Furnace Park // Some Background

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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All photographs by Andy Brown, 2013.

Resurgam: A Libation in Light for the Almost Forgotten

“Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead – when I exist in no one’s memory.” 

Irvin D. Yalom,  Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy

The forgotten corners of cities conceal surprising narratives and striking imagery.  Wardsend Cemetery is just such a place, a burial ground officially closed since 1988, but whose population has been unchanged since 1977.  I came upon the existence of Wardsend during one of those chance conversations you have on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  The following week I was winding along an industrial access road, conscious of the rich golden quality of the late afternoon light.  The metalled road crossed the bridge built to replace one severely damaged by the Sheffield floods of 2007.  Progress then ended abruptly, blocked by large boulders set in place to prevent access to the muddy tracks flanking the River Don.  

Ph. Richard Ward 2012

From the unheralded cul-de-sac, anonymous stone steps rose.  In the absence of signage a welcoming party of gravestones huddled a few metres on, cast in partial shadow.   At the foot of the steps the electrical guts hung from a small concrete bollard.  The wind-blown detritus of modern life was strewn through the adjacent undergrowth.  Alongside, woven into the vegetation, was a smattering of larger offerings to the dead.  These comprised of the usual suspects: tyres, paint cans, an incongruous left shoe and lumps of rubble.  The sense of isolation from the mainstream of the city is immediate. 

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It was not until 2nd February that I came to write about the photographs I had taken some weeks before.  Only then did the poignancy of a favourite image from that earlier visit strike me.  The beautifully crafted headstone of one 27 year-old stood out, captured in a libation of warm winter sun.  Frederick Stephen Goddard had passed away one-hundred years ago to the day.  His headstone was crowned with the single word ‘Resurgam’, which means ‘I shall rise again’.  I thought immediately of all those city spaces that lie dormant on a similar premise.

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Wardsend reveals strong parallels for me with other urban land in apparent decline.  Rendered in the pre-sunset glow of Winter light the memorialised dead jostle in a sun-dappled crowd amidst the pell-mell ingress of nature.  Similar vistas play out in the post-industrial brown-fields mottled with buddleia, bramble and rosebay willow herb.  Our heritage takes many forms and speaks to us in many ways, many of which are themselves individuated in their interpretation.  None is perhaps so poignant as the neglected memory of the dead.

Throughout Wardsend nature tries to make sense of a space less manicured than the dead might ever have dreamt in life.  The tension with a natural succession shines through in many of my images.  Silver Birch, the classic pioneer tree species of open disturbed ground, abound and encroach, albeit gradually.  This quest for a new equilibrium also plays out where industry has died, or is in transition, as much as in a place of burial.  Here at Wardsend, the process has been managed since 2010.  Consequently, some identities have been refreshed from beneath a blanket of vegetation.  Others are lost to us, their memory shattered by frost, or corroded by the action of wind and rain. 

Broader questions about the spaces we offer to the dead and how we memorialise within crowded urban settings are of considerable cultural and social relevance. Does this apparent decline really matter?  Is it a decline at all, or is a more radical position, one in which we surrender the dead to nature, a more fitting epitaph?

Richard Ward, 2013

Sunday walks #2

Sunday 19th February

 

Many things to write of in the aftermath of a lovely Sunday, but I think that the feeling of surprise comes at the top of my agenda.  Surprise at what’s there, what we’re missing and what could be. Had a very strange feeling when I went to look back on the route that we took, tried to drop the little man in on Google maps in order to see if I’m finding the right location, and to discover that there is ‘no data available’.  Instead, all that there is, is unlabelled, uncoloured mass.  No roads, no paths, no pictures.  And yet the sights we saw!

Sights that were characterised by confusion.  What is this place? An industrial wasteland that is history-rich, foreboding pylons towering over ivy tombstones, motorcyclists tearing through.  As far from the Information Commons as imaginable.  And descending into real-world really-known Sheffield, Hillsborough College star-trek piercing spikes and casino plants with a car-park too big.  Graffiti: ‘YOU BET WE DIE’.  Animal rights over the dogs at Owlerton?  A morbid reminder reflecting graveyard poetry?  The drain on community of gambling, and these money-making cold-houses?  KFC drive through.  Drive-thru.

So to start at the beginning, we rambled in through Kelham Island’s beautiful derelict waterway woven flat-lands.  Something to savour in a city of hills!  Bricked in doorways and broken windows, eerie sunlight and old oil-lamps, beautifully simple lettering and works of all kinds, bridges and bricks, one wall with the other three missing, three walls with the one missing, cobbled streets, chimneys, large-scale machinery.  So easy to romanticise!  ‘GLOBE WORKS’ reminds me of Sheffield’s influence worldwide.  This was the centre, where it all began.  And now the abandoned steelworks are adjacent to abandoned apartments.  Luxury apartments that appeared too late for the housing boom and so exist almost as empty as their neighbours.  Yet they were never full.  Round the back of such shiny, new, urban renovation schematisation we walk over weeds and rubbish dumps, weave between heaps of rubble.  As if it’s a bomb site, vast areas are reduced to these heaps, among which tin cans are oxidised, vodka bottles are emptied.  Tyres, bin bags, strange greenery, wire fencing, and occasional warning signs are found.

I don’t know how many times it is acceptable to use the word ‘abandoned’ in one piece of writing, but I’m pretty sure that I could push the boundaries here.  Buildings at all stages of delapidisation, in the depths of the process of decay.   We walk along this sludge mud-track and see but one truck driven by but one man, clearly a little confused.  A Sunday football friendly takes place somewhere unseeable, and again I hear – “what is this place?”  We find ourselves in the most uneven terrains of ups and downs and diagonals, irreducible to straight lines.  There are no straight lines in nature.  A cemetery crowded and fertile, mystified in filtered light, recent burials with only thirty years to their name are found, yet no sign of even a trace of a fresh bouquet.  Further up the hill, across an (abandoned?) railway track, a field of sorts, and a view.  Beyond the crooked fluid entanglement of gravestones and ivy lies grey stone and clarity.   Electricity in the making, the hearable static crackles.  Iron, concrete, brick.  Sturdy, imposing, fixed.

And so we come to the question – what to do?  With what we’ve seen, with what has sparked, with what there is to see or spark.

Tanya Hart, 2012

Upperthorpe Perimeter Round Walk #2

Section 2   Pennsylvania to Parkwood Karting

Walk expectantly down Albert Terrace Road to cross Infirmary Road.  Left here, and then detour right down Gilpin Street where the boundary casts a block of burned out sandwich shops out of Upperthorpe. Right takes us back to Albert Terrace Road, past blue industrial units born again as evangelical churches. They are also sublet as student exam halls.

A multinational white dove flies in through a skylight as the students sit their business exams, with an olive branch in its mouth. This corporate holy spirit flies in clockwise circles around the ceiling. The invigilators convulse on the floor and speak in tongues. All the students score 95%, but fail.

Carefully cross the arterial Penistone Road, then walk east to find Rutland Street on the left. Pass the first of many industrial estates, ignoring the DIY superstore opposite, which changes hands over and over.

Just before Rutland Bridge is a beautiful old steel works building, recycled as offices, and hence currently deserted. It has fine broad windows over the river, and the repeated logo of a Samuel Osborn’s works, white hands grasping for lily-white hearts.  Cross the Don, which is squeezed here by reeds and willows.  If this is the stenosis, the infarct must be the downstream industrial and gastro-pub heritage area to the right.

As you reach Neepsend Lane, this is probably the outer edge of the red light district, marginalized from the city centre into ever more deserted industrial spots. At this time of day it’s difficult to tell. But what is evident as you go left along the Lane is that there are remnants of working industry scattered around here, some of them metallic.

Pass the derelict frontage of the old Stones Brewery, up to the corner of Bardwell Road, which bears its Soviet-style office building.  Conscientious vandals have smashed every deco window on the stair landing, right up to the top floor.

Veer right up Bardwell Road, past the indoor skateboarding  room, where my son went before he grew too tall. Pass commissioned, and therefore neutered, graffiti murals. Here we first notice a pervading smell of gas, bad enough to stop my companion smoking.

Follow a dreadlocked man up to the railway bridge (MAC/124).

The boundary of Upperthorpe goes along the railway line, presenting an access problem. One solution might be to adjourn and traverse this section by train, but only one train now uses this line, daily taking steel between Stocksbridge and Rotherham.  We decide to follow the outer edge off the boundary just beyond the line, but outside Upperthorpe.

To take this option, go under the bridge, turn left off the road that continues up the bumpy hill to the ski village, on to Wallace Road. This street was the lowermost part of the former Parkwood Springs Estate, built originally by the railway company that owned this once busy line, for its engine drivers, and other employees. It was demolished in 1978 to make way for a council landfill site.

After a short while the road disappears into a travellers’ camp, caravans blocking any progress along to the next two bridges. Fearing guard dogs, my companion having been bitten the previous week in the Mayfield Valley, we retrace our steps clockwise now, back down to Neepsend Lane. Where Wallace Road becomes the muddy entrance to the camp is where George Orwell stayed with a family while visiting Sheffield in the 1930s, and he described the area in his classic The Road to Wigan Pier.

In retreating we are too scared of the ‘other’ on the hill. But also reversing our circumnavigation, even temporarily, is like going against the grain, from counterclockwise to clockwise. But then an anticlockwise cog will drive a connecting neighbour clockwise, which would then pass on its motion to further cogs anticlockwise, onwards and outwards reversing direction each time, in successive and multiplying revolutions and counter-revolutions, a sort of neutralising machine.

Going west further along Neepsend Lane we pass feverish earth moving. Fences decked with toxic warning signs can’t conceal the bulldozers and diggers moving hardcore and steaming soil, and the gas smell reaches a crescendo. They are demolishing the site of Orwell’s gas works. A vast site, it even contained a power station with cooling towers at one time. To follow us go right, up Parkwood Road. Juggernauts rumble up here with topsoil, followed, like a pilot fish, by a little street scrubbing wagon trying in vain to mop up the mud.

Halfway up, climb a flight of steps which leads to a footbridge back over the railway. This is the site of Neepsend Station, closed in 1940. Part of its rocky cutting was carved into the shape of a fairy castle, but this has now vanished. Take the footpath beyond the bridge up the hill, but then branch off to the left, along a path over the scrubby hillside. This should emerge at bridge MAC/126, and you have reached the farthest point of Upperthorpe. Just over the bridge, rejoin Parkwood Road before it leads up the hill to the landfill site. Here is the clockwise go-kart circuit, lined with tyres.

Eddy Dreadnought, 2012