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Cut and dried

review - Pevsner Architectural Guides: Sheffield By Ruth Harmarn and John Minnis. Yale University Press, 2005. 324pp. £9.99

Sheffield probably has less pre-18th-century buildings than any of the other subjects of these Pevsner City Guides, so it presents a different challenge to its authors from places like Bath, Bristol or even Manchester. Ruth Harman and John Minnis start bravely by quoting the negative judgments of Pevsner and Nairn (who was scathing in his trademark way).

Part of the explanation for Sheffield's unusually modest centre was the small scale of its successful industry, cutlery, mentioned already by Chaucer - a reference (in the 'Reeve's Tale') illustrated more than once in the city's public art. Maybe this also fed a natural insularity. In this book a 'nonnative' architect is a non-Sheffield man, and famous designers from elsewhere make rare and slight appearances: a billiard hall by Edgar Wood tacked on a villa by someone else is typical. Two other influences have left a negative mark: war damage and frequent demolition. The dates of the latter are almost all that is missing in a guide rich in detail.

If the history of building in Sheffield lacks grandeur, it is full of other interest not often found elsewhere. Old industrial premises are scattered thickly through the centre of the city and carefully recorded here. One of the most interesting, called Butcher's Wheel, includes a strange ring of privies round its tall chimney. 'Wheel' as the name for such a complex of buildings comes up again (and doesn't seem to be explained). So the story of industrial processes is more intimately told in Sheffield than in most places, as is the story of modern reuse.

The latest reuse is the conversion of Nigel Coates' National Centre of Popular Music from something like a museum to a student union. The description of this structure is laced with lively figures apparently suggested by the designer - shaving foam nozzles, pinball bouncing devices - but nothing is said about how the new function fits.

Twentieth-century Sheffield made its architectural mark in housing above all.

Harman and Minnis do an exemplary job describing, analysing and judging Park Hill and the other ambitious municipal projects undertaken in the 1950s and '60s when J L Womersley was city architect. This part is particularly strong on the literary and philosophical background to 'streets in the sky' - a buzzword of the period, much discredited since. Richard Hoggart's books about the decline of working-class culture get a mention here; it is salutary to see the thinking embodied in these buildings taken so seriously.

At the same time that heroic Brutalism was fitted to strong surrounding landscape at Park Hill, a gentler 'Mediterranean' mode was tried in the Gleadless Valley. There, housing is broken into stepped forms on steep slopes, and dwellings feel individualised. Here again the authors recover the intellectual content of projects from the early '60s, which are often read unsympathetically as faceless Modernism. They do this too with less obviously attractive buildings of that period, such as a market and shopping complex in the centre.

Sheffield remains a crucial place for understanding the architectural dreams of the 1950s and '60s, but there is plenty of interest in recent attempts at regeneration, dividing the city into 'quarters' - a conceptual device which has borne practical fruit - and planning a series of public spaces to knit the fragmented centre together.

For those who like their architecture more venerable, there remain puzzles like the odd symbolism in a hunting lodge connected with Bess of Hardwick, where a hand gripping a bunch of white roses may contain a dangerous secret. There is also the plan of the cathedral, one of the most dispersed and confusing, which only makes sense when you learn that it enshrines some of Charles Nicholson's project to reorient it by rotating the nave 90° while tripling its size. The building becomes much more interesting once you know this - just one example of the way this new guide uncovers new rewards in its unlikely city.

Robert Harbison is a professor at London Metropolitan University

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