Sunday20 August 2017

Park Hill estate, Sheffield, by Hawkins Brown with Studio Egret West

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The apartments of the regenerated Park Hill are a world away from 1961’s socially conscious streets in the sky. Here, BD looks at how Sheffield’s iconic housing block has echoed 50 years of Britain shifting political moods

There are two types of people who live in Sheffield: those who love Park Hill and those who hate it. I have yet to find anyone ambivalent. Ironically for the steel city, since the cooling towers by the M1 were demolished three years ago, the brutalist concrete of Park Hill remains Sheffield’s only truly iconic building. Had it not been listed in 1998, the streets in the sky would now be quite simply just sky, as the asinine Liberal Democrat council would almost certainly have flattened it as it did with much of the city centre and large quantities of other council housing stock in Parson Cross and Shirecliffe. The Lib Dems conceded power last year, yet continue to bad-mouth Park Hill, making it a cause célèbre for anything connected to Labour politics. Such is the symbolic power of Europe’s largest listed building.

Urban Splash is currently “regenerating” the building and there has been considerable controversy, in these pages and elsewhere, over the political ramifications of this process. Originally, Park Hill contained 995 council flats, but the new scheme, when finished in 2017, proposes 874 flats, of which 200 are to be managed by a housing association, and a further 40 to be shared ownership. There can be no doubt that, as with much else in the UK at the moment, this represents a very marked shift in asset ownership from the public to the private. It is this shift from left-of-centre to right-of-centre consensus that has led directly to the redevelopment’s appearance.

English Heritage stipulated that only the concrete frame was sacrosanct and subsequently advocated the so-called “squint test” to guide its redesign. Everything except for the concrete was replaceable, so everything except for the concrete has been replaced with the aspiration of rebranding Park Hill’s image. To understand why it needed rebranding, it is necessary to understand something of its 50-year history.

The original concrete frame with brick infill, graduating from chocolate brown at the lower levels to mustard at the top.

Source: Richard Hanson/Sheffield Hallam University

The original concrete frame with brick infill, graduating from chocolate brown at the lower levels to mustard at the top.

When it opened, on June 16, 1961, Park Hill was the pride of a Labour council in the middle of a huge council housebuilding programme. The local and national media, both architectural and mainstream, lauded it as an architectural paradigm. Park Hill had all the latest mod-cons such as district heating, a Garchey refuse system, and floor space that exceeded Parker Morris standards before the Parker Morris report was published. Its cost of £1,950 per dwelling was £350 more than the average two-storey dwelling at that time — something Sheffield was proud rather than ashamed of.

The decline of Park Hill’s image reflected the status in the national psyche of council housing generally. Opinion in the media started changing in 1967 with Nicholas Taylor’s mould-breaking article in the Architectural Review “The Failure of ‘Housing’”. While such disparaging claims gained momentum throughout the 1970s, surveys showed that tenants at Park Hill remained consistently loyal and generally happy. However, with Thatcher’s onslaught and the decline of the steel industry, Sheffield suffered badly. Park Hill started its process of “residualisation” and became the classic sink estate of no-hopers — those put there with no choice in the matter. It is this image from the 1980s, rather than the original from the 1960s, that Park Hill represents for many and that needs to be overcome for the building to be accepted again.

Reyner Banham wrote that Park Hill would be “the building by which 1961 will be remembered”. It was the closest thing to his elusive architecture autre that he ever found and he was tickled by its megastructure and deliberately “anti-picturesque quality”. According to Banham, one of the key characteristics of the new brutalism was its “valuation of materials as found”. This make-do-and-mend ethic of the immediate post-war years of genuine austerity was the movement’s origin and the unfinished surfaces were an ethical as much as an aesthetic statement.

site plan

Park Hill’s board-marked in-situ concrete and brick infill, graduating from chocolate brown at the lower levels to mustard at the top, distinguished it from the later inferior social housing that used indiscriminate prefabricated system construction. These brick panels were as much a part of the aesthetic as the concrete frame, and their replacement with coloured anodised aluminium is a great shame.

Its purpose is to signal that the building should no longer be considered part of the new brutalist canon, and how this is perceived by the right-of-centre consensus. But the new aesthetic is prioritised over any ethic and the new citrus fruit colours don’t sit comfortably in their concrete frame, even now it has been airbrushed and cured of its concrete cancer. It is designed with colour photography in mind, rather than the black-and-white reproductions of new brutalism, and the overall textural qualities of the facade appear flattened. It must be noted, however, that it is a considerable improvement on the Tupperware-like cladding installed in the nineties at Sheffield’s Hyde Park, an even larger block of flats designed in the same aesthetic as Park Hill.

There is slightly more glazing in the new facade arrangement and new crisp dark olive frames replace the old domestic-scaled white timber ones. The coloured panels now open instead of the windows, allowing both the facade’s appearance to change with use and cross ventilation of the flats, which are all dual aspect and intelligently heated underfloor from the district heating. The interiors actually feel more brutalist because many of the concrete walls around the stair cores are left exposed, even complete with old inset pattresses, subscribing to a 21st century “as found” aesthetic derived more from a loft-apartment lifestyle than austerity measures.

Clever design details such as open doors slotting flush into the walls make the most of the space and demonstrate the level of thoughtful design throughout. Previously, the typical four-flat “cluster”, around the concrete service and stair cores arranged over three storeys (see plans), was a three-bed and a two-bed maisonette, a two-bed flat and a one-bed flat. This cluster arrangement has loosely been maintained but now there are two two-bed maisonettes and two one-bed flats either side of the core.

The flats’ entrances are lined with plywood, with new corner windows to provide passive surveillance.

Source: Miguel Santa Clara

The flats’ entrances are lined with plywood, with new corner windows to provide passive surveillance.

Losing two bedrooms per cluster means that each flat is slightly larger than the previous, already generously sized, flats and unlike other modern “luxury” apartments, all boast decently sized bedrooms and bathrooms (complete with a bespoke larger-than-average “bath for having sex in”!) and a more open-plan kitchen/living/dining room arrangement. This is needed to accommodate our more cluttered modern living habits, which are considerably different to those of 1961 when only one household in three had a washing machine and only one in five had a fridge. For example, the ill-fated typology of a communal laundrette is no longer required.

The hooks on the balconies to hang a washing line have also disappeared, so it will be interesting to see whether occupants still “personalise” their generous balcony space in this way, and what sorts of curtains/blinds/rear of 42in flat screen 3D HDTVs will complement the Opal Fruit panels.

The ill-fated typology of a communal laundrette is no longer required

The other key feature of the facades is the concrete balustrades to the balconies. These have been replaced with almost identical pre-cast versions, but with a timber handrail instead of concrete. In the ethos of keeping tactile things within arm’s reach and things in the distance rougher, this is a welcome change.

One of the things that original architect Ivor Smith has said he would change about his design is the way no windows overlooked the streets in the sky, alienating them from the life within. This has been partially addressed in the new arrangement for the entrances to the flats. The one-bed flats now impinge onto the decks and contain a corner window to what is ostensibly a small office space, but is more likely to be welcomed as a large store area. So there is perhaps a chance of street surveillance. The other flats’ entrances are set back, articulating the deck and clad in plywood — a surprising choice, but one commensurate with a brutalist aesthetic and that makes the open-air deck feel warmer.

There are a number of infrastructural changes to the building’s fabric, each of which is an improvement. The original fire escape always looked strangely at odds with the concrete frame as though it were an afterthought. It is now a fabulous stainless steel helical stair, spiralling down inside the frame like a giant screw at the hinge point, anchoring it to the ground. It is reminiscent of Tschumi’s red deconstructivist follies at Parc de la Villette, but on a far more impressive scale and actually purposeful. Secondly, a pair of glass lifts thrillingly rise up the main facade over the city centre. The lifts on the ends of the blocks remain clad in brick, however. Considering the removal of the bricks everywhere else, it would have been more consistent to glaze or clad them in steel.

The “as found” aesthetic extends to the celebrated graffito written on the topmost bridge connecting two blocks

Source: Daniel Hopkinson

The “as found” aesthetic extends to the celebrated graffito written on the topmost bridge connecting two blocks

The views from the top of this facade, whether from a flat or the lifts, are sublime, looking over the city centre with the Peak District in the distance and the setting sun behind. Next to the glass lifts sits the 14-storey block’s main entrance which is now an aperture four storeys high and two bays wide with a deck bridge running through at the second storey. Again, this is a welcome addition that befits the scale of the building, although claims of it connecting the city with the internal courtyard are a little exaggerated. Finally, like the original design, the ground floor of this block contains a parade of commercial spaces, now fully glazed on both sides.

The “as found” aesthetic extends to the celebrated graffito written on the topmost bridge connecting two blocks: “CLARE MIDDLETON I LOVE YOU WILL U MARRY ME?” was written by a certain Jason in April 2001. They went on a date to the cinema opposite, he told her to look up and she said “yes”. But they split up three months later and she died of cancer in 2007 aged only 30. Urban Splash has rendered this most heroically direct of messages in neon (without the name) as a means of marketing the building. This immortalisation of the “objet trouvé” hides the story’s tragic denouement but it’s a perfect example of how the history of Park Hill is a synecdoche of British social history reified in a single building.


Project team

Architects Hawkins Brown with Studio Egret West, Development partners Urban Splash, Sheffield City Council, Great Places Housing Group, English Heritage, Homes & Communities Agency, Landscape architect Grant Associates, Main contractor Urban Splash Build (North), Quantity surveyor Simon Fenton Partnership, Structural engineer Martin Stockley Associates, Services engineer Ashmount Consulting Engineers


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