Sheffield goes to Venice

A showcase for what used to be one of the world's grimmer cities opens in one of the most beautiful next month. How will Sheffield fare in Venice? Michael Hickling talks to the man behind the move

Jeremy Till doesn't live in an ivory tower (his home is a house of straw – more of that later) but he does work in an Arts Tower.

This is architecture with a capital A – a monolithic glass structure high on a hill at the Sheffield University campus and conceived to make a bold visual statement about something or other. Now a scuffed memorial to Seventies hubris, its practical failings are summed up by the 40-year-old window blinds which are inadequate to keep out the hot summer sun.

This is where the university's School of Architecture is based and where Jeremy Till is Professor of Architecture and Director of Architectural Studies. Last year he was shortlisted in a competition organised by the British Council to take over the British Pavilion for this year's Venice Biennale of Architecture. It opens on September 7 and is generally considered the most influential and prestigious architecture exhibition in the world.

His winning idea was to offer the international audience which flocks to the Venice event a flavour of Sheffield in an exhibition called Echo City. This is not, he says emphatically, a promotional thing to market Sheffield as something that it's not. "It's not about covering up the cracks – some of the cracks are quite interesting." But he believes the effect of the three-month exposure in Venice will put Sheffield "into an international league".

To this end he has recruited the Human League – or at least the former Sheffield band's founder Martyn Ware – as one of the members of a team which has fed in ideas for the exhibition from beyond the bounds of architecture. Most of the team is based in Sheffield's creative quarter which Prof Till reckons houses world-class talent. They include Ian Anderson of the Designers' Republic, three artists from Encounters, and a writer and a photographer from Forced Entertainment.

The result of their endeavours is, according to Prof Till, a "a bit of a madcap scheme – it would have been a lot easier just using architectural models". The broad aim has been to distil Sheffield's unique essence and suggest how its problems and issues are echoed in most cities created by heavy industries which have since vanished or shrunk.

"At the Biennale you usually get lots of pictures of buildings. I wanted to present Sheffield as a city which may not be the most distinguished but has enormous humanity. People here, who are independent and sometimes bloody-minded, feel great loyalty towards it. I wanted to explore what makes a city great in addition to its built form. The exhibition is all about the human content of the city. It starts with a story, mostly true, about the war when Sheffield was having the guts bombed out of it because of its steelworks.

"They created a city made of light to attract the German bombers. I liked that idea – a Sheffield that wasn't physical with lights, sounds, bits of objects and bits of buildings."

To be more specific, it seems that during the war German navigators aiming for the steel city were assisted by the glow in the sky from the furnaces. So

a decoy Sheffield was built further up the Don valley, made of light, to attract the Luftwaffe like moths to a flame.

Taking this as a lead, at the School of Architecture on the hill young designers drew up the plans for their version of a phantom Sheffield. The result is a present-day double of the city, which they call an "echo space".

"We have also used quirky Sheffield facts in the exhibition," says Prof Till. Such as? "There's the fact that Sheffield Wednesday's website is visited 77 times a year by a cardinal in the Vatican. And that Henderson's Relish is much in demand in Basra."

If this all sounds pretty radical, then that also echoes Prof Till's approach to his subject. Whenever possible, he gets his students out of the airy Arts Tower and down into real life. One of his ideas involved bringing a three-bedroom flat in the council's Park Hill complex back into its original condition with the furnishings of half a century ago. "Unfortunately, it made an item on the television news and the next day the flat was trashed. The students were so dispirited after all the work, stripping off layers of wallpaper and so on, it never got restarted."

Park Hill is the largest listed building in Europe and its past and future will figure prominently in the Venice show, along with the regeneration of the mostly post-war Foxhill flats and the abandoned Jessop Hospital site which dates from the 1870s. Park Hill was built across an entire hill and dominates the skyline near Sheffield City centre. When completed in 1961, the flats stood as a monument to the vigour of civic planners, the end of the slums and the imminent arrival of a brave new world. But as the years wore on, the grand design was found wanting by the 2,000 or so tenants who lived here.

Architectural concepts that had looked plausible enough on paper seemed naive when exposed to real life. The broad "streets in the sky", which ran the length of each floor offered swift exit routes for muggers. Park Hill's reputation sank so low that it was included on a list of the 12 most-hated buildings in the country for a television series about poor civil planning at the end of last year.

Since then, Urban Splash – a company which specialises in regenerating areas where other developers fear to tread – has taken Park Hill in hand. Their plan is to make it a mixed development of council tenants and private owners and they have restored some of the optimism of its originators in the late 1950s.

It's an experience which, as much as anything else, has dictated Sheffield's posture towards new architecture. "Modernist utopias got the better of it, now it's sort of defensive-positive," says Prof Till. Unlike Leeds, Sheffield no longer has a city architect. That seems to say something about where its priorities lie, although it is partly explained by the fact that Sheffield council now rarely procures buildings directly. "There's a healthy debate about design in Leeds," says Prof Till. "It's beginning to apply in Sheffield, now that it has a new-found ambition and energy." What would he point to as evidence of that? "The Arctic Monkeys, a new director of culture, a good urban master plan. Sheffield took a battering. It's now finding its voice again." Prof Till has been in Sheffield seven years, three-and-a-half of those living in a flat in Park Hill. "I was in a privileged position – I had a nice house in London to go back to at weekends. Towards the end at Park Hill it got very heavy. There was a zero-tolerance policing policy in a neighbouring area and all the dealers moved down."

His home in north London, built with his partner and fellow architect Sarah Wigglesworth, is an L-shaped structure beside a railway line on the site of an old forge. The walls consist of wooden stakes driven into the ground, with bales of straw – transported from the Cotswolds for 1,250 – in between. Beneath the house are two 3,000 litre tanks collecting rainwater, one to water flowers and strawberries growing on the roof. An ecological lavatory with no flush generates a sterile, odourless, organic fertiliser.

A solar panel produces hot water and the straw insulation is so effective that an ordinary wood stove is sufficient to heat the home in winter. In summer the evaporation of the water used on the plants on the roof keeps the entire building cool.

Unlike those Modernists who were carried away by their grand schemes, this looks like someone who does a reality check before he starts building. "I can't be accused of being a pie-in-the sky architect with utopian views. It may seem odd for someone like me to be saying this, but I think architects have made too many claims for themselves in the past. The whole Modernist programme was a utopian vision where change would take a physical form. But the world is more complex than that."

He is sceptical of places that run after star architects thinking they can bring about revival by replicating the "Bilbao effect" (the Basque government helped transform the economy of the northern Spanish city eight years ago with Frank Gehry's $100m Guggenheim Museum).

"There is a clamour for iconic buildings. But the hope that a Guggenheim building is going to rescue your city is unlikely to be fulfilled," says Prof Till. In this context, he takes his own profession to task. "There's a small proportion of leading architects who dominate the press and set the agenda and are seen as cutting edge. What we are dealing with is the here-and-now."

That sounds like a down-to-earth South Yorkshire approach. But isn't there an example on his own doorstep of a star architect winning over a council with a pie-in-the-sky scheme – Will Alsop's plan to turn Barnsley into a Tuscan hill village?

Apparently not. "Will is using this to raise a debate. Taken too literally, it would be easy to dismiss this as the ravings of a madcap. It's about raising ambition. Why not?"

And why not the steel city in Venice this autumn? After all, the two already have a cultural bond of sorts going back 150 years. In 1851, John Ruskin expressed his love for the Italian city in a book, still read today, called The Stones of Venice. It was his sort of place and he described it as "a paradise of cities".

Sheffield at the height of industrialisation was more like the inferno. When Ruskin came visiting it must have presented quite a contrast after the canals and gondoliers. But the eminent Victorian was so impressed by the beautiful countryside just outside the city and its tradition of skilled metalwork craftsmen that he started a museum there in 1875. And his heritage remains today at the Ruskin Art Gallery.