Castle Market, Sheffield

Castle

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.

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