In their 1961 Basic Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism, Raoul Vaneigem and Attila Kotányi called for the radical transformation of public spaces, urging their readers to ‘constantly defend [them]selves from the poetry of the bards of conditioning – to jam their messages, to turn their rhythms inside out’. Drawing inspiration from the Situationist International, Vaneigem and Kotányi presented city life as purified bourgeois ideology and demanded its imminent destruction. They argued that urban spaces reinforce social divisions and inhibit people from discovering and experiencing their full array of desires. Advocating unitary urbanism as the best weapon to smash the system, they sought to restore the cultural richness missing from the lifeless metropolis.
The 1960s saw the emergence of theories scrutinising urban design. Jane Jacobs, Yi-Fu Tuan and Kevin Lynch were just some of the thinkers concerned with how architecture impacts upon citizens’ mental life and general wellbeing. In ‘The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety’, perhaps the most famous chapter in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jacobs argued that storekeepers and other small businessmen perform a vital function of city life in that their enterprises attract crowds, which in turn allows for the organic policing of the streets.
Jacobs strongly disbelieved in centralised authority’s ability to protect its citizens. But her argument for an individualistic, unregulated system hinged on the presumed distinction between ‘predatory strangers’ and ‘peaceable, well-meaning ones’. She didn’t provide sufficient detail on the traits differentiating the two. Like other theorists of the period, Jacobs failed to take into account ingrained bias and the problems marginalised people faced. Her concept of ‘eyes on streets’ (which suggested that crowds naturally provide their own security) demonstrated how left-libertarianism reinforces oppression by insisting that individuals use power equivocally, regardless of social status.
In contrast to Jacobs, Vaneigem and Kotányi envisaged an all-encompassing rupture brought on by an ever-growing number of smaller, resiliently disruptive spaces. They wanted to recalibrate city life, urging the creation of caring communities that can work independently of, or in a satisfactory symbiosis with, capitalist forces. Their Basic Program, unlike Jacobs’ work, is rarely presented as compulsory reading for anthropology students. Vaneigem and Kotányi didn’t outline preconditions for the project of unitary urbanism. In their thinking, over-populated, uninhabitable cities could be made slightly more palatable by the presence of the bourgeois bar built on the ruins of a family-run business, insofar as there was a space where critical thinking about the oppressive aspects of urbanism could begin.
Project spaces like Sheffield’s S1 Artspace, founded in 1995, continue this contradictory legacy of placemaking. Following its move in 2015 to the Park Hill Estate from its second premises in Trafalgar Warehouse in the city centre (its first studio spaces were above a thrash metal nightclub, 1995-2010), the organisation shifted its focus toward interdisciplinary exhibitions that reflect on, and in some cases mitigate, the gallery’s impact on its surroundings. S1 pay rent for their space at Park Hill and the programme and staff are funded through grants, studio rental income and other fundraising. While they have a positive, supportive relationship with Urban Splash, the regeneration company responsible for the redevelopment of Park Hill, the arrangement could be seen as one of the compromising drawbacks many small spaces face.
For their Arts Council funding, they have different key performance indicators that include visitor figures, engagement with the local community, frequency of school and college visits, public events, impact for participants and relevance. S1 measures its impact based on how programming affects visitors, students and participants, and its programme is primarily concerned with the impact of public art and urban planning. They platform local and early-career artists and partake in nationwide programs such as Syllabus (which ended in 2018), a collaboratively produced alternative learning initiative. Thanks to these endeavours, S1 has become an intellectual home that preserves and nourishes dialogue about the conservative aspects of urbanism and its artistic offshoots. In 2017, they supported a PhD studentship led by Sheffield Hallam University examining the use of green spaces surrounding Park Hill. As part of the study, Sarah Smizz was asked to investigate the dichotomy between local and commercialised spaces and offer new reflections on how art can transform communal spaces.
S1 also delivers programming in collaboration with other organisations: in 2016 they hosted RIBA’s exhibition The Brutalist Playground, which looked at the playgrounds and buildings that have come to define the Brutalist movement, with a new commission for its presentation in Sheffield; in 2015 they facilitated a programme of exhibitions by Urban Splash including Overlooked, which featured the work of Sheffield-based artist Mandy Payne. Payne’s paintings of Brutalist buildings are partly a celebration of the architectural style, but they also highlight some of the political problems plaguing the sector. As the artist writes on her website, she had to move her practice outside Sheffield after the Park Hill regeneration entered a new phase.
More recently, the 2021 exhibition Park Hill Pavilion directly enabled locals to partake in urban planning. Featuring three pavilion proposals by a group of Sheffield Hallam architecture students, the exhibition asked Park Hill residents to cast their vote and actively shape what the green space inside the hexagon-like building will look like come next year. This direct engagement with members of the public is in stark contrast with Urban Splash’s PR stunts. In 2011, Urban Splash turned Jason Lowe’s ‘I love you will u marry me’ graffiti into a neon sign in an attempt to capitalise on its legacy. The step garnered strong responses from locals and Sheffield-born household names like Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner.
The love story behind the graffiti and its subsequent transformation has served as the topic of a 2011 radio documentary by Penny Woolcock and Frances Byrnes, The I Love You Bridge, a short documentary by Jump In Film & Media, and articles by NME, NME, the Guardian and BBC. According to the documentary, Lowe was at risk of becoming homeless for a while, and a false rumour also circulated that he subsequently jumped off the bridge. Urban Splash ultimately offered him a crate of ‘I love you will you marry me’ branded beer (which was purportedly rescinded due to low stocks), and negotiations for reinstating the graffiti continue.
The S1 team has a long history of working with Sheffield-based students and young artists, and providing opportunities for their studio holders. This includes Interlude, a 2021 show of work by early-career practitioners Lauren Clarke, Will Harrison and Phil Waterworth. As Interim Curator Joe Cutts emphasises, working with S1 is beneficial for artists in multiple ways. In addition to the exposure, they also receive professional documentation of their work that can be used in portfolios, and other perks. The S1 Bursary scheme has brought attention to the work of Sheffield Hallam graduates such as James Dixon, Charlotte Milnes and India Garry. Cutts explains that S1 has closely worked with the University since 2010, the year they piloted the bursary programme that later became the Fine Art Bridge Scheme (FABS). They also provide studios to Hallam PhD students, the Fine Art project space, and have worked with the Sheffield School of Architecture since 2015.
S1 provides new opportunities for its studio holders through networking events, fundraisers, internal crits, open discussions, screenings and reading groups. The S1 team also supports artists such as Norman Anderson, who uses art to work through the impacts of a stroke he suffered in 2018. Cutts has also been a studio holder at the Artspace for more than a decade, relying on the space to develop his art and filmmaking practice.
Through S1’s programming, the driving forces of systematic inequality can be looked at anew. Take, for instance, RESOLVE collective’s The Garage (2019), a two month hybrid exhibition that focused on the emotional responses triggered by city life. As part of the event series, the collective put on a workshop in collaboration with Longley Park Sixth Form and Sheffield College, which encouraged participants to create ‘emotion maps’ that show how they move around in the city. When exhibited alongside each other, the maps brought attention to how discrimination can alter the journeys people take.
2019 saw a number of events at S1 that imagined the city anew, including the Mobility Justice Workshop led by George Kafka and Sheeba Shetty that envisaged a fully accessible, green Sheffield without HS2, and Otis Mensah’s ‘Starting at the Endz’, who transformed the gallery space into an impromptu concert venue. Mensah, a Sheffield-based folk art writer of rap hymns, had his start at venues such as Foodhall before graduating to the international hip hop and poetry scene. While S1 has only had a handful of exhibitions devoted to the work of Black artists since its move to Park Hill, its exhibition schedule attests to a progressive spirit and a sense of commitment to challenging established discourses around art, culture and city life.
Vaneigem and Kotányi suggest that materialising freedom begins by ‘appropriating a few patches of the surface of a domesticated planet’. The work of S1 can be used to explore the complications inherent to this ambitious theoretical proposition. Over the past five years, the organisation has been focused on working out its strange, sometimes paradoxical role in Park Hill. In this time it has had a considerable impact on local artists, studio holders and interdisciplinary researchers such as Smizz, whose work is located at the conjunction of healthcare (she is also trained as a radiotherapist and recently became Councillor for Adwick and Carcroft in Doncaster) and cultural studies. Then there was the Park Hill tenant who, as Cutts notes, spotted a childhood friend in a photograph displayed as part of the 2018 exhibition, Love Among the Ruins.
As far as the common narrative about gentrification would have it, the presence of a gallery inside Park Hill would make the location more inviting to people with enough capital to buy a new home. S1 has made efforts to disentangle themselves from the cliché, designing a programme that draws attention to the difficulties endemic to urban planning. The space has enabled Sheffield artists to flourish, forged a new image for Park Hill tenants, commissioned permanent pieces of public and prompted locals to take up an active role in city planning. Rendered nearly obsolete in the late stages of the neoliberal era, the notion of placemaking symbolises the possibility of direct democracy and active participation. When Vaneigem and Kotányi dreamed of an overthrow of the capitalist system by urban interventions, they failed to take into account the growing inequalities of the modern age. As the work of S1 Artspace proves, galleries aiming to undo the damage of our profit-oriented system are bound to come up against multiple obstacles. Vaneigem and Kotányi may have failed to bring about a movement in their time, but organisations such as S1 continue to prove the relevance and potential of their work.
Leila Kozma is a writer. She moved from Manchester to London in the autumn of 2021.
This exploration is supported by Arts Council England as part of Corridor8’s 2021-22 commissioning programme.