How To Bring a Building Back to Life

Published in the ‘Steel City’ special issue of Pick Me Up zine, 28 October 2005

I’m not sure quite how it started. There was a huge empty building in the middle of the city, an old cutlery works. One guy with a recording studio on the second floor, and the rest of it just mouldering away.

Then the G8 Justice ministers came to Sheffield. Lots of people who didn’t really know each other met because they wanted to protest against the G8. There were artists and doctors, school kids and single mums. DJs and journalists, economists and clowns.

Afterwards, we agreed that it wasn’t enough to protest against things – you have to show people what you’re for. So we decided to bring the building back to life. Once the idea got round, everyone wanted to get organised. It wasn’t always fun – sometimes it was really hard work – but no one minded, because we knew what we were working for.

Down in the mouldy cellars under the building, Helene and her friends got stuck in with paint scrapers. In six weeks, they transformed them into a gig space for bands and fundraising parties for all kinds of campaigns.

“There’s nothing more inspiring than working together with your friends, starting with a roomful of rubble and ending up with this fantastic space. Before, I’d been struggling to get out of bed in the morning, but suddenly I was in the office at seven every morning, so I could be out and scraping walls by two.

“We put the word out that we needed wood, and it just started turning up. People were finding it lying around or in skips, pulling it out of the crumbling urban environment. We were a bit nervous when it came to making the stage, because we didn’t think we had the skills. But people came out of the woodwork – handy friends who could borrow tools and teach the rest of us. In the end, it was built in a weekend.”

Up on the first floor, we took out the partition between two empty rooms and built a new kitchen. All the surfaces, the table, the appliances were donated by people who wanted to help.

On Thursdays, we have a work day when anyone can come along and help with doing up the building. There are always plenty of jobs to do, like glazing the broken windows before winter arrives… And if you don’t know how to glaze, someone will teach you.

At the end of the day, people get together to cook a meal, and we open a few bottles of wine.

Yiannis turned the room next to the kitchen into a film set.

“Our film is called Get Lost. It’s a fantasy story, like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and the surrealists – you have to be lost in order to be found.

“I found out about the building because a friend brought me to a party here. The look of the place is ideal for the atmosphere of the film.”

The craft collective meets on Sunday nights, with knitting needles and wool and button boxes. And, most importantly, cake.

Eric is curating an exhibition in three rooms at the front of the building. It’s a fringe event for the Art 05 festival.

“I’d heard about the building because it used to be the old Yorkshire Arts Space. It had been big in Sheffield since the ’70s, but YAS moved out just before I arrived here. I used to walk past the building and wonder what it was like inside. Then I met this guy called Mozaz at a Sheffield Independent Film event. He said I should come along one Monday night.

“When I stepped inside the building it was just, like, wow! Sitting in the weekly meeting, listening to people talk, I got an idea for an event I wanted to do there. The next week I came back with a proposal – people asked lots of questions, but they gave it the go ahead.

“The theme of the event is ‘Urban Decay – The Invasion of Space’. With the exhibitions I’ve put on before, the space has been just a background – something to fill. Here, the space is the starting point, the whole event is a response to it.

“Putting on an exhibition without any funding is hard. I’ve been stressed a lot of the time, but everyone’s helped out – cleaning the space, getting it safe for visitors, making food for the opening. Now I’m just hoping lots of people will come.”

We don’t own Matilda. But before we came along, it had been sitting empty for years. 

Everyone who’s been involved feels proud because we’ve made it happen for ourselves. We didn’t wait for anyone else to organise it. We didn’t even have any money. We’ve had to learn new skills – and work out ways of running this huge building. Already, hundreds of people have visited the space in just a few months and everyone seems to go away inspired.

The building is owned by the Regional Development Agency. We don’t know what plans they have for it. But we do know that, one way or another, what we’ve started is going to keep going – because it’s as exciting as anything any of us have ever been part of.