Castle Market, Sheffield


In received opinion, modernist planning and architecture is a sterile, over-rationalised affair. Supposedly, it is blind to context, a purveyor of universal solutions and interchangeable types.

Maybe you could believe that looking at many of the post-war modernist shopping centres and estates of Britain, but a quick trip to Sheffield ought to change your opinion. Or rather, a visit to a handful of landmarks that have miraculously escaped a council decidedly handy with the dynamite – Park Hill, Gleadless Valley, and finally, Castle Market. These places, all making gleeful play of Sheffield's exceptionally hilly and diverse terrain, were planned under J. Lewis Womersley, the City architect hired in 1952, who within a decade commissioned 50,000 homes, designing on the side a multitude of schools and local centres, of which the finest surviving is our subject here. Now that Park Hill is undergoing stripping and gentrification and Gleadless languishes in obscure poverty, Womersley's socialist, modernist Sheffield is best seen in this remarkable shopping centre, of all things - built in 1960-5 and now slated for demolition.

The job architect here, Andrew Darbyshire, designed what could be described as a Megastructure before the fact, although never as domineering and 'iconic' as that would suggest. Rather than, as is customary, plonking down from on high a hangar or a slab, Darbyshire fitted a multitude of interconnected structures into a small, sloping site – an office block, with a distinctive angular profile; a raised walkway system with shops; and the markets themselves, three floors – all with access to the street on different levels of the hill – and a wildly curving entrance ramp at the back. Inside, there is a panoply of strange and fascinating things.

Like Park Hill, what is clever and unusual in Castle Market is that it's a modernist design that specifically tries to engineer bustle and individuality, so that you notice both the ingenious design of the labyrinthine structure, but also the competing design ambitions of the many stalls and built-in shops. Much of Castle Market, both the building itself and its individual units, retains original 1960s signage, making it a particular goldmine for classic caff enthusiasts. There's The Soda Fountain, in elegant, continental Sans Serifs seemingly absconding from a Blue Note record cover; the competing signs of Sharon's, where more recent promises of greasy excellence sit alongside a midcentury modern sign declaring 'Snack Bar'; on the outside walkways there's the deep red vitrolite box housing Cafe Internationale, its name appropriately reflecting the former Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire; formica tables and oddly Victorian chairs at Tennant's; the aspirationally named Riviera Snack Bar, replete with palm tree motifs and the promise (or threat) 'watch out for our specials'; and, best of all, the excellent Roof Top Café, which boasts a fantastically ambitious space-age suspended ceiling hanging over formica tables, a patterned floor and net curtains. That's just those open on a Thursday morning.

Castle Market, Sheffield

This state of design delirium is maintained as you gradually descend from the Roof Top Café to the food market in the basement, either on foot down the elegantly cantilevered stairs or via the exposed lift that sweeps up and down the space. There's a sweet shop using the same font as The Prisoner; original signs at Castle News, the intriguingly named Grocock's, and N Smith & Sons, who sell an array of things from Toys to Baskets to Travel Goods. This visual richness is more than matched in Darbyshire's own design embellishments. Mosaic all over the place, including a cantilevered Castle mosaic at one entrance; seemingly random outbreaks of 60s geometric patterning; abstract, multicoloured tile designs, fine sans serif signs, usually missing a letter or several; and in the catacombs of the food market, a grid-patterned ceiling to leaven the dungeon-like effect. Then there's more on the outside galleries, with Lew Burgin's Ladies' Salon (closed) and New County Hair Stylist (open) seemingly untouched since 1965. Florid metal signs were installed on the walkways in the 80s, although they fit quite well with the general organised chaos.

This might all imply that Castle Market is a rotting, abandoned time capsule. Owners Sheffield City Council would argue so, and certainly its time-out-of-joint nature is what makes it so fascinating. Yet even on the overcast morning that these photos were taken, the place was clearly well used, and the Market has in fact been turning a healthy profit, especially since the recession hit. Yet whether young Asian women or elderly Yorkshiremen, the thing that unites Castle Market's visitors is that they are working class, and this does not sit well with Sheffield's intent to make itself as yuppie-friendly as Leeds or central Manchester.

The market, and almost everything around it – including, if the council gets its way, the listed Castle House department store – will go to make way for a combination of the two things cities are now supposed to exist for, regeneration and heritage. The Market sits on the former site of Sheffield Castle, and though the ruins are open to the public, the promise of small stone walls open to the air is being used as an excuse to sweep away an entire area, with a character lacking from the more gentrified areas of central Sheffield, in favour of a new financial district. You can see the beginnings of this from the upper levels of the market, the spec flats and offices of the appalling 'iQuarter', with their barcode façades and empty units glaring at the unfashionable multiformity and civic ambition of Castle Market. The whole place will be relocated to the other end of the town centre, to the gigantic outdoor mall being planned by the developers Hammerson – to a glass hall as bland and flashy in appearance as Darbyshire's market is complex and rewarding. Unlike the emblems of regeneration, this is a place that rewards more on close inspection than from icon-spotting distance.

The New Sheffield being planned is a mere reprise of the modernism of interchangeable blocks and egotistical towers, rather than the city's own, far more original approach to modern design. Interestingly, this decline was prefigured by the architects themselves - Womersley himself would later design Castle Market's antithesis, the ignorant bulk of the Manchester Arndale; while Darbyshire would pioneer woolly, vernacular postmodernism with his Hillingdon Civic Centre. Neither would repeat this combination of sensitivity to place and architectural permissiveness.

Regardless of its pockets of desolation Castle Market is still very much open, and though hardly upkept by a council eager to knock it down, the recession has given it a stay of execution. Get there while you can, as nothing like it will be built again.

How to get there

Castle Market is at Castle Market, Exchange Street, Castlegate, Sheffield S1 2AH. For opening hours see the Sheffield City Council website.

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Lovely piece. I used to go down Castle after pulling an all-nighter to have a fry-up in the cafe in the market whilst the traders were setting up.

I'm fairly sure one of the blocks connected to it was a cinema in the early 90s...

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