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A smash hit played on four drums

SHEFFIELD

Sheffield's National Centre for Popular Music is a landmark not only in the 'city of steel' but equally in the oeuvre of Branson Coates Architecture. It is the first building, free-standing and constructed from scratch, completed by the practice in this country - hitherto bca has been best known for its bars, shops, exhibitions and furniture design.

While bca seemed from the first a natural choice for the job - given its preoccupation with popular culture, the baroque, even the outrageous - the commission was to some degree an act of faith. It has certainly paid off. The centre is a striking and even beautiful object. It is both extraordinary and yet appears to be firmly rooted to its site, a former car park, close to the city's railway station and forming a wider picture with the monumental Park Hill flats - 'It's like a spaceship that has just landed,' says Nigel Coates, 'but at the same time there is a close relationship to the city which is by no means accidental.'

The idea of a pop music centre in Sheffield - home of Joe and Jarvis Cocker and the Human League - was conceived and developed locally. Tim Strickland of Music Heritage, bca's client, was able to enlist the backing of Sheffield City Council for his successful Lottery bid - £11 million towards the total £15 million cost came from the Arts Council, with further contributions from the eu Regional Development Fund and English Partnerships. The scheme had obvious attractions at a time when the Arts Council was being accused of backing supposedly 'elitist' pursuits and fitted neatly into the city's 'Cultural Industries Quarter' strategy. With an estimate of up to half a million visitors annually, the centre would form the focal point of the quarter, intended to create 2500 new jobs. Tim Strickland and subsequently Stuart Rogers, brought in as chief executive of the centre, were closely involved in the development and realisation of the scheme.

According to Coates, 'the competition scheme had it all'. The idea of four drums topped by rotating cowls was there from the start. (The runner- up in the competition, judged by Eric Parry and Professor Peter Blundell- Jones of Sheffield University, was David Chipperfield.) The brief was quite explicit: this was not to be a museum, but an 'interactive arts and education centre', based on audio-visual technology rather than on static objects. The brief demanded four components: a high-tech soundscape theatre, a gallery on the history of pop, a 'making music' space, explaining production and recording, and a temporary-exhibition gallery. Each component, bca proposed, occupies one of the four drums at first-floor level, with public spaces, including a cafe and bar, on the ground floor and wcs and other services in the basement. (The 'history of pop' element has subsequently grown to occupy two drums, with temporary displays shifted to the ground floor, accessible to the non-paying visitor.)

The visitor samples each element in random order: there is no didactic path through the place. This is pop, not education. It was a neat and deceptively straightforward diagram, intuitive yet making connections with the site. Dan Cruickshank's recent researches have confirmed the nature and extent of the planned suburb developed by the Norfolk estate in the later eighteenth century. Most of the buildings have gone, but the urban grid remains. bca's designs responded to the grid - largely ignored by other recent developments in the area, including the banal Hallam University science park. Instead of treating the urban block as an impenetrable unit, however, bca treated it as a group of buildings, connected by daylit public spaces which evoke the arcades and galleries of nineteenth-century Leeds and Milan. There is an external performance space, but the building holds back from embracing a context which remains gritty and rather hostile - placing it closer to the street line might have helped.

The other self-evident feature of the site is that it is far from level - Sheffield is a city of hills. In this context, the tilt of the drums appears less arbitrary - though the sculptural intention is clear. (The tilt, in fact, is functional, ensuring effective drainage and avoiding staining and corrosion of the stainless-steel cladding.) The tilt is part of what Coates calls the 'ambiguous symmetry' of the building - although the external sizes of the drums are the same, the geometry of the building means that each has a unique relationship with the street, which constantly changes as the cowls move. The four form a 'family' of containers, rather like a group of oil storage tanks.

The drums are most obviously read as, well, drums. Some local commentators, however, have seen them as inspired by the Bessemer converters used in making Sheffield steel. That particular source never really occurred to bca, though the industrial imagery was present from the beginning, along with memories of classic jukeboxes and pinball machines. As the drum profile was refined with engineer Buro Happold, characteristically eclectic pop influences were brought to bear - the shape of a 1950s glass bought in a jumble sale, the cap of a can of Gillette shaving foam (for the cowls). But the cowls were not just an expressive architectural device. bca worked with Max Fordham (its collaborator on the Geffrye Museum extension) to develop a low-energy strategy.

The initial proposal was that natural cooling could meet the building's requirements, but the building is bigger than planned and fan-coil units have been introduced to provide additional cooling as required. As project architect Allan Bell explains, 'The cowls move as a family, tracking the wind.' They contain the fans and filters and are activated by a single directional sensor. The intended result is a low-velocity flow of fresh air through the building (what would happen in a gale?). The air is pushed down into the voids between the outer and inner skins of the galleries and into the underfloor voids. A supplementary mechanical ventilation system can be brought into use on warm, still days. What is not entirely predictable is how the internal fit-out of the galleries (of which more below) will affect the servicing provisions - the building will be packed with computers, projectors and other heat-intensive hardware. If bca/Fordham's guidelines are adhered to, however, comfortable conditions inside the building should be guaranteed.

Coates's attachment to the idea of duality and contradiction in architecture is well known. The Sheffield Pop Centre can be understood at a number of levels and as the expression of divergent, even contradictory, themes. On one level, it is disruptive 'cyber-baroque'; on the other, a stabilising influence in a city which has largely sacrificed its historic form. It is inscrutable, a series of sealed containers, yet is transparent at ground level. Inside and outside merge imperceptibly. The space below the floating, fluorescent red steel cross, which flows around and between the drums and is glazed in fritted glass for solar control, is an extension of the city streets, not a conventional interior. There is no 'front door' - no front or back, indeed.

The apparently straightforward history of the project reflects bca's practical strengths. The centre is a practical building, intended to wear well and to withstand robust use. The 2mm stainless-steel cladding - a popular choice in Sheffield - is made for long life. (It will be cleaned regularly by abseilers.) The ground floor of the building is an impressive, if austere, space, with a toughly engineered staircase, tough and simple and far from celebratory, up to the galleries. The bases of the drums are expressed by the elegantly formed concrete columns, clearly derived from Wright's Johnson Wax building. The austerity will doubtless be mitigated when the fit-out of the shop, cafe and bar, the latter two designed by bca, is completed.

Upstairs, however, bca's work has been limited to the design of the basic containers. Though the building looks extremely lightweight, it is actually a solid mass, lined with blockwork which ensures effective sound insulation and good thermal mass to back up the low-energy strategy. 'We always planned for black boxes,' Alan Bell insists. 'They were inevitable, given the nature of the centre.' Yet there must be some regret that bca, given its known background and preoccupations, was not involved in the design of the galleries. When Coates talks about the way the building 'jives', about its 'choreography', you understand the degree to which this project engaged the hearts as well as the minds of the architect.

bca's temporary powerhouse:uk project, temporarily constructed on Horse Guards Parade in London earlier this year, was obviously closely related to the Pop Centre - 'a toy prototype', Coates calls it. The powerhouse was a soft, bouncy inflatable, like a playground castle for adults. In contrast, the Pop Centre is hard-edged, tough and made to last. 'It is the most complete manifestation to date of what we're about,' says Coates. The building is straightforward, yet there is a twist in the tail. Even a few years back, Sheffield and bca did not seem to obviously belong together. Now the marriage seems natural and the outcome admirable.

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