The Arts Tower renovation, Sheffield

Arts Tower closeup - photo from

I was excited recently to read this article about the refurbishment of the Arts Tower at Sheffield University.

I was a student at Sheffield from 1996 to 1999, and spent a lot of time up on the 12th floor of the Arts Tower (and less time than I should have done downstairs in the lecture theatres). The Tower had what is probably best described as a faded charm – apart from new chairs in the basement cafe, it didn’t seem like much had changed since it was built in the 1960s. It was a drafty and uncomfortable place to sit, whether in a cramped computer room writing an essay, or on a hard wooden bench in a dingy lecture theatre – but it was a fascinating and relatively unspoiled example of British modernist thinking.

Queen Mother opens the Arts Tower in 1965 - in the late 50s, opened in 1965 and still the tallest university building in the country (on a clear day, the views from the upper floors were incredible), the Tower is a true Sheffield icon. It is visible right across the city and (along with the sadly demolished cooling towers near Tinsley Viaduct) you’ll have seen it as an establishing shot in pretty much any film or TV programme set in Sheffield.

With the matching library next door, it’s a fantastically understated building – functional, designed primarily to move people around (at least at pre-90s levels of student numbers). It has design similarities with the Seagram Building in New York and, closer to home, the CIS Tower in Manchester (in which I worked for a few months not long after leaving Sheffield).

Sheffield University Arts Tower, from Weston ParkIt is Grade II listed and has apparently been refurbished very sympathetically internally as well as externally - modernising the original post-war vision rather than trying to replace it with something totally new.

Most importantly for my sense of nostalgia, they’ve kept (and also refurbished) the famous paternoster lift. One of relatively few remaning in the world, and the tallest in the UK, the paternoster (a slow but constantly moving, open fronted lift – allowing you to step in and out at any floor) was a daunting 2prospect in Fresher’s Week, but soon became the best way to get up and down this fantastic building – often quicker, and always more satisfying, than waiting for the high speed lifts. This video shows it’s charm, jolting progress, terrifying clunks and all – although doesn’t show what happens when it broke down and you got stuck in-between floors.

I’m going to try and get across to Sheffield in the next few months to see the updated building for myself, hopefully try out the refurbed Paternoster, and also see if there’s still a crazy wind vortex at the base, by the front doors. (I might also wander up the hill for a pint in my old local – they used to have a vintage 7″ jukebox, I’ll be unhappy if it’s gone).

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