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Architecture on the move

An exhibition in a converted caravan in the centre of Sheffield showed residents what architecture could do for their city

The idea for the mobile exhibition 'Architecture on the Move' was inspired by last year's Architecture Week. It was our attempt to get down out of our ivory towers on to the street and find out what people thought about Sheffield city centre and whether more would like to live in its heart. Recent media attention has suggested that few people want to live in cities.

Sheffield is a city used to the grandiose gesture and radical thought - contrary to what Londoners think! Because of its fluctuating fortunes, industrial base and socialist politics, these schemes have tended to be large scale. But through that largeness has come the spectacular nature of their demise - the demolition of Kelvin flats and Hyde Park has dramatically altered the skyline once again.

Faced with the scale of Sheffield's post-industrial decline, the Sheffield Development Corporation and city council have continued to develop this largeness of vision with the development of the Don Valley and the millennium 'heart of the city' remodelling project. This project will stand or fall on how Sheffield transforms itself into a mixed-use city centre. A city with life at night apart from the bars and clubs. A city that is safe and pleasant to be in after the shops have closed.

This work has involved extensive collaboration with the public. Our aim was to build on this by drawing people's attention to the opportunities offered in the city, albeit on a much smaller scale than the 'heart of the city', by filling in the cracks. By raising the profile of domestic architecture we wanted to emphasise its vital importance to everyone's quality of life.

The city centre is full of redundant buildings, of all shapes, sizes and past uses. They include the late-eighteenth-century city housing with small industrial workshops on the back (the original mixed-use building type), the little mesters' courtyards, the Victorian five-storey blocks with only the ground-floor shops in use, and so on. All could become interesting places to live. We had our own ideas of how this could be done, and Architecture Week was an ideal opportunity to find out what other people thought of them and what ideas they had.

So, inspired by lofty ideals such as Dr Caligari's Cabinet, Renzo Piano's mobile laboratory and the tradition of the market stall, and limited by finance and time we conceived 'Architecture on the Move'. A remodelled 1950s caravanette seemed to have the perfect zeitgeist as a 1990s recycled 1950s icon of home. We wanted people to consider new ways of living, new ways of looking at old buildings; of encouraging a sustainable future through re-use. This was to be a cosy rather than a grandiose vision for the future.

Three months later, on a cold November Saturday morning, we arrived with our caravan and exhibition on Fargate, one of Sheffield's main shopping streets, with much trepidation. The exhibition was designed in four parts. Firstly, the introduction discussed the broad environmental issues of why we need to regenerate our cities, including examples from other European cities such as office-to-housing, green roofs, self-build, courtyard living. We emphasised Sheffield's positive attributes, the rivers, the views to be had from just a few floors up to the hills in all directions, the culture, the facilities and the people.

Secondly, inside the caravan we developed four case studies of different building types to show how these ideas could be applied to Sheffield. Our drawings tried to be accessible and easy to read. We used light boxes for display to highlight the layering of the city, and before-and-after photographs and drawings so the buildings were recognisable.

Thirdly, a film crew outside got people talking about what they would like to see, about how they lived and where. The edited film was subsequently shown alongside the caravan in the Mappin Art Gallery.

Finally a simple questionnaire recorded opinions and thoughts. Would you like to live in the city centre or not? In what kind of home?. Boxes for different age groups came up with surprising results.

Amazingly, after seeing the exhibition, 111 of 155 completed questionnaire respondents said they would like to live in the city centre given the right kind of housing.

The most popular reasons for not wanting to live in the city centre included the pollution, dirt, crime, noise and lack of green space. Reasons for wanting to live in the city centre included accessibility, parks, variety, life, Sheffield Wednesday and men!

There were some wonderfully imaginative responses, wanting homes that responded to the seasons, that provided greenery and sun. Secret gardens, balconies and flexibility were mentioned - all possible and within the capabilities of architects and planners to provide.

One of the most surprising findings was the number of older people who remembered living in the city centre when they were young and wished to return. Some people used the event as an opportunity to complain about the problems with their existing housing, others who already lived in the city centre, for example in Park Hill, talked about how convenient they found it. A few were critical of our architects' private language and how difficult it was to read the drawings (even though we had made every attempt to do legible designs) but most were very enthusiastic about the schemes and wondered why we did not already have this kind of city centre. It appears that the developers are lagging behind public thought.

Studio 5, comprising Rachel James, Simon Gedye, Robert Evans and Prue Chiles, combines collaborative practice with research. It was shortlisted for both the National Centre for Popular Music and the Millennium Gallery Heart of the City project. This project was sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain from its ace architecture programme and the caravan was converted with help from diploma students of Sheffield University's school of architecture .

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