Thursday, 1 May 2008

revered and reviled: a tale of two towers

archaeology is often associated with the sacred, mysterious and wondrous; the grand and glamorous remnants of former civilisations, the tombs of the pharaohs, the perfectly preserved herculaneum and pompeii, the easter island stones and nearer to home the giant men and white horses carved in the chalk. popular books on archaeology are emblazoned with titles such as ‘mysterious’ or ‘marvellous’ not ‘ordinary' or 'everyday' things! the past we are told is another country and all too often it is portrayed as one totally unfamiliar and unusual, with rites and customs we can glimpse at but never really understand. yet any field archaeologist knows (and the average episode of time team will confirm) that the reality of digging is more often than not the ordinary, everyday, mundane objects of humans and their daily activities. the vernacular and the quotidian of yesterday can quickly become the unfathomable of today as any one wrestling with the enigma of the 400 carved stone balls of orkney or the meaning of stonehenge will tell you…

we inhabit a commodified mercantile world where the expensive, unique, unusual and glamorous is our stock in trade and benchmark. no one is interested in the ordinary or the average and not even the humble toilet roll is allowed to be anything less than luxurious and pampering. we simply don’t deal with the ‘everyday’ as a concept because it doesn’t fit in with our ‘aspirational’ lifestyles. this crucial image problem makes it difficult to market the vernacular 20th century artefact as an iconic or historic relic of the future! who wants to save the tatty old cinema, 60’s office block, high rise tower block or cooling tower when it is perceived as unspectacular or even ugly and offensive?

perhaps it is because we are not yet successfully bedded into the 21st century – the noughties more of a transitional period simultaneously looking forward and back, the new era not sufficiently established for the necessary detachment when contemplating the last 100, even 1000 years.

here lies the key to the problem.

the ‘ruin’ is normally the end product of a long process of utility, abandonment, dereliction and neglect, eventually becoming numinous and forgotten, hazy and cobwebby, at once permanent and invisible in the landscape, its very prominence lending it a pseudo ‘natural’ status, like that of the trees, hills and location in which it nestles unobtrusively. finally the ‘ruin’ is rediscovered and with it the inevitable battle to demolish or defend it – to reintegrate it into society, make it useful and accessible, re-engage and acknowledge it as part of the built environment rather than its hitherto ‘natural’ subliminal one on the edges of our subconscious.

this process presents a real and urgent problem for the urban enthusiast or archaeologist of the contemporary, illustrated in the treatment meted out to two contrasting icons of their age – one medieval, the other modern but no less potent in the landscape. recent weeks have witnessed the culmination of years of dedicated efforts on two very similar projects but with spectacularly different results: triumph for one but crushing defeat for the other. at the heart of both tales is the nature of monumentality and cultural memory, urban dereliction and regeneration, and the precarious state of our 20th century architectural heritage: the most pressing issues of our times.

the soaring triumph at maastricht

the triumph is the tale of a disused church in the centre of maastricht, a dilapidated medieval architectural jewel lovingly transformed into an atmospheric and dramatic bookstore. the aesthetics are classic, reassuringly traditional and accessible, the regeneration proposal practical, functional and commercially sound – in keeping with the prevailing language of city redevelopment and urban planning. visually it is indeed a magnificent achievement; a positively glorious yet harmonious marriage of the building’s soaring austere spirituality and restoration into present day cathedral to learning and commerce – the bookstore as secular ‘sacred space’, vessel of cultural and intellectual heritage, scholarship, aspiration and great ideas. jonathan glancey picks up the story in the guardian:,,2271953,00.html.

it certainly ticks all the right boxes – maastrict is an established tourist destination, beloved by the chattering classes, picture box perfect for the fashionable ‘urban nomads’ weekend away. everyone’s a winner, not least a beautiful building in peril rescued from the bulldozer, an exemplary and honourable solution to the increasing problem surrounding the rapid decline and crisis facing abandoned ecclesiastical buildings of often remarkable beauty and architectural merit. in stark contrast is our disaster story, a sorry end to an equally vigorous campaign to save an altogether different monument, but iconic nonetheless - a complicated tale packed with all the usual suspects, economic, social and industrial decline, urban dereliction, renewal and regeneration.

the stalwart and dedicated attempts by a dedicated pair of young sheffield urban enthusiasts has captured the public imagination and sparked both controversy and support. over the last three years, 2 1940s cooling towers, simple, austere, elegant, have become symbolic of the battle for the city's soul - between those determined to create a 21st-century gleaming metropolis and those intent on preserving and celebrating some of the city's industrial heritage. it's set out grippingly in the following link, which succinctly summarises the dramatic and inspiring tale from outlandish dream, a dream to turn the vast disused towers into a truly landmark art space -

after years of campaigning a happy ending seemed secure when the towers were amongst the 6 winners of channel 4s big art project with funding and support assured from arts council england and the arts fund. within two days however e-on announced the towers unsafe and set a date for demolition. a subsequent campaign for a temporary artwork has similarly met with rejection. in a intriguing twist, sheffield city council has now accepted a large sum from e-on to commission a new public artwork on the site after demolition. as far as the city council is concerned this is a satisfactory solution, one that fits nicely with their new branded masterplan for a rebranded sheffield in the manchester and liverpool mould.

tinsley cooling towers

the cooling tower might seem an unlikely icon and hardly worthy of our attention or support. who in their right minds would be sorry to see the demolition of a couple of cooling towers on the steel manufacturing corridor between sheffield and rotherham, blot on the landscape, oppressive symbol of 20th century heavy industry, cliched symbol of the north, polluter of public health and the environment? not much to celebrate then nor an obvious candidate for iconic status to be saved and relished by the local or national consciousness, especially with the promise of a lovely shiny new artwork to soften the blow?

au contraire – iconic status cannot be conferred by committee or appeals to our sense of delicacy or good taste. monuments are created not made. the pyramids, the mayan temples, the coliseum, even the tower of London are each forged out of the misery, oppression and sacrifice of ordinary people but we continue to recognise and respond to their sheer physicality and politics of space.

art, architecture, ruination, regeneration, modernity, archaeology: this tale of two towers speaks volumes about the gulf between fate of 20th architectural classics and that of more cherished and respected eras such as the victorian and medieval and of aesthetics, nostalgia and the everyday.

all too often the fate of non sacred, non institutional vernacular buildings (and this isn’t necessarily limited to modernist or brutalist 60’s classics – we still criminally neglect to cherish what remains of the once ubiquitous deco cinema and music hall) is to be demolished despite campaigns of support. the ingenious and sensitive reworking of the maastricht church, symbol of the city’s history and heritage needs no justification whilst nearer to home a similar architectural and archaeological symbol of place, landscape and heritage is foolishly condemned to oblivion.
both have made the headlines in the broadsheets and cultural media but it seems that in the popular imagination only a few misguided modernists or 20th century zealots will be mourning the loss of an ugly industrial blot on the northern landscape.

in a sad and ironic footnote a two week sale of tinsley tower memorabilia, tea towels, mugs and postcards sold out in the first two hours. miniaturised, contained, useful and commodified, the towers have finally submitted to the ethos of our age...

in the words of the campaigners, 'they could have been a tate modern for the north, our own turbine hall. we could have done our temporary art project with Anish Kapoor. we could have changed the way people look at this city. and they didn't let us.'
read an update on the fate of the tinsley towers here:


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