I feel as though I’m about to die. Not in a horrific, life flashing before my eyes kind of way, but in a dreamlike, out-of-body experience. Except, if I really was about to die, I would hope that a failed 1960s underpass might not be the last thing on which I rested my earthly gaze.
I’m wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and headphones, and it seems that this is what the VR experience is like. It’s like death. A benign sort of death. And on this occasion, it’s like a final hallucinatory visit to a place that I believed was gone for good. A place that every Sheffielder believed was gone for good, but which is back, here and now, for one week only.
In reality – the non-virtual kind – I’m sitting in Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery on a grey and damp Monday morning. But in my mind, I’ve left the gallery far behind. I’m deep inside an experience called the Virtual Hole in the Road – a digital recreation of a lost Sheffield landmark – and I don’t mind telling you, it’s very odd.
The ‘Hole in the Road’ was the colloquial name for a 1960s roundabout and underpass system that was more properly called Castle Square. Although it could hardly have been more typical of its time (opened in 1967, it swept away a tangle of bomb-damaged central streets in favour of a wide open concrete vista), it was also unique. In an age when Sheffield’s planners and architects were convinced they were creating the city of tomorrow, the Hole in the Road was a revolutionary solution to the problem of mixing traffic and people.
In the mid-1960s, Sheffield wasn’t alone in imagining that because the future clearly belonged to the car, our city centres should be gouged out and criss-crossed with concrete; great urban ribbons along which vehicles could travel at speed. And instead of expecting citizens to play chicken with the traffic every time they wanted to cross, it was decided they should be sent up to elevated walkways or down tunnels under the ground.
Such was Sheffield’s confidence in its future vision that rather than mere subways and bridges, it unveiled Castle Square. On the surface, the Hole in the Road was a traffic roundabout, a reasonably big one. But the surface view was one that pedestrians rarely saw because the only practical way to navigate it on foot was to plunge into the earth via escalators or ramps, and emerge into a traffic-free underground plaza that was partially domed, partially open to the sky. In the words of the 1969 council publication Sheffield Emerging City, separation of traffic and people was ‘achieved vertically’, and the hole in the roof helped ‘to provide constantly changing lighting effects in addition to helping pedestrians to recognise buildings above the ground’.
The Hole in the Road was ringed by department stores and other shops, each with its own subterranean entrance. It was intended as a place for passing through or spending time, relaxing or being entertained. There was a fish tank built into its fabric, and planters containing well-tended flowers. A system of subways radiated from the central hub so whether you were heading up Fargate or down to the market, you never need set eyes on a car.
When people in the early 20th century imagined the future, this was more or less what they expected. But Sheffield didn’t wait for it to happen by magic. It drew up the plans and built it, and in doing so, it made the future come true.
Alas, even if you never experienced the Hole in the Road, I’m sure you can guess what happened next. At first it was magnificent, drawing admiring gasps from urban planners all over the world. But it didn’t take long for the escalators to break down, for the tiles to come loose, for the dirt and the grime to build up. As council budgets were squeezed throughout the 70s and 80s, it got grubby and then filthy, the perfect place to dawdle over a can or three of Tennent’s Super. And in 1994, when it was finally closed and filled in, I don’t remember many people shedding tears.
But years pass. Perspectives change. It’s now clear that whether you liked it or lumped it, the Hole in the Road was a visionary construction, an extraordinary expression of an optimistic era. If it had survived just a few more years, wouldn’t it now be a wonder of the post-war world?
This sense doesn’t spring only from an intellectual recognition that such schemes were fascinating examples of 1960s thinking. It also comes from the personal relationships that hundreds of thousands of people had with these buildings and landscapes, and the fact that we imagined they’d be there for all of our lives.
In the light of that, it’s hardly surprising that 22 years after it closed for good, the Hole in the Road has a Twitter account and Facebook page. Both are run by Sheffielder Chris Smith who tells me that: “The Hole in the Road means different things to different people. But I think the reason it still has a hold on the imagination is mainly nostalgia. It was unique and couldn’t be avoided. Now it’s gone.”
Smith’s memories of the Hole in the Road are typical of those who weren’t born when it opened, and who grew up feeling as though it had always been there.
“My abiding memories of it are walking through every Saturday with my mum. Then later, as a teenager with friends who were graffiti artists, it was an enviable target due to the volume of people that would see your handiwork.”
With the Hole in the Road having passed into history, Smith’s interest in it was reawakened when he stumbled across some photos on the internet and realised that they needed bringing together – hence his Facebook page. He also acted as a consultant to the Virtual Hole in the Road’s creators, the Sheffield creative studio Human, who found his image collection and knowledge invaluable.
The Virtual Hole in the Road was commissioned by the Festival of the Mind, an eclectic event run by Sheffield University which celebrates collaboration between the arts, sciences and academia. In the run up to this year’s festival, I spoke to Human founder and creative director Nick Bax about how the Hole’s virtual manifestation came about.
According to Bax, who grew up in nearby Rotherham but now lives in Sheffield, the growing fascination for all things concrete hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“There’s been a lot of interest in recent years in brutalism and buildings such as Park Hill Flats. I’ve noticed the odd picture of the Hole in the Road popping up on the internet, and people saying ‘what on earth is that?’. They almost don’t believe it was there. We realised it was actually quite a futuristic vision. So our Virtual Hole in the Road acknowledges that and the fact that there were big utopian dreams for Sheffield at the time. It’s since been filled in and forgotten, and I wanted to bring it back.”
Bax and the Human team have lots of experience in the digital arena, and are evangelical about what virtual reality can bring to a project.
“It does give you the sense that you’re down there,” says Bax. “It’s a feeling I’ve not had for over 20 years. It’s very strange, but VR can give you that sensation again. But it’s also for younger people who weren’t around at the time, it gives them some idea of what it was like. It’s a very realistic experience, it’s totally immersive.”
Bax is right. As I experience the virtual reimagining of this very familiar place for myself, I can confirm that what he says about the return of lost sensations is true. The dimensions, the lighting, the materials used to clad the walls – all these details combine to bring a series of submerged sense memories to the surface. But how accurate is it really?
“It’s very accurate,” insists Bax. “We got the original plans from Sheffield City Council. I’d heard a rumour that they’d lost them so I was a bit worried, as it’s quite hard to do it just based on photographs. But then I got hold of someone at the council who sent us scans of the final drawings.
“They were quite suspicious at first. They don’t give these things out to just anyone. But when I said it was for the general public, that it would be in the Millennium Gallery and it would be free, they were alright about it. So we got the plans and built it from scratch in 3D. As I say, it’s very accurate. I don’t know if you remember but it had a slight slope on it. If you’d have dropped a ball when you were down there, it would have rolled, and that’s all included.”
It has to be said that although the sensation of being immersed in the Virtual Hole in the Road is very true to life, what I see in front of me doesn’t tally exactly with what I remember in my mind’s eye. The real Hole in the Road was pretty scruffy, while the virtual version glistens and gleams. Anxious not to be accused of misrepresenting reality, Bax explains the reasons for this.
“People have said how clean it looks, so I have to explain that our concept is that it’s a parallel universe where the Hole in the Road was never actually filled in. In this parallel universe, it’s been loved and looked after and renovated in the same way that Park Hill Flats have.
“It’s not trying to be an 80s thing or a retro thing. It’s just about the actual physical architectural space. That should be quite apparent when you’re in there because we’ve added things like a Primark, which obviously wouldn’t have been there in the 80s. Though equally, we’ve got C&A in there as well, which as you’ll remember was there in the 80s. But I justify that by the fact that C&A still exists in a lot of European cities.”
The Virtual Hole in the Road isn’t solely a visual experience. As I move through the network of corridors and emerge into the central plaza with its dome open to the sky, I hear the background sounds of a city going about its business along with narrated recollections from Sheffielders sharing their own Hole in the Road memories.
“We realised that just recreating the physical space wasn’t enough,” says Bax. “What we wanted to do was load it with people’s memories and stories so it would be a virtual repository. So we worked with Storying Sheffield who are very good at capturing people’s stories, and Guy Brown at the university’s department of computer science made binaural recordings for us. It sounds like the people are right next to you.
“We also worked with the university’s school of architecture, especially a guy called Satwinder Samra. He’s a big expert in modernist and brutalist architecture, and he helped us with the architectural accuracy.”
An idiosyncratic project like this is clearly a labour of love, and I wonder if this means that Bax was one of the few naysayers making their voice heard when the Hole in the Road was ‘demolished’.
“Like most people, I don’t think I bemoaned the fact when it was filled in,” he says. “It had become such a mess and it wasn’t a nice place to go through, it was quite intimidating.
“When it first opened in the 60s it must have been fantastic, but by the time I was going there in the early 80s, it was exciting but you were aware that as a place, it wasn’t that nice. And when the planning was done in the 60s, they were putting cars above people. On Arundel Gate, which ran down to the Hole in the Road, you could do 40 miles an hour legally, in the middle of the city. They wouldn’t dream of doing that now. But as a structure, as something to be in, it was remarkable.”
Isn’t this the paradox at the heart of so much architecture and urban planning of that era? The projects were often idealistic and brave, yet also paternalistic and flawed. But regardless of their faults, there is a generation of people for whom this was simply the way the world was going to be. It was neither good nor bad; it was just the shape of the cities that we called home.
As the genuinely visionary, if problematic, schemes of the 60s are erased one by one, if we’re not careful we’ll lose every real-world reminder of how brave our immediate forebears believed they needed to be. We can’t save everything, but we need to think carefully every time one of these grim-faced features comes under threat.
Once, these were the background textures of life, the landscapes we took for granted. In the case of the Hole in the Road, it seems we weren’t much bothered when it was taken away. But judging by the number of Sheffielders who now wax lyrical on the subject given half a chance, there’s a sneaking feeling that there could perhaps have been another chapter to its story.
You can often gauge the prevailing mood and self-image of a city by tuning into the jokes and stories it tells about itself. In which case, Sheffield’s cult comedy music troupe, the Everly Pregnant Brothers, may be dispensers of a certain kind of civic wisdom, and their paean to the Hole in the Road rivals Pulp’s Sheffield Sex City as one of my favourite city anthems.
To the tune of The Whole of the Moon by The Waterboys, they sing:
You’d come down from Fargate with the wind in your hair,
You’d go down escalator ‘cos they didn’t have no stairs,
It were too far,
For your tired legs,
With your nannan,
Walking through ‘oyl int road.
And just like that song, the Virtual Hole in the Road has given me goosebumps, although I find it difficult to rationalise the cause. And as I begin the climb out of this digital subterranean oddity and head towards a brilliant white light that turns out not to be the blinding luminescence of the heavenly host, but simply the screen that prompts me to remove the headset, I offer my flustered thanks to the attendant, attempt to keep my emotions in check, and head back out into the grey, damp Sheffield where the Hole in the Road no longer exists.
But guess what.
I really really wish it did.
The real Hole in the Road existed between 1967 and 1994. The Virtual Hole in the Road appeared at the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, as part of the Festival of the Mind, September 2016.
Virtual Hole in the Road images appear courtesy of Human
Hole in the Road photographs taken in 1990 appear courtesy of Peter Jones