Vision of the future returns home to Barnsley

It has spent the last eight years travelling the world but now Will Alsop's famous model of Barnsley as a walled Tuscan hill town has come home. Lizzie Murphy reports.

WHEN architect Will Alsop unveiled his vision for a "walled Tuscan hill town", there was more than a little scepticism about his plan.

The idea of Barnsley being redeveloped into a Mediterranean village, incorporating a "living wall" of buildings around the town centre, was not one with which many people could identify.

The model of Alsop's aspirational masterplan, which measures four metres by three metres, was commissioned by Yorkshire Forward, produced by Amodels and unveiled at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2002.

Since then, it has featured in architectural exhibitions across the globe. Its longest spell was at The Museum of Civilisation, in Quebec City, Toronto, where it resided for a year.

It has now returned to Barnsley where it will be showcased at the Gateway Plaza scheme, which forms part of the masterplan's "living wall" on the main route into Barnsley.

Barnsley Council used the plan to develop a strategic development framework which aims to create a thriving 21st-century market town over more than 30 years.

Since it was launched, a number of projects have been completed by the town's redevelopment agency, Remaking Barnsley, including the transport interchange, Digital Media Centre, the Civic and Westgate, with the final elements of Gateway Plaza nearing completion.

In total, more than 380m is being invested into the town, including 211m by the private sector.

Gateway Plaza, which is being developed by Quest Property and Landmark Development Projects, includes a 96,000 sq ft office building, 548-space car park, NHS health centre, hotel and restaurant.

Matthew Stephens, development manager for Quest Property, said: "Our scheme architects, Axis Architecture, drew inspiration from the coloured boxes of light within the

model and this is reflected in the large, coloured panes of glass we have incorporated into the offices element of Gateway Plaza."

Will Alsop added: "It is good to see that Barnsley is now in the regeneration process and I hope the quality of a Tuscan life will be seen to emerge for the inhabitants."

The masterplan unravelled a little when Barnsley's 200m market development, described by the council as the "cornerstone" of its regeneration, was delayed after difficulties with raising development finance. The retail element of the Civic scheme was also put on hold.

There have also been occupancy issues at some of the schemes because of the recession. But the town's regeneration chiefs remain convinced that Barnsley will prove its critics wrong.

Chris Wyatt, manager of Remaking Barnsley, said: "If you are looking at 30 years worth of development, we have done 10 years of that very quickly. There has been a real change but we are still working flat out to deliver the Barnsley markets scheme because that is a key driver for changing the aspirations of Barnsley.

"Every town has a way to go in regeneration terms, but the direction of travel for Barnsley is positive. There is a much greater dependency on a mixed economy and an increase in entrepreneurial activity."

He added: "I don't regret Will Alsop describing his vision for Barnsley as a walled Tuscan hill town because it's about changing people's perceptions of the place. I was at Gateway Plaza looking out over the town, thinking 'I know what he meant'.

"Some of the things he thought of are difficult to perceive, like the living wall around the town. We might not be constructing a living wall but we have tried to develop within the boundary that Alsop set out in his master plan."

The model of the masterplan is available for public viewing Monday to Friday between 10am-4pm at Gateway Plaza.

Coun John Parkinson, Mayor of Barnsley, said: "To be able to view Alsop's model within a development that has been inspired by his original masterplan is poignant and demonstrates the success of regeneration models in bringing about change."

Barnsley regeneration timeline

2006: 9.5m Westgate civic offices house Barnsley Council's office-based staff.

2007: The former Queen's Hotel was converted into offices by Raley's Solicitors.

Barnsley's 24m Transport Interchange combines bus, rail, coach and taxi travel in a single new complex. The 9.7m Digital Media Centre has 75 separate business units ranging from one- or two-person workpods through to larger offices.

2009: The 15m Civic and Mandela Gardens includes an exhibition area and event centre. Town Hall Gardens improved the garden frontage of the Town Hall.

2010: The 34m mixed-use Gateway Plaza development includes offices, shops, underground parking, apartments, hotel and leisure facilities.

On hold: The Barnsley Markets project is the largest single regeneration project ever undertaken in the borough with over one million square feet of new buildings. In addition to a new purpose-built home for the town's famous markets, it will also include restaurants, a new department store, cinema, shops and apartments. The retail element of the Civic is also on hold.