We’re generally not very good at celebrating engineering in Britain. That’s been said so often that it’s becoming a cliché, but nevertheless it’s true. You won’t find that many monuments or statues to engineering around, although it’s quite easy to understand why — what’s the point of a statue of Brunel, when you’ve got the Clifton Suspension Bridge? The engineer/architect/mathematician Christopher Wren phrased this attitude better than anyone in his epigram at St Paul’s Cathedral — if you seek his monument, look around you.
However, that attitude might well contribute to the invisibility of engineering in the UK. But in the coming years, just outside Sheffield, that might change.
The Sheffield Icon project is aiming to build a colossal statue, the Man of Steel, on a former landfill site overlooking the M1. Acting both as a memorial to the generations of steelworkers who put Sheffield on the map as the birthplace of stainless steel and British industry’s crucible of metalworking, and as a signpost to the new materials technologies which the city’s institutions are developing, the Man of Steel will be 20m high, perching in a rather relaxed pose on top of a 16m column whose outer faces will be cast in a form representing layers of coal. From the base of the column to the top of the head, the statue will be 30m tall and will act as a ‘gateway sculpture in a similar way to the Angel of the North.
The statue is based on a sculpture by former steelworker Steve Mehdi, who is leading the project. ‘It was originally going to be 40m tall,’ he told me, ‘which we thought was big enough to make a statement but not too big. But it’s going to be very near the Kimberworth housing estate, and when Axis Architects started looking at the topology, we reduced the height because of sun patterns and shadowfall which would have reduced the light to people’s houses.’
The idea is for Man of Steel to be privately funded as far as possible. ‘We have tremendous support from the private sector,’ Mehdi said. ‘When we started this project four years ago, we were in a very different economic climate and companies were queuing up to provide funding. Now we’re in a recession, we’re inevitably seeing some companies withdrawing, but other have come in to take their place.’
Full funding is necessary before any work can begin, Mehdi insists — ‘we really can’t end up with something half-finished,’ he said — so over the next 12 months he’ll determine exactly how much the project will cost. At the moment the estimated budget is some £2.7m.
“We’re satisfied that there won’t be any problems with reflections or glare for people on the motorway
Steve Mehdi, project director and sculptor
The project has now passed an important milestone. The site for the sculpture has been secured, donated by FCC Environmental; and earlier this week Rotherham City Council granted planning permission. ‘A lot of the process of building depends on that planning permission, and now we’ve got that, we can sit down and look at funding strategy,’ Mehdi said. ‘If we need funding from the Arts Council, or the Heritage Lottery Fund, or ERDF funding, we’ll look at that.’
At the moment, Mehdi’s industry partners are looking at the engineering and technical requirements. John Halfpenny of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at Sheffield University is working on a 2m-high model of the sculpture in Modelboard, working on 3D scans of Mehdi’s original bronze sculpture from Sheffield Hallam University, which will be metal-sprayed to give it a stainless steel finish; this will go on display at the Magma Science Centre in Sheffield.
Meanwhile, local firm Newburgh Engineering is producing a 1m high model in stainless steel to test out the build method for the actual sculpture.
The statue will be formed from a steel monocoque onto which stainless steel plates will be attached to form the outer ‘musculature’ of the figure. ‘It’ll be as close as possible to the CGI images we’re using, although some of that will depend on how the steel is fabricated: we could cast, roll or bend it,’ Mehdi said. ‘The finish probably won’t be quite so shiny — we’ve satisfied the Environment Agency and the Highways Agency that there won’t be any problems with reflections or glare for people on the motorway.’
Engineering contractor Mott McDonald is looking at the supporting column construction; it will sit on 16m piles driven into the site to form the foundation. ‘We’re pretty close to resolving that,’ Mehdi said. ‘The idea is that we’ll have a hollow column that we can fit out, pretty quickly, in a second phase to make a visitor centre.’ The column will also feature an enclosed observation deck at the top floor, though there will be no access inside the statue itself; the shape of the neck would form a bottleneck with safety issues, Mehdi explained.
Of course, any project like this is bound to attract sceptics, and art is a matter of taste. But the Angel of the North, ribbed airliner wings spread over the Gateshead suburbs, has been adopted by the local community. There can be no doubt that Sheffield’s industry deserves a monument — at the moment, the best it’s got is probably The Full Monty. It’s hard to see exactly how Man of Steel is dressed, or undressed, and some wags have commented on local paper websites whether he should be adorned with a flat cap, to make him more Northern, or some goggles and a hardhat, to comply with Health and Safety. But it’s fittingly ambitious, and it’ll definitely have a certain charisma. Maybe there’s room for another statue of the city’s Woman of Steel, Jessica Ennis, while we’re about it.