Interlude Docs

Doc 049: Owen Hatherley

Interlude Docs

I can’t say I was particularly surprised when Castle Market closed down, given that the first time I saw it, I could hardly believe it existed. Similarly, I’m sure that on some level the fact that I loved it as much as I did came from the fact I didn’t have to use it every week, that this wasn’t generally the place where I’d go for fruit and veg or whatever, but somewhere I visited every couple of months or so. It wasn’t really a normal market, but something much more complex and strange, a cornucopia, a multi-level cavern full of surprises, a timewarp of smells and sights, one part the “high” ’60s of chic modernist design, one part a “low” ’60s of pop typography, and another part a thrown-together design spanning rave culture and the more basic, brash aesthetics of the ’80s. Eventually these too faced additions, and unfortunately, for the most part, dereliction, more recently of a particularly deliberate sort, as the market was deliberately run down in its last years. Because of all this, to visit Castle Market in the 2010s was to visit a dreamspace.

Like a lot of buildings from its time, it was perhaps a little too weird and ambitious for its very mundane purpose, with its complex layout a potential pain in the arse if you need to get the shopping done quicklythough that’s nothing a decent restoration architect couldn’t have solved. But that points to what made it interesting in the first placeits balance between mundane and extraordinary. The first of its many peculiarities is the way it was built into its sloping site, with entrances from three different levels. Another is the way that it morphs into several different things at once, incorporating an older fish market and pulling a Brutalist office block into its composition. Another is its existence as the fragment of a vertical city, with the walkways connecting its upper levels to other upper levels elsewhere in the city (many of which were closed long before the market itself was).

Probably most intriguing of all, though, was spotted by Ian Nairn at the time of opening in the early ’60sthat “the designer has been wise enough to know when to stop designing, the most difficult problem of all”. Knowing where to stop designing is not the same thing as not designing at all, as in the case of the new market on the Moor, where the architects have deliberately taken a back seat, offering just an arched shed for the stalls to go underneath, with no ambitions beyond that. Rather, Castle Market’s architect, Andrew Derbyshire, designed a highly ambitious, three-dimensional piece of architecture, which could only have existed on this particular site in this particular city at that particular time, one which contorted itself to do fifty things at once, while never drawing attention to that feat with the kind of fancy engineering fashionable both in the ’50s and today. As a building, it did several unusual things at once, both in its architectural integrity and its refusal of the prissiness that usually comes with it. One was to be unambigiously modernistBrutalist, even, with that sculptural concrete chimney in the towerand at the same time completely unstandardized and specific, a reproach to the idea of modern architecture as an interchangeable “international style”.

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The other, though, was its role as a showcase of a grass roots modernism, a pop modernism. The signs, or in the case of the cafés, the interior fittings that stallholders brought to the building, were as modern as the building itself. Right up to the end, there was 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 sold an array of things from toys to baskets to travel goods, with more on the outside galleries, like Lew Burgin’s Ladies’ Salon or the New County Hair Stylist, seemingly untouched since 1965. Funnily enough, the only anti-modernist design gestures were imposed by the Council, in the form of the florid metal signs installed on the walkways in the ’80s.

There was not anywhere like this anywhere else in the UK, not then and certainly not now. Of course the other great northern cities have their market halls and arcades, which are all very impressive and long since reclaimed by Heritage; and some cities, such as Preston, Coventry or especially Plymouth, have post-war markets that also combine now-nostalgic modernist design touches with the freedom for stallholders to contribute their own designs. However, they have less space to do so, and the result is the traditional market modernized. Castle Market was not that, but it implied something larger, and typically for the architecture of 1960s Sheffield, something more ambitious. It was less a market as a shopping center done differently, a shopping mall without a single chainstore.

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So why did it have to go? There’s a variety of possible reasons. In the replanning of Sheffield since the late ’90s, the filling of its open spaces with big steel balls, whimsical furniture and such (which, undeniably, made most of these spaces more fully used than they had been hitherto) there were two holes, the Moor and Castle “quarters”. Unimaginatively, one was meant to be for shopping and one for offices, and so the swap of the market from one to the other took place; a simple town hall decision that didn’t need to spend much time thinking about what it was signing out of existence. The market was also far too mixed-up, working class and chaotic to be useful in the endless process of city brandingthe entire north of the center had been left to become a central slum, which made it all the easier to destroy, and with it the usual slurs are never far from the surface“urgh it was dirty and full of chavs/dossers/complete as appropriate”. But it seems equally likely that Castle Market went precisely because it was strange. Urban spaces are not meant to be ambiguous anymore, and here might be the real answer. Castle Market suggested a different kind of city altogether, a hint of urban space that was neither corporate nor bureaucratic.

Now that it doesn’t exist, we can fully expect a gradual accumulation, followed by a deluge, of nostalgia. Rare and Racy will have an entire section of Castle Market-related Sheffieldiana in ten years“The Market We Knew”, “I was a Fishmonger at Castle Markets”, “Meet Me at the Rooftop Café: A Markets Romance”the possibilities are endless. At the moment, though, the least controversial part of the Markets’ replacement has happenedthe building of a dull but functional hangar on the Moor, which will provide the healthier, less obviously weird services previously available at the old Market; the office district that will eat up the old site is yet to come, although there is a small preview of it already available in the form of the desperately drab red brick offices between the market and the Park Square roundabout. When the offices are there, and somewhere interesting and unique really has been replaced with something that has no ambitions more than to rival the Leeds Central Business District, then the nostalgia-fest will kick off, and it’ll join Hyde Park, the pre-Urban Splash Park Hill, the egg box, the hole in road and much else in the annals of things that were too interesting for Sheffield to bother to preserve them.

This essay was originally written for Castle Market, a catalogue of photographs by Victoria Lucas. All photographs by and courtesy of the author.

Owen Hatherley is a British writer and journalist based in London who writes primarily on architecture, politics, and culture. His books include Militant Modernism (Zer0 Books, 2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso, 2010), The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso, 2016), Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London (Repeater Books, 2020), and Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances: Finding a Home in the Ruins of Modernism (Verso, 2021). 


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