Furnace Park is a Sheffield-based project engaging artists, architects, students, community groups and a range of researchers from across the disciplines to develop an external exhibition and performance space on an abandoned brownfield site in a former industrial quarter in Sheffield. Creative practitioners and researchers from the arts are leading on the project in collaboration with SKINN, with the aim of testing on site knowledges typically marginalised by discourses of planning and urbanism (literature, philosophy, history, fine art, for example). A series of transdisciplinary collaborations taking as their research question the design, representation and practice of the city will result and have already resulted in exhibitions, performances, talks, symposia, model making, temporary constructions and a variety of durational interventions.
We came across the site (an acre and a half of buddleia, concrete, wild poppies and detritus owned by Sheffield City Council) in the course of a programme of urban walks led by occursus, a loose, transdisciplinary spatial studies research group founded by Amanda Crawley Jackson at the University of Sheffield in 2010. It was once home to Daniel Doncaster’s foundry, established in 1778 ‘to apply the crucible steel making process to the manufacture of hand tools’. An 18th-century cementation furnace, now a scheduled monument, still stands at the southern entrance to the site, sectioned off within the HSBC staff car park, and lends its name to our project: Furnace Park. In August 1886, the wall of a warehouse in which Doncasters were storing steel and iron bars collapsed, killing eight children from the slum housing nearby who were playing beneath it. Other than some short notices in the News of the World at the time of the inquest and a sketch in The Illustrated Police Review of September 1886, the incident has slipped virtually without trace into the thick field of unwritten industrial histories.
The slum houses (arranged in clusters of ‘courts’) were cleared in the 1920s and in 1931, a children’s playground was opened on the upper part of the site, at the corner of Doncaster Street and Matthew Street. Doncaster’s stockyard, situated on the lower part of the site, was demolished in the 1950s and, as Luke Bennett explains, the Council went on to use the site to house the offices and workshops of its municipal Lighting Department. The site is now littered with the spolia of all of these constructions, bricks and bits of piping lying in heaps around the perimeter. Two large stones that we think topped the Victorian gateway lie heavily in the shadow of the derelict works that adjoin the site on Doncaster Street.
The site, an awkward palimpsest, is a blank-not-blank space; a post-traumatic, post-industrial landscape of the kind we find all over our cities, in the cracks produced within an urban order structured by cycles of development and decay, occupation and abandonment, investment and neglect. Luke Bennett describes the irreducible tension between the site’s absence and surplus of meaning:
I hear no voices. There are no ghosts of activity here. The only legacies are those I see (bricks) and sense in the ground (contamination). The emptiness of this site does not deliver to me an upwelling of the past as an occupied place. But I do sense the ghosts that Michel de Certeau sees stalking the inner-city: “seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factories, the debris of shipwrecked histories [which] still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city.” (1998: 133)
In fact, we have a surplus of documentation about this patch of contaminated land in central Sheffield. We made the decision early on that rather than occupy the site in a clandestine way – to trespass or squat, make an ephemeral intervention – we wanted to have the experience of making space differently; of working within the planning system to test its edges and push its boundaries; to create, by developing and using minor practices, an other – sustainable – space within the major spatial language of urban regeneration. For this, we learned, we have to have public liability insurance, provide water and toilet facilities, produce and approve a risk assessment for all stages of the project (including construction, events and dismantling), agree the terms of a licence and seek planning permission. The project thus unfurls in a bureaucratic legal framework that few of us had anticipated and which collides with our desire to create a loose space; an open work that is responsive to the contingencies of our encounters, dialogues and discoveries. And yet, through this collision of practices and priorities, we have come to understand some of the ways in which city making works; the networks of power and finance that can sanction a project or stop it in its tracks; the many lines and forces which intersect on our site and amidst which we are, of necessity, obliged to work, even if that is with a view to subverting and inflecting them.
We have had to commission environmental (contamination) surveys, topographical surveys, assets searches and, most recently, a UXB survey. We have worked with the police to think about access to the site and the problems of metal theft and vandalism. We have a project folder running to over 200 pages of tabulated data, diagrams and maps, which still gives us only a partial reading of the thick space it purports to contain and circumscribe.
All photographs by Andy Brown, 2013.