“cities are a big deal” — rupert woodBack
Rupert Wood is sixty years old, a fact he celebrated with a courtyard party for smartly dressed zombies on Hallowe’en, and he lives the life that people half his age would live if they only had the chance. He lives it to the full, his way, and he intends to carry on living it like that.
You might recognise Rupert if you pay attention to what Jane Jacobs called ‘the ballet of the sidewalk’; his beard well trimmed, his eyes intent, his mouth always close to a smile, even if its as a precursor to a disagreeing phrase; a couple of open necked shirts and a cravat in tune with a rumpled pocket square and sometimes a hat, but still it’s all not enough to outshine Sapper, the black labrador. You’ll probably recognise Sapper. Follow the lead; that’s Rupert.
With Sapper at his side, Rupert is at the centre of things, and he loves being there. “When we went our separate ways,” he says of his ex-wife, Sally, “I can remember her saying she had an instinct that I would end up right in the thick of things.”
The thick, and becoming thicker, is Laycock House, Rupert’s home, just a few steps from the Peace Gardens in Sheffield. This coming winter Rupert will determinedly and decidedly get in the thick of resisting the idea and execution of the proposed Sheffield Retail Quarter, because he sees a greater opportunity and a bigger idea, that starts with something smaller, as small as a man with a dog and some work and a life.
His work takes place not much further away, on Sidney Street, at APG Works, now a framing and screenprinting workshop and gallery, printing for Kid Acne, TDR, Jo Peel, Boards of Canada; previously, all kinds of things. First, like so many of Sheffield’s old buildings, a cutlers, silver platers and polishing premises, workplace of buffer girls, “Legendary for their foul mouths and their ribaldry,” says Rupert, as they passed the time of day amid the noise of the buffing machines, taking dull silverware to a high sheen, conversation to low excitement.
Later came a penknife manufacturer, for all your penknives; and an engraver, who had piloted Spitfires in World War One, and kept newspaper cuttings and model aeroplanes among his engraving equipment. Then there was a recording studio, and when Rupert and his colleagues moved in and started pulling away the old sound insulation they found a bacchanalian mural painted on the walls and ceiling in an upstairs room, the work of a student who had been hanging out in the studio and found its white walls boring. He came forward with the story when APG Works asked in the local paper for information, and he said he had drawn the mural with pavement chalk and sealed it with PVA glue. Not a technique in any of the classical textbooks, but it has survived anyway.
It has also survived the construction of a block of student flats next door, thought to be the cause of a large crack that divides some of the heroic chalk torsos. “It doesn’t really bother us,” says Rupert of the tall building, one brick side looming over the APG courtyard; it doesn’t block the light and it’s only a wall, really. You get those in cities.
Perhaps the crack in the wall is slightly scary but the building is still upright. It arguably suffered worse when, shortly after moving in, Rupert ventured beyond signs that warned that the floor in the front room on the ground floor wasn’t entirely safe. “Eventually we felt we had to check it out,” he says reasonably, “And of course the floor collapsed and we ended up in the basement,” which also seems reasonable. “The fireplace came down and that narrowly missed me,” Rupert adds, “So I suppose that might have been dangerous. But we just put a new structure in, quick and dirty, and made a new floor.”
There’s an instinctive moment of doubt whenever the person you’re talking to, whoever they are, tells you that they put in the floor you’re both standing on themselves, to replace the one they fell through; “Quick and dirty” doesn’t add much security. But who else would you trust to put in a new floor, if not the person who walks and stands on it every day? With that thought we had a tentative hop as we headed for the door, and were pleased to survive to tell you it was fine.
Rupert’s ideal is that everybody should treat a city like that, and be allowed to treat a city like that; that the people who live in it and work in it should be trusted to care for it. 16–20 Sidney Street has always been in the hands of Sheffield people, who have done Sheffield things there, and with its light-giving windows and multi-purpose rooms and chalk- and-glue murals and rebuilt floors it’s like other groups of buildings of its time, sure, but it’s not the same as any of them, and you wouldn’t find a building like it anywhere but Sheffield. Small as it is, that’s something to preserve and celebrate.
On Rupert’s Instagram account there is a photo of the Cubana tapas bar in Leopold Square, the new ground floor frontage and the old, high first floor windows both impressively floodlit; it looks like a place where evening things are going down. But earlier that evening it didn’t, because their outside lights had been switched off, according to Rupert’s caption: “Went in and told them to turn them on.”
That’s the idea: a city with the lights on. A city that has people who go in and remind other people to switch the lights on. A city that might have forgotten it has lights or where the lightswitches are, until a man comes in off the street and tells it: turn those lights on. A city that doesn’t always remember the good that it’s got.
“I think people in Sheffield would claim,” says Rupert, “With good reason, that Sheffield is a bit special; in terms of what it is, and what it believes itself to be.
“The council have been reintroducing the idea of the Retail Quarter by saying that Sheffield is the only major urban centre not to have done upgrades to its retail offer. But most Sheffield people I know, when they hear that, think: yes!
“We are the ones that have got out, and built our city ourselves, built it without doing what other cities have done. That is a boast, not a cultural cringe. It’s something to build on — starting by being different.”
You can see Rupert’s home, Laycock House, on the plans and 3D visuals that show where the Sheffield Retail Quarter will be built and how it might look. Less abstractly you can see it by standing on Pinstone Street, or Burgess Street, and looking at it. Laycock House is five substantial stories high, with five shop units — two of them knocked together — opening onto the street, five three-storey flats above, accessed from a deck at the back that overlooks a shared courtyard.
That’s looking in, and up; looking out, and down, from the full-height window in Rupert’s living room, you can see the people of Sheffield living their lives on Pinstone Street and Charles Street, coming and going, all about their daily business, business that has brought them to the Sheffield city streets, often from far away, and more rarely, like in Rupert’s case, from just a few nearby steps.
Laycock House is a real and working and exemplary form of city centre living and shopping and working. “Enlightened architects designing for a modern city centre would propose something like this,” says Rupert; it was built in 1896 but still fulfils every requirement of contemporary urban life . “It’s no coincidence that I live here; I chose to live here. Because buildings like these are, in my mind, how you make a city. You live in it, you work in it, you walk around. You have a dog. Buildings like this are integral to my philosophy of how a city should be.”
Laycock House in particular is also integral to the Sheffield Retail Quarter plans, or integral enough for letters to have arrived there confirming the intention of the council, and its future development partner, to empty the building of its occupants this coming spring.
“It’s important that I don’t give the impression that I don’t want to see any development in the city,” says Rupert. “And while I and the other tenants don’t want to lose our homes, that too is less important.”
What is important, is that, “This building serves the city very well just being what it is. Built 120 years ago, as five shops and five houses in a prominent location in the city centre, it has been in continuous occupation and serves the streets around it with this core element of life going on in the city.
“And to strip that away and replace it with some notional idea of what forms progress from the developer’s viewpoint, gutted of spirit and soul and replaced by large scale retail spaces, I don’t think can be justified.”
Large scale retail spaces, in a city that doesn’t manufacture large scale retail products, populated by people who don’t really need or want large scale retail products — who does? — Rupert doesn’t see how the current Sheffield Retail Quarter plans fulfil a requirement for Sheffield, other than to fill a blighted scar in the landscape with… something. The requirement it fills, the boxes it’ll tick, are on lists far away from Sheffield, in the offices of the property funds and land developers looking to partner up and turn a profit.
“Knowing Sheffield people as I do,” says Rupert, “And their socialist traditions, which aren’t mine — I come from far away, from a Tory background, and retain many of those principles — but the people in this city have a good-faith adherence to common principles of equality, decency, sharing, openness, that I absolutely have sympathy with. And I think the idea of the council cosying up with an international property conglomerate with the city’s property, and letting them derive a massive amount of profits from Sheffield, putting in big-name retailers and collecting their rents in offices outside the city or the country, would be a very unpopular idea when presented alongside an alternative: locally owned assets, smaller scale businesses, built by the people of Sheffield, so that the wealth can circulate within the city.”
After years waiting for the long-promised new shops to be built, years when landowners stuck to owning land hoping it would be bought, rather than built on it, pretty much all you can do between Backfields and Trafalgar Street these days is park a car. But that’s why Sheffield now has other options. After the end of the Sevenstone scheme, all the land and buildings are now in the ownership of the council again, until such time as they sign with a new developer to build on the lot.
“Or,” says Rupert, “Sheffield could be and should be the city that says no. We have by happy chance arrived at a unique opportunity in the history of Sheffield. There is no way the council can say this is not in their hands, because the land belongs to them now. Before the council does the deal to get rid of it again is the time for people to stand up and say: hold on.
“There is another vision. We could divide this property. There are architects, developers, businesses and individuals already in Sheffield that would love to build, plot by plot, granular developments in a city that had abandoned its big scale plans in favour of building a real backdrop to genuine, resilient, city centre living.”
Nobody in Sheffield could afford the half-billion needed to become the development partner on a scheme for such a huge swathe of the city centre. But plenty of people in Sheffield could afford a smaller piece, as they’ve shown with new developments across the city, and could bring to their piece imagination, verve, human scale and a sense of the city, complementing the smaller pieces around it as a new village, in a city of villages, is built by and owned by and lived in by other Sheffield people around it.
“Sheffield is devoid of some of the classic features that make a great city,” says Rupert. “It doesn’t have a big body of water, a lake, a waterfront; it doesn’t have a great cathedral or a seat of government. But it scores very highly on something that all great cities have, which is the spirit of sanctity. That feeling that this city is special.
“And I think most people that think this city is special would be drawn to this idea of a fair-minded, more organically developed city. And I think they would fully understand the timescale. This takes longer; a lot longer. And it will cost more compared with sweeping it all aside and putting up a quick steel frame. You could get your instant city in five years if you wanted, and I can understand why a financially strapped council might be tempted by that.
“The other way takes longer, a lot longer, but it starts, and starts immediately, with paint and putty in some cases, fixing up existing buildings; but we can go back in, fix them and live in them, now. The buildings are there. We can exploit what we have, bring them up to scratch, start doing the things that make a city feel exciting. It’ll cost more, but the money will be spent on a smaller scale over a longer period, using local contractors, surveyors, architects, developers, labourers, who will also all be the people using it.
“It’s a real alternative. Architects in Sheffield have already worked out ideas of what a city built like this would look like, what the streets would be like. And once you have a city that has a vision of itself, that isn’t caught in the swirls of the international property market, it is itself a rock, something that’s different. It generates its own economic confidence. Its streets are real. People are living in them. Visitors are coming, and they are spending money. But they’re coming because what you’re exporting and offering is not imported goods coming across the sea in vast container ships; you are exporting the reality of the city, and the charm of the city.”
The charm starts with the courtyard and cutlers buildings (and engravers, polishers, recording studios) at APG Works; and at Laycock House, the model of a city centre building that Rupert is seeking to protect; proposing to the council that, if it has to be vacated for the Retail Quarter to go ahead, it should be left exactly as it is so that the existing tenants can move back in. To underscore its protection, Rupert is also proposing to remove it from the future development equation by forming a community land trust and buying it from the council.
“A lot of urbanists are seeing this as a very interesting way of driving a community asset into the middle of a city centre, so that it can never again drift towards land assembly and large scale corporate ownership. The trust model is a legal instrument, formed not just of the tenants, but a group of people who would stand as responsible trustees, and it ensures that this land would be a community asset forever.
“What happens to it then is the usual churn of a city; if the building were to fall into disrepair the trustees might decide its best to demolish and build something new. But it would still be a community asset, like a stake or a buttress that supports the city, that is not for sale and that stops the city from sliding into the arms of investment funds.”
If Laycock House were not just kept, but replicated, an ideal for Sheffield rebuilding, leaning to the modern and bent so it’ll last, and taken as a new template to riff on across all the land waiting to be covered by large retail roofs, you could have 150 buildings there like Laycock House; 750 retail units, 750 three storey townhouses for 1,500 people and their dogs above, and all the opportunities for reuse and alterations that come with buildings of a size that people can individually reuse and alter to suit their way of living and working in the city centre.
When we met Rupert he told us that, as he’d been walking through the city centre that day, he’d seen his daughter across the street, sitting outside a café with a friend. It’s a small detail, with great appeal; who wouldn’t like to walk down a street like that? But who would know where to find streets like that, amid shopping centre blocks and spiritless precincts?
“To be honest it happens all the time,” says Rupert. “Sheffield does have that feel about it. When you live within the city centre like this then you know people and people know you, and you almost take it for granted, knowing that you shouldn’t. That ability to come across familiarity around every turn within a larger scale and sometimes anonymous city is fantastic.
“The number of times I step out of the gate and bump into family, or just someone I know walking by, is wonderful. It’s very important to me that the city should offer these little opportunities, not just be somewhere an anonymous crowd is milling around on various missions, out of kilter with each other.
“Sheffield has all around it some very nice little areas of suburban housing with small, genuine communities. When I came to live in Laycock House it was a great opportunity to live in the city centre, where I felt we could look towards building that here.
“I think this should be a very attractive concept, perhaps for a couple who have raised their children in a nice Victorian villa in the suburbs of Sheffield and now they have fled, made their own families doing their own things. There is a tradition in downsizing that they should go and live in a home in the country, but I think it should be an extremely viable option for them to say, let’s buy a little house in the middle of the city centre and engage with people, to be involved with a community and doing things with the city on their doorstep.”
The property agents in the city centre have the glossy brochures advertising city living ready whenever they see a match for their mental ‘young professional’ checklist; and that’s who the property developers think they should build for: aged 25 to 35, single or a couple, who need a shelf to sleep on rather than a home to live in. But twice their age, Rupert lives a better life than anybody is offered by the brochures, and he intends to carry on living like that, and he doesn’t intend to be the only one living that way.
“Ever since I have lived here there is not a person who has walked into my home who hasn’t said: this is nice. This is a nice place to be living. Apart from the dog hair, and the dog smell. But it’s a key thought: keeping houses like these, where they should be, and building more. Because these are the kind of homes where you can create a whole life cycle.
“I sometimes use the expression that a city should be a good place to die in,” says Rupert. “Being born, going to school, running around in your neighbourhood, knowing it; going away at some point, as we all do, and coming back; living your life, raising your own family, retiring, and being able to walk past the same shops and the same people, to just sit outside on a sunny day if you’re at that stage in your life. And die. Proper.
“Cities are a big deal. They’re not just a place to hide people during a period of their life, before they move back out to the suburbs. We really have to make cities work. To make them look good, and feel good.”
And live in them and die in them, work in them and walk around in them, and enjoy them, and have a dog. Cities are tremendously complicated places, if you make them that way. But living in them is simple, if you keep them that way.
Originally published in The City Talking: Sheffield, issue 3