Seen from Kelham Island or from the top of West Street, Sheffield’s Park Hill estate juts out of the landscape like a concrete Stannage Edge.
Those unfamiliar with the building’s serpentine topography might mistake its front elevation for a mere Potemkin village – all show and no substance – but this is no exercise in bombastic facadism: it’s Europe’s largest listed building. The bulk of the building’s floor space coils round the back towards Duke Street, meaning that a good half of its structure becomes invisible when viewed from the city side.
As with the Hallamshire Hospital of 1978 on the opposite side of the city centre, with Park Hill, Sheffield City Council’s in-house architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith attempted to one-up the city’s already distinctive landscape. In acts of architectural hubris that wouldn’t fly in our current era of plasticky PFI cladding and the friendly faux-brick facades that Owen Hatherley terms “psuedomodernism”, both buildings reconfigured Sheffield’s seven hills artificially, each adding new peaks, skyline escarpments and dizzying cliff faces. These public buildings of the post-war consensus are now the city’s summits.
For residents of Park Hill, myself included, the completion of the refurbishment project has long appeared to rest on a knife edge. In December 2016 we were invited to a public meeting hosted by the council and infamous developers Urban Splash to talk about the future of the site. As it stands, three quarters of the building is still hermetically sealed like 700 small tombs, and the original completion date of 2014 has long mutated into a bad joke. When permission for the project was granted in 2007 there was no recession and no Brexit, and the regeneration-crazed New Labour government was cruising towards the end of its natural lifespan. It’s become a glib truism for journalists to point out that the redevelopment has long outlasted the original five-year build time.
Before the public consultation I walked up to the evocatively named Skye Edge, a long abandoned and vaguely off-limits strip of common land threaded precariously over the city. This is the only vantage point in Sheffield that shrinks Park Hill, causing it to recede back into the terrain of the city (the patch of scrubland made famous by Richard Hawley lies well above the roof level of the building). It’s a perspective that humanises a housing scheme described by Sheffield born Roy Hattersley – presumably in criticism – as a “massive cliff with windows”. It’s the only angle from which the building doesn’t look heroic, but instead squats in the hillside.
Park Hill as it was. Image: Hawkins\Brown.
The public meeting was held at the Park Library on Duke Street, an interesting building in itself (albeit eclipsed by its hulking neighbour) with an improbably massive chimney stack left over from its previous life as a swimming baths. Representing Urban Splash was Mark Latham, its ‘head of regeneration’, whose relaxed image falls somewhere between hip university lecturer and public arts tsar. He talks with passion and excitement about the building and explains – convincingly – that his company haven’t walked away from the project because they love the building and want to see the job finished, despite well-documented financial difficulties and a schedule that make the builders of the Ryugyong Hotel appear punctual.
For the Mancunian developers the building is quickly turning into their Haçienda – too big, too monumental and often too empty to ever really get a grip on. Like the club, it’s a place so vast that it evades any attempts at control or discipline imposed by those who’ve taken it on, and both of these endlessly mythologised buildings share an unfortunate knack for swallowing money like a sinkhole. Yet Park Hill’s prominent position on the city’s skyline means that they have to get it right – to repurpose a phrase, it’s too big to fail.
There was a slight disparity in perspectives both in the audience and on the panel, with Latham’s modern Mancunian slickness offset by Terry Fox, a long serving councillor for Manor Castle with a gruff Sheffield accent emanating a no-nonsense hard headedness. Although in support of the project, Fox appeared understandably cautious about the glitzy showmanship that is Urban Splash’s modus operandi.
A member of the public at the back of the hall angrily complained about the mixed-use roadway in front of the building, which dispenses with a pavement in favour of a shared use slalom course designed to prevent drivers from barrelling down the hill at 60mph. A council official said that similar schemes in Scandinavia have been shown to increase public safety by forcing drivers and pedestrians to be more aware of each other’s presence as equal stakeholders in the public realm. The man replied that a speeding lorry had tried to run him over. They both had a point.
Latham spoke about the latest evolution of the company’s plan for Park Hill, which will see one of the building’s smaller coils repurposed as student housing, with the flats knocked through into eight bedroom, three-storey ‘townhouses’. Although the other residents will be able to walk freely around the rest of the building, the student block will be annexed off with its own self-contained access points.
It’s symptomatic of the slight bigotry that has developed towards students in the UK as their numbers have swelled since 1997, ignoring the life they breath into our cities’ underground arts scenes and independent businesses. (Sheffield is a small city fortunate enough to have two central campuses.) Despite some mutterings of dissent from existing residents, it’s hard to argue with students getting any form of architectural upgrade, given that no decent person would place a prison in the sadistic bunkers that constitute the majority of new build halls of residence.
Out of 260 flats in Phase 1, 96 will be “affordable” with 28 available on Help to Buy. Phase 2 will include no provision for mixed-tenure at all among its 210 flats, with Urban Splash managing director Simon Gawthorpe cryptically telling the council’s own press website that the company “plan to provide the ranges of affordable housing options beyond Phase 2”.
All this raises the question of whether the rest of the building will be completed with any mixed-tenure allocation at all (beyond Phase 2 there is only one more residential wing planned), as the developers must know that Sheffield City Council have its hands tied: it can’t risk the project hitting the buffers now. Given that only vague assurances of future mixed-tenure have been given, it’s unfortunate that Urban Splash’s own brochure for Phase 2 trumpets the building as a “nationally and internationally significant milestone in the history of mass social housing”.
The new facade. Image: Thomas B443/Wikimedia Commons.
After the public meeting I walked back to my flat at the far end of the building, passing the small corner windows that look out onto the elevated walkways. As was presumably intended by Phase 1 architects Hawkins\Brown, residents have used these as small stages for self-expression, with chosen items including immaculate house plants, Russian dolls of Soviet leaders, a Qur’an and, in my friend’s flat, die-cast models of modernist buildings. This incorporation of folk art into the design is a pre-emptive strike against the (wrongheaded) claim that the building, and brutalist architecture more widely, is anti-humanistic, the antithesis of individual expression.
Slowly the building is waking from its RIBA dream – planning permission for the second phase of the project is currently under consideration. There has been criticism of the radical approach to Phase 1, which saw Hawkins/Brown gut the building and its brick facades and rebuild the interior entirely, the original brickwork swapped for smaller day-glo metal panels to allow for generous floor-to-ceiling windows. To appease the critics and Historic England, Phase 2 will see architects Mikhail Riches retain more of the original fabric of the building including the brickwork, but Simon Thurley, former chief exec of Historic England (then English Heritage), has said that the upkeep of 20th-century buildings requires a more radical approach. In November last year, he told the Observer that “for 20th-century buildings, the whole listed-building system, the legislation and everything based around keeping the fabric, is not relevant. These buildings are about ideas and other things”.
Despite scepticism the heavy handed approach to Phase 1 has been vindicated, at least visually. The metal panels – yellow at the top, then orange, red and a browny purple – have lost none of their vibrancy and the jet-washed concrete has been kept in good condition, giving the building the startling and otherworldly newness that it possesses in early sixties photographs taken just after it opened. Each wing of the building has the exterior walkways on one side and the individual balconies on the other, but these alternate as you move along the structure, meaning that in some blocks the walkways overlook the city centre and in others the balconies do. The balcony sides are the most visually satisfying: stare at them long enough and you’ll see lysergic patterns in the concrete framework.
Businesses have finally started appearing in the ground floor units such as local design firm Über (note the umlaut), though the rumoured café is still missing, as is the long planned pub from well-liked local brewery Thornbridge. There’s not yet a shop, though Phase 2 should welcome enough new residents to make one viable.
As part of the continued development of the building Urban Splash promise “a high street of local services”, and in the glass lift on my way home from the public meeting some kids offer to sell me weed. Some progress there, at least.
Sam Gregory is a writer based in Sheffield.