Persistence Works in Sheffield is for me a national treasure which has redefined concrete's architectural direction, writes David Bennett. With imposing views over the city, the smooth monolithic structure of the six-storey building buttresses one end of the arts hub of the city centre on Brown Street. The clean, crisp lines of the concrete that cloak the building and are exposed internally do not give any hint of the overbearing, dirt-encrusted, brutal presence usually associated with in situ-concrete buildings of the 1960s. It is quite the opposite. This is no-frills architecture with an Ando-like concrete finish that is honest and bold.
This arts and crafts building, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley with engineer Buro Happold and completed in 2001 for a contract sum of £4.5 million, offers 68 high-quality, affordable studio spaces for craftspeople and artists:
jewellery designers, metalworkers, sculptors, potters, painters, weavers and illustrators. Some studios had to be large enough to contain 6m-high sculptures, while others were the size of a spare bedroom, for working with jewellery.
By its own admission, contractor MJ Gleeson had never before taken on a challenge on this scale. Gleeson has plenty of expertise in formwork assembly, concrete handling, concrete frames and fair-faced concrete civil engineering construction, which would give it the essential skills to do the job. But it was the fine tuning - the careful selection of formwork, release agent and concrete mix - that was going to make the telling difference. 'We spent three months reading through technical books and press journals on fairfaced concrete, surfing the internet and even downloading the detailed formwork specification for the construction of the Hoover Dam, ' says Sean Quinn, contracts manager for MJ Gleeson's Northern Construction Division.
The last word must go to Yorkshire ArtSpace Society director Kate Dore, who has been the inspirational driver behind the funding, organisation and management of this facility. What was her reaction to the idea of using exposed concrete? 'I was delighted, ' she says. 'I know what arts people get up to in their studios! They want a substantial, hard-wearing material, not some flimsy lightweight cladding.
Stone was too expensive and bricks hark back to the cutlery building that we wanted to move away from. Concrete was ideal. It has industrial might and an intrinsic beauty.' Persistence Works gives hope to all those architectural practices that have a yearning to be creative with concrete's plastic form but are too afraid to try. Feilden Clegg Bradley took a step into the unknown with in situ concrete and has emerged from it with confidence and greater self belief.