National Centre of Popular Music

To what extent did the decisions conducted by the client affect failure of the project?  

The National Centre of Popular Music (NCPM) in Sheffield, was completed in 1999, it was designed by the former architectural practice Branson Coates Architect. The project was funded by the National Lottery and run by the charity organisation; Music Heritage ltd (later Music Heritage enterprises ltd). The centre opened its doors initially to the public in March 1999, however, seven months later, due to the low number of visitors, the centre became insolvent even though a second attempt to re-launch it was made. Eventually, the centre was sold to HallamUniversity. This essay will examine the role of National Lottery within the project to try to understand the decisions that were made and how they affected the nature of the project and the work of the involved parties.

The 1990’s saw the British music industry reaching its peak, and with it, the media craze for British creativity. This led to the establishment of several funding bodies associated with the National Lottery; which aimed at “channelling money …into ideas that promote British creativity…” (Warner, S. 2002). This aroused the development of several museum-based projects across the country (National Audit Organization (NAO). 2003), and with the elevated scenes of “Britpop”(Warner, S. 2002) it was clear that there was an opportunity to highlight yet another British “legacy” (Jennings, D. 2004) through a sort of “interactive temple”(BBC. Feb 1999), one that would become a centre for ‘worship’. The availability of a source of finance meant that there was ‘openness’ to ideas that were perhaps only “sound on paper” (Jennings, D. 2004). One could argue that the NCPM is one such example, for the idea of ‘music’ was conceptually holistic but its application to the physical world was far from it. As the designer, it is the Architect’s responsibility to translate complex ideas such as music into a building by questioning the ideas put forward by the client; both for the purpose of understanding the needs in a building, and providing a bases of understanding for all. However there are limitations to the Architects influence, for there are aspects of projects that one would consider ‘out of hand’. Such decisions include location, budget and management which were ultimately made by the initiators and funding body of the project; the National Lottery.

drums bw
Fig 1


According to the Architect (Coates, N. 2013) the very idea of a popular centre was ambitious and potentially successful. The National Lottery’s £11 million (Jennings, D. 2004) fund was granted to the city of Sheffield. The decision was based on the fact that Sheffield had a long musical history (BBC. Feb 1999), but more importantly the city’s economical situation. The decline in steel production and its emergence out of the industrialisation, necessitated a regeneration project to revitalise the city by other means, in this case, through enhancing the existing “cultural industries” (Hetherley, O. 2011) and attracting new visitors. From the perspective of the National Lottery, Sheffield was the logical “beneficiary of this cash reward” (Warner, S. 2002) and had the potential to gain the most out of the project. However, in reality Sheffield’s the low level of employability (37% of the population are full time employees) and self employed rates (6.2%) (Census. 2001) create an “inactive economy” (Census. 2001) that will require more than just a museum to revitalise. The NCPM; a place of leisure and attraction, failed to appeal to the perhaps occupied locals, whilst on a national level, Sheffield seemed “an unlikely bet” to become the “epicentre of British music” (Warner, S. 2002). Moreover, the location of the NCPM in the ‘Cultural industries Quarter’ categorized the centre as an unsuccessful attempt to run the economy by “itself” (Hetherly, O. 2011). Adjacent buildings such as the showroom cinema and workstation and Sheffield Science Park(Harman, R & Minnis, J. 2004) are less than impressive and do not necessarily aid in creating a publically attractive setting for NCPM.

Sheffield’s economical situation was the reason for initiation the project, however, due to the different interests between the users and those involved in the project, it was also its downfall. Sheffield could have its place amongst the large cities of Europe, but the high expectations for a quick response; evident in the striking contrast between anticipated numbers (400,000) and actual number of visitors (104,000) (CABE 2011) was overly estimated. One could see that the number of visitors anticipated need not be so ambitious, especially at the start of a project, prolonging the time frame at which to anticipate positive change in a city would have prevented early disappointments.

The “assumption” (Hetherley 2011) that an economy could run on the culture industries and the future benefits of carrying out this stance has evidently led to an over-estimation of the cost of the project. The organising body, Music Heritage ltd, projected the cost of the National Centre at less than £7 million (Jennings, D. 2004).  However, the Lottery funding assessors recommended increasing the projection to “around £15 million, as long as it included a ‘landmark building’” (Jennings, D. 2004) in the hope of attracting more visitors. This in itself arises several issues; firstly, the creation of a landmark is a marketing strategy that imprints a particular image on to the city. In the case of the NCPM, the steel drums (fig 1) were to signify the industry whilst the form symbolised the music history of Sheffield. The failure of the NCPM led to the imprinting of a negative image instead and thus turning it into a painful reminder for the locals. Secondly, through the use of a landmark building, the National Lottery’s deeper agenda to create a notion of a centre with in the city is attempted. This unfortunately did not succeed due to the underutilisation of the cultural industries quarter. It is unreasonable to claim that had the National Lottery decided to go ahead with the initial “design and build” (Jennings, D 2004) plan and with the initial budget, such problems would have not happened. However, it has brought to attention the limits to which a building could affect the city’s economy.

One might argue that the negative image created by the iconic building has sprouted from within itself rather than from exterior conditions. One might even say that the National Lottery’s decision to create an iconic building was not as unfavourable, that the Architect’s design was received well by the media and has “won acclaim” (BBC. Oct 1999)and that in fact, the management of the museum was the reason for the failure of the NCPM. But even at a management level, we find that major decisions have resulted in skewing the Architect’s design and Music Heritage ltd’s management into two different directions.

Music Heritage Ltd was in charge of managing and organising the exhibition spaces. The theme of ‘music’ was narrowed down to four sub-themes; Perspective, Making music, Global music and Soundscape (BBC Feb 1999). The new museum was designed in coherence with such themes, evident in the four cylindrical drums, each housing an exhibition space. Yet, the exhibition was described as “limited” in comparison to the “strikingly futuristic exterior”(BBC. Oct 1999). Looking at the cost distribution by the national lottery, of the total budget provided to the NCPM, only “10% of the total cost” (Jennings, D. 2004) went into the exhibition. Tim Strickland, the development director and creative director of NCPM aimed to “tell the whole story of popular music in less than 40,000sq ft” (Jennings, D. 2004) whilst avoiding to “institutionalize” (BBC. Feb 1999) music and thus the poor management caused by budget constraints, limited space and overly ambitious concept, was detrimental to the quality of the exhibition. It is clear that by not allocating an adequate amount of money for the exhibits, the gap between the standards of the exterior and interior was a reason for the low number of revisit, which was then further heightened by the promises of any ‘landmark building’ for the regeneration of a city. Here one can see how several major decisions, conducted by the client, have led to a succession of clashing outcomes.

Although Branson Coates Architect and Music Heritage ltd carried out the project and so take partial responsibility for its failure. The National Lottery made the major decisions that have contributed to the unfortunate end for the NCPM. Unlike working with the constraints set by external conditions; where one could assess the likely hood of success of a decision, the conditions defined by the National Lottery were far too rigid to allow for such assessment to be taken. It was evident that by end of the project, both the Architect and Music heritage ltd have two non harmonizing results. The lack of coordination could have been prevented if the architect, client and managers engaged in the project as one workforce, rather than working with each other as individual entities. Furthermore, the fact that NCPM was a regenerative project means that it needed to be treated in accordance with the needs of the city rather than that of the nations. Once this is accomplished, Sheffield’s economical recovery could be steered on a governmental level.


  • Harman, R. & Minnis, J.(2004) Pevsner Architectural Guides: Sheffield, Yale university press, London
  • Hetherley,O. (2011)A guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Verso Books, London.

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