It was around this time last year that the University’s Arts Tower was forced to close. In solidarity with lecturers involved in the nationwide strike over changes to staff pensions, students staged sit-ins and protested at the building’s entrance. For the rest of us, our relationship with the Tower may be simpler: a place we go for lectures and the occasional joy-ride on the paternoster lift. But since it was built, the local landmark has played a part in every Sheffield student’s experience – if just as a backdrop to our day-to-day lives.
In fact, the student-Tower relationship began even before it was officially opened by the Queen Mother in 1966. Back then the tower’s entrance was adorned with fountains spraying water into two large pools either side of the central steps. On the opening day, a student thought it would be funny to decant washing powder and frothing agent into the pools, creating a 10ft high wall of suds. The fire brigade was called to drain the pools and finished just in time for the Queen Mother’s arrival. After subsequent occurrences of this nature the pools were permanently drained, and the area was paved as it is today.
This is just one of the stories shared in a delightful exhibition currently celebrating the Arts Tower. On until the end of March in Western Bank Library, One Hundred Views of the Arts Tower is curated by Our Favourite Places – a Sheffield culture guide created and run by the team at Eleven Design. The exhibition is an extension of Sheffield Modern, an architecture festival organised by the team for the first time last October.
“Following the success of the concert and interest in Sheffield Modern in general, we wanted to do even more to celebrate our love of the building – and since there are clearly a lot of people in the city and beyond who share this love, we decided to invite them to join us,” says Kathryn Hall from Our Favourite Places.
The exhibition showcases one hundred art pieces that are largely housed in glass cabinets. Around the perimeter are extracts from the University archives – architectural sketches, and old analogue photographs of the Tower’s construction, interwoven with quotes from the people involved. Across the exhibition floor is a diverse array of artistic media, everything from a knitted model to a quilt telling a paternoster-related love story to an IKEA-style assembly poster.
The history of the Arts Tower dates back to 1953, when the University held a competition to design a new building as part of an ambitious expansion plan. Young architecture practice Gollins, Melvin, Ward and Partners won with their modernist design.
Architecturally Miesian in style, the building conforms to Mies’ rational ideology that minimalist constructive forms, if nicely proportioned and well-detailed, could produce a sense of timeless elegance. But what Mies also recognised was that buildings change their functions frequently and so should be flexible to different purposes. Keeping the building straight and square was the way to go and an alternative cylindrical design was thrown out by the firm. However, this has led to the long-standing criticism of the Arts Tower: that it looks like any other office block.
Still, this didn’t prevent nearly 100 people submitting pieces to express their love for the building. Our Favourite Places advertised an open call for contributions to the exhibition, which was inspired by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, a collection of woodblock prints that captured the mountain from different perspectives around Tokyo.
“The variety of pieces submitted really surprised us,” says Kathryn. “From tiny felt depictions of the tower to album covers to ceramic vases.
“A piece that I think has a really lovely backstory, that isn’t immediately obvious when you look at it, is an intricately laser-cut sheet of tracing paper by Tracey Doxey. It was originally designed to be displayed on a window overlooking the Arts Tower, so that you’d see the pattern superimposed on the building – though in the end it went into a display cabinet to protect it.”
In a tribute to the paternoster, Lucy Dearlove and Lucy Ryan submitted an audio complication of memories and stories about the iconic lift. People recall their first impressions and rides, such as the sound that the paternoster makes as it continuously cycles round (“mechanical clunking fairground ride”). Other sounds have found their way into the Tower. From controversial concerts in the 70s to a classical music performance in which a musician occupied each compartment of the lift, creating a unanimous ensemble.
The Arts Tower is unlike any other university building in the UK and could not be more deserving of a dedicated exhibition. Universities are distinct microcosms within their parent cities – we’re acutely aware of this as freshers, but with time, we soon adapt and can forget our surroundings. This exhibition provides an opportunity for us to reconsider the space around us and learn more about a building that our timetables dictate we routinely visit. Next time you’re leaving Western Bank Library, stop by One Hundred Views of the Arts Tower to appreciate the building looking over from next door.
You can see the exhibition at Western Bank Library until Sunday 31 March.
Featured image credit – Vox Multimedia