    The IC is successful in the way that a new self-service space with sufficient computing equipment and opening hours should be to meet the demands of students with varied backgrounds and personal needs.

    The human design element is perhaps still a work in progress, though largely determined by the current design/staff allocation.

    Sun kiosks, managed desktop pcs, bookable group rooms and printers and photocopiers in the ‘business units’; it is an effective self-managing resource – one which perhaps raises the prospect of self-servicing the ‘library’ out of the equation fore traditionalists.

    The strange and wonder-ful mystique of Libraries as buildings is not really what the IC is about – This is perhaps the thing which the humanists in all of us tend to feel most keenly in contrasting it with Western Bank Library.

    I also share some of the scepticism over the renaming – WBL remains the main library in the sense of it housing more than ever of the total collections of the entire system, but perhaps that is less important if we accept that there is equal respect for (if an imbalance in student need for) both types of space. It suits some and not others.

    Not that hugging books is an effective learning strategy, it must be said!

    It would be interesting to learn what you make of the WBL refurbishment overall – some return to 1959 aspects are certainly aesthetically and even just plain obviously welcome, but perhaps some of the fuzzy logic of customer comfort and self-service minimalism crept in with the counters design and soft seating.

    We shall see…

    IC-wise, from a design perspective I feel it fails for the staff; the strangely enomous undercroft service space contrasts with the relatively cramped lines of desks for staff, although there are cultural issues as much as physical considerations; perhaps it is ahead of its time in not yet having decided upon a definite role for ‘library’ staff in the networked environment, but that is just my passing opinion. Tim is enthusiastic about it, but then Tim is enthusiasm personified. Lovely man that he is.

    I completely agree with your assessment of the detailing and the ultimate design of the central stairs in the context of the Void. The Northern lights are perhaps the most successful internal aspect and also define the strongest external, public ‘fin and gills’ characteristic (along with the swiss pre-patinated copper).

    the heat balanacing is perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but then the building has to cope with huge surges in usage over its working day.

    The lifts make an interesting study in themselves – the total number and siting as against their daily use being really rather odd indeed.

    Little things tend to dismay – the gappy lock on the toilet doors were a favourite example of odd design, but it is goof for Sheffield students that it is there, and for this we are all the merrier Perfection is always a process, never a product after all :)

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