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13 November 2014

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You are in: South Yorkshire > Places > Places features > The Arts Tower

Sheffield University Arts Tower

A familiar view from Hicks bus stop

The Arts Tower

Sheffield University's 78m-tall Arts Tower has been inhabited since 1965 and has a rare Paternoster Lift which you have to jump in and out of as it passes by. Tatjana Schneider was so fascinated by the building that she wrote a book about it.

Tatjana Schneider started working as a researcher at the University of Sheffield's Architecture department on the top floors of the 20-storey Arts Tower in 2004.

Tatjana Schneider, architecture researcher

Tatjana Schneider

She was so enthralled by the 78 metre-tall tower while working in it that she started looking into the building's origins. What started as a small piece of research soon turned into a book, which covers the story of the Arts Tower over the period 1951-1966.

"I wanted to compile a series of 'voices' which make the Tower's significance clear to a wide range of people," she says.

Thousands and thousands of students and lecturers have walked the halls and travelled the 38-carriage 'paternoster' of the Arts Tower since the building was first inhabited in 1965, and now it's Grade II* listed; an example of post-war modernist architecture in the International Style.

The Queen Mother opens the Arts Tower, 1966, © University of Sheffield

The Queen Mum opens the Arts Tower, 1966

The Arts Tower is visible from miles around. It has been the tallest building in Sheffield for decades - only recently overtaken in the height stakes by the 32-floor St Pauls Tower on Arundel Gate which will be 101 metres tall when completed.

1951 marked the beginning of discussions about a Competition (eventually held in 1953) to design a series of buildings for the University of Sheffield. Construction of the Arts Tower began in 1961 and lasted four years. The Queen Mother officially opened it in June 1966.

Power struggles

Tatjana Schneider studied and worked in Germany, and then completed an MArch, Phd and taught at Strathclyde University in Glasgow before coming to Sheffield University's Architecture department as a researcher in 2004.

Her explorations about the building of the Arts Tower started as a small piece of research funded by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

It developed into a book when she realised that the building would be undergoing substantial refurbishment, both inside and out.

The Arts Tower from Weston Park, by Dave Johnson

The Arts Tower by Dave Johnson

"My research led me to fascinating discoveries about the Buildings Committee and the minutes taken during the meetings about the Arts Tower," says Tatjana.

The architects of Sheffield University's Arts Tower and the old Main Library next door (linked to the Arts Tower by a bridge) were Gollins, Melvin, Ward & Partners. But Tatjana says her investigations revealed them as "little more than bit players while the others pushed and pulled for power" in the various committee and sub-committee meetings.


"Basing the majority of the book on minutes from committee meetings does not sound a tantalising prospect for the reader," says Tatjana, "but the narrative – if read as a detective story – is enthralling. It is most of all a whodunit – who, that is, actually ‘designed’ the Arts Tower."

The Arts Tower, Sheffield

The Arts Tower, Sheffield

The 'others' Tatjana refers to are the Vice-Chancellor, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Professors of the time. "The book tells the story of the design of the building fought out between [them] and the architects, GMW.

"I was interested in why, during the course of my research, I knew more about the competition entries by other architects than GMW [Gollins Melvin Ward] who were the ones who actually executed the final building.

"Every little move, everything that was agreed on, decisions deferred, schemed or gossiped about are recorded in the minutes. They reveal the realities of the architectural process either forgotten about or glossed over by architectural publications."

The Arts Tower and Netherthorpe tower blocks, 1964

The Arts Tower from Western Bank, 1964

Copies of Tatjana's book, The Story of the Arts Tower, are available from Sheffield University Architecture department at £10.

Sheffield Uni School of Architecture

Sheffield University's School of Architecture celebrated its 100th birthday in early 2008. The department opened in 1907 and it now inhabits the top floors of the Arts Tower, which are linked by a spiral staircase in the middle of the building.

Hicks Building, Arts Tower, Information Commons buildings

Panorama: Hicks, Arts Tower and IC

Two floors below ground level house nine lecture theatres and a cafe. Refurbishment of the building - both inside and out - is scheduled to start in 2009 and hopes to extend the building's life by another 30 years.

Netherthorpe redevelopment pre-Arts Tower

Netherthorpe, pre-Arts Tower

The Arts Tower is currently used daily by around 2500 students and 300 staff. It's also home to the departments of Landscape, Modern Languages, Philosophy and Biblical Studies as well as some library administration - but plans are in place to move some of the departments to a new University building which is on the site of the old Jessop Hospital for Women on Upper Hanover Street.

What was there before?

The Arts Tower was built in the Netherthorpe area of Sheffield, which had previously consisted of rows of terraced houses leading down the hill towards Infirmary Road. You can see how this area looked in the photo above.

The aerial photo below, taken from the south-east in 1953, shows Western Park (top left) and Sheffield University's main buildings (Firth Court).

Aerial view of Sheffield University (Firth Court) and Western Park, © University of Sheffield

© Sheffield University, taken 1953

In the foreground on the right is the disused Scala Cinema which had recently been converted into biochemical laboratories. On the extreme right at the bottom is part of the new Chemistry building (which underwent a major refurbishment in the early 21st century).

Sheffield University's Arts Tower

All 20 floors of the Arts Tower

The Arts Tower was built on the area shown on the right hand side of this photo. All the houses facing Firth Court (owned by the University) were demolished and replaced with the 'concourse' - a pedestrianised area in front of the students union which runs underneath the main road, Western Bank, up to Broomhill. You can take a 360 tour of this area of the university by clicking on the links below.

The paternoster

The Arts Tower's paternoster lift has 38 carriages which could make it the largest of the few surviving paternosters in the UK, and possibly the largest in the world.

A paternoster is a lift made up of a chain of open carriages, each for two people, that move in a loop up and down the building without stopping. The cars travel slowly enough so that passengers can step on or off at any floor they like.

Paternoster lift in action

The paternoster lift in action

When you get to the very top or the very bottom of the building, the cars move horizontally across before continuing vertically upwards or downwards and at this point, everything goes dark while you travel behind the wall (rather than in the open air as happens during the rest of the journey).

You can also get around the Arts Tower by normal elevator, and stairs of course - but there are 20 storeys to the building so it's a fit and brave person who decides to walk to the top by staircase!

The Arts Tower during the fire at Gatecrasher, 2007

Arts Tower during Gatecrasher fire, 2007

:: Copies of Tatjana's book, The Story of the Arts Tower, are available from Sheffield University Architecture department at £10.

last updated: 20/10/2008 at 14:45
created: 19/09/2008

Have Your Say

Have your worked or studied in the Arts Tower? What are your memories of the building?

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

I love the Arts Tower and the way it sways and vibrates in the wind.The paternoster is a must visit!

Dianne Thew
I remember attending a course at the Unversity as a Sixth Form student. Sheffield ran courses for local pupils to aid with "A" level studies. It was Rag Week and someone had placed a toilet in one of the Paternoster cubicles. It was entertaining watching the reaction of the various lift travellers to their "companion."

Given that it's freshers week, I hope the 'mature' students are keeping up the traditional sport of scaring the newcomers by going up one side of the paternoster standing and coming down the other in a handstand! Great fun - you either love or hate the paternoster, and I loved it. Lifts have never been the same since I left!

Myung Soo Suh
I was at first really thrilled and shortly after fascinated by the partnoster that I firstly saw and took it in my life.

I had quite a lot of lectures and seminars in the Arts Tower while i was at university. The paternoster is just brilliant. I used to take all my non-Sheffield friends on it when they came to visit. It's a major attraction for the city! Also I remember it always being really windy between the Arts Tower and the main library... and right on the top floor of the Arts Tower there's a mysterious locked room which has a sign saying 'Wind Tunnel' on the door, so maybe that's where it all comes from!

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