I am sitting writing this blog in the strikingly refurbished atrium at the heart of City campus, which was completed just in time to be a Christmas present for the University. The refurbishment was necessary – the old glass roof had begun to spring leaks, and patching them was becoming an operational and financial challenge. The opportunity was taken to go much further than a repair. The new atrium essentially re-imagines the space. It’s far more energy efficient. It has brought greenery indoors. The harsh metallic and functional edges of the old space have been softened with wooden, slatted decoration. The café has been refurbished. There are new study spaces. A new staircase links the café to the Howard building. The overall effect is – as everyone who has seen it has said – simply stunning. When the campus returns to life – the new atrium will be a fabulous place to study, meet, work and interact. In my, admittedly perhaps biased view, it’s one of the most stunning modern spaces in any university.
The old atrium was constructed in the 1990s. It was created as an indoor space from what was, in essence, a yard between the Owen, Norfolk, Harmer, Sheaf and Howard buildings. At the time of its construction, it was, apparently, the biggest building project in UK higher education, and, if it looked dated by the latter years of the 2010s, it nonetheless stood the University community in good stead for a quarter of the century. The re-imagined atrium is enormously important to us. It is the first tangible result of the new, ambitious estate master plan which is reshaping the University for the middle of the twenty-first century. Hot on its heels – construction has already started – comes the redevelopment of the large Howard Street site, where three new buildings will provide something city campus has never really had: a strong identity, with a central university green and an impressive gateway to the city.
We always think of estate projects in terms of buildings and materials, but they are, of course – and certainly for me – really about places and people. The atrium will come into its own when it is occupied, full of people: its meeting spaces and café area used for teaching, interaction, planning – universities of course, are made by people. And the entire estates master plan will give the University a stronger sense of identity, supporting the aspirations of those who use it. The atrium is visually stunning and paves the way for the new Howard Street development which will be a striking reshaping of the feel of the University. As it happens, an old friend emailed me over the Christmas break. She had been staying with family just outside Sheffield; she wrote to say that she had visited the centre of Sheffield and had been struck by the evidence of the Hallam estates programme, which she said, “gives an impression of an institution that knows where it is going”. That’s the core of this: shaping the University’s physical form around its people, purpose and mission.
I hope it won’t be long before you are all able to sit in the new atrium and experience this fantastic new space. We have all been through the gruelling pandemic experience, with our assumptions about work and how it is done up-ended. But there will be a world beyond the pandemic, even if the route to it seems more fraught and halting than we might hope. The survey evidence we have is that for students – and, indeed, for staff – what is most important as we move from the pandemic is to rebuild a sense of community and belonging. Buildings, of course, do not in themselves do that, but they can provide contexts in which people can feel comfortable. The atrium is the first tangible estates step on our road to the post-pandemic university, shepherded to completion with real attention to quality and detail by our fabulous estates team. It’s a gorgeous space which will be all the more gorgeous when it’s fully used. It will sit at the heart of the re-shaped university we are, in our estates plan and our academic plan, in our new ways of working and our digital strategy, building together. There’ll be challenges a-plenty in the year ahead, but sitting in the new atrium writing this, it does feel like a happy new year.