Occupations and Conversations on the Citadel of Chaos
With its lines of rowed staging and cavernous roof, standing in the auditorium at the Salvation Army citadel feels like being inside the mouth of some gigantic mythological beast.
Built on a wing and a prayer back in 1894, the Salvation Army Citadel has been a sleeping giant in the centre of Sheffield since closing its doors ten years ago.
That was until yesterday, when a group from democracy activists Occupy Sheffield moved into the derelict with a view to restoring it to its former glory. Intended to culminate in the use of the building as venue for the national Occupy Conference in just a few weeks time, it's a decisive, divisive action that's thrown open the doors on a hotly contested debate about the city's spaces and how best to use them. Exposed talked its way into the latest chapter in the life of a Sheffield grandee…
To get in you have to go back. Descending a narrow, walled walkway into the trench-like alley dripping with water that runs behind the newly repossessed Citadel, you're immediately taken back to a time when the city was a huddle of pre-war 'back-to-backs' and labyrinthine alleyways. The Salvation Army's 'commodious building' was built at the apex of Sheffield's 19th century expansion – a chaotic din of industrial growth that the city attempted to keep time with through social development and patchwork city planning – and the Dickensian mood is only heightened when the Citadel door is answered by a face almost completely hidden by sooty darkness. But then the door is unlocked, we're swept inside and up a flight of stairs, and things suddenly start looking brighter…
Originally built to house a burgeoning concertina band, the light that streams through the tilted roof of the empty, seatless 1,800 capacity Salvation Army Citadel on Cross Burgess Street is musical – just as beautiful as it was a hundred years ago. The building itself is stripped back to the bone – everything from fittings to parts of the walls are gone (the latter possibly a part of recent asbestos safety work) but Martin and Joe from Occupy Sheffield are friendly, articulate and frank – a long way away from the fuzzy images you normally see on the telly.
You can almost forget the fact that they're squatting – an activity loaded with dingy, negative associations – or that our chat is taking place on private property with an owner more likely than not going spare. This is a building that since closing ten years ago has been buzzed by bar developers, stalled, mothballed and prepared for demolition as part of the £600m Sevenstone development – a project that's either on full steam ahead or stuck in a holding pattern depending on who you talk to in the city… What do Occupy want to do with it?
Fittingly for a building seemingly out of time, they want to turn back the clock. “It's an amazing space and it's a waste for it to have been left empty for ten years,” Explains Joe. “We're trying to get a surveyor in to assess the state of the building, find out if it's condemned or not and find out what we need to do to restore it. The idea is to turn it into a public space again…” When I suggest that people will perhaps see Occupy's action as confirming their prejudices about a group that sometimes seems to raise as many hackles as it does discussion points, his response is even-handed. “It's all understandable – it's quite a new thing,” But there's an attempt to blow the cobwebs off a few dusty preconceptions as well as the building itself here. Occupy Sheffield are applying the same 'Safer Spaces' policy followed by their Sheffield Cathedral camp to the newly named 'Citadel of Hope' – a set of tenets that foreground personal responsibility and respect, forbid alcohol and drugs and have more in common with the venue's original aims than some of the more recent licensing proposals for the building. Elsewhere, a Facebook page and Twitter account present a line of communication and right of reply, as well as the means for OS to present evidence of progress and demonstrate adherence to their own policy.
It's friendly and inclusive, but restoring the Citadel to a fit for purpose public venue in time for the national Occupy Conference in a few weeks time would challenge even the most experienced of redevelopers. Have they been involved in restoration projects before in Sheffield? “No, but we're calling in experts. We're not gonna bodge it. You'd be surprised by the people behind the scenes involved in the Occupy movement…” Is bringing in professionals going to be a struggle given the circumstances? “It's basically a civil dispute between the owner of the property so the only person who has the power to evict us is the owner, which would generally happen after a court case…”
The feeling is of a project trying to rise about its circumstances. Is it a race against the perception of a squat to demonstrate the virtue of what they're doing? “Absolutely. This is not about a group of individuals taking something for themselves…"
There's a lot of anger at Occupy for making what to some people seems like a landgrab with similarities to the organisations they're meant to be protesting. Nothing's black and white, and we don't have the view of the building's owners or the council. But walking through the downstairs part of the citadel, past areas of missing floor marked with triangles of wood and buckets catching from the leaking roof it's difficult to escape the feeling the building is getting some much overdue TLC. Exposed hopes Occupy's spotlight will encourage much needed discussion between the building owners, Sheffield City Council and most importantly of all, Sheffield's people as to the direction and future of the city centre. This might be the venue for it.
Words by Rob Barker. Photography by Marek Payne.