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Park Hill Through The Years

Credit: Whittam Cox Architects

Park Hill is an iconic Brutalist landmark, the largest Grade II* listed building in Europe and one of the most controversial buildings in Britain. It’s a vibrant part of our social history, a representative of a time of change and a constant reminder of the mistakes made by the welfare state.

The redevelopment project by Urban Splash commenced in 2005 and continually divides opinion. To save it we have to learn from it, buildings like Park Hill pushed Britain forward at a time in which the country needed it. The new development has reintroduced a hint of optimism during another time of political uncertainty. Park Hill is getting a second chance, in the words of its former caretaker - Grenville Squires “She’s an old lady who’s come on hard times, she’s getting her face washed and putting a new frock on – She’ll soon be out there again.”

Transforming Britain

The housing provision by the end of the war, particularly in urban centres was not only inadequate in quantity it was also inadequate in quality. Sheffield was being transformed by industrialisation, developing around heavy industry, which created an influx of workers and a rapid growth in the population. People were living in basic prefabs or back-to-back Victorian housing with families living in two or three rooms, bathing in a tin bath with no central heating and only had the dreaded outdoor toilet.

Britain needed to get people out of the slum housing and prevent the epidemic diseases such as cholera, dysentery, rickets and scurvy – diseases associated with overcrowding and poor sanitation, but to do so they needed somewhere to move out to.

Park Hill was previously a site of back-to-back housing, a mixture of 2-3 storey tenement buildings with wasteland, quarries and steep alleyways. The streets were arranged at right angles to each other with continuous terraces connecting up to 100 houses per standpipe. Shared toilets were not connected to mains drainage and the area was colloquially known as ‘Little Chicago’ due to the repeated occurrence of violent crime. Tenants were extremely eager to get out and the council was only too happy to oblige.

Britain emerged from the Second World War victorious but bankrupt; the next 20 years witnessed unprecedented change with significant political and social challenges. The 50’s were the decade, which was going to transform Britain. After the destruction of war it was time for a fresh start, a time of optimism with a desire to rebuild Britain with all things modern.

Utopian Dreams

In 1951 the government introduced the new housing programme and Harold Macmillan pledged to build more than 300,000 homes per year. Budgets were tight, time was short and bricks were scarce so concrete became the material of choice and young architects took their opportunity to redefine Britain.

The New Towns Act of 1946 and the requirements of constructing a large number of functional buildings as fast as possible opened the door for Modernists to begin reshaping the appearance of Britain’s towns and cities.

The most ambitious of visions came from the Architects with resolute designs and utopian dreams to transform where and how people lived. The most pressing need was to build more council houses to deal with the poverty, massive overcrowding and war damage.

The Radiant City

The Park Hill estate was inspired by arguably the most influential Brutalist building of all time – Cité Radieuse or “the Radiant City” by Le Corbusier. Completed in Marseille in 1952, the first of his Unité d’Habitation buildings, designed to look like a giant ocean liner and to provide a place for a community to reside in. The concrete structure accommodated modular homes and stood on oversized concrete pylons. The building was designed not to be just a residence, but to offer all of the services required for community living. Every third floor had a wide corridor like an internal street where there was a whole host of shops, eateries and recreational facilities.

New Brutalism

The Unité d’ Habitation influenced many progressive architects by what Le Corbusier had built and from what he had written, none more so than two young modernist architects - Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn who were employed at the time for Sheffield City Council. The Council had committed to meeting their housing targets, however The Festival of Britain in 1951 ignited the Nations appetite for a modern new world and it was the city councils that would convert this fantasy vision into reality. Park Hill was to become one of the most ambitious inner-city housing projects of its era.

Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn were appointed in 1953 to work on behalf of Sheffield’s housing committee to design Park Hill. They drew inspiration from the work of Alison and Peter Smithson, English architects who are often associated with the ‘New Brutalism’ movement.

Brutalism gained considerable traction in the United Kingdom during the mid-twentieth century as local councils and institutions sought inexpensive design methods for low-cost housing, shopping centres and government buildings.

A style named after the French words ‘beton brut’ meaning raw concrete, adopted monumental sculptural shapes of raw, unfinished molded concrete - an approach, which showcased a buildings internal structures by exposing them to view, conveying a stark and austere aesthetic. An approach, which was in direct contrast to that of avant-garde peers - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright’s modernist style, which celebrated the use of glass and steel.

A Brave New World

Like Le Corbusier, Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn believed that architecture could solve many of societies problems. In the post war years hopes were high and there was a general feeling of optimism to build a better future and a better England.

The plan for Park Hill was to create a sense of community with a real social mix. An in-depth study of working class lives was commissioned, which ultimately cultivated the decision to make quality of life a priority for residents. No plan was to be more radical than the one for Park Hill, the scheme was at the cutting edge of modern architecture and the project would produce one of the biggest public housing estates in the country.

A Pioneering Plan

The plan was pioneering in many ways; the innovative design was a bold and imaginative scheme, when it was completed in 1961 it offered a new solution to the post-war housing shortage. Previously the typical model was to build high tower blocks that limited diversity and social interaction, whereas Park Hill showed the world a new way of thinking.

The topography of the site was challenging, occupying an elevated position, a key element of the design was to keep a constant roofline. The architect’s solution was to range the height of the blocks from 4 storeys at the lowest point to 13 storeys at the highest.

Radical Improvement

The whole project was completed and opened in 1961 and the new development was a radical improvement from the slum housing that stood before them. It was widely hailed as the perfect solution for social housing. Conceived as a town within a town, this mega structure consisted of interconnecting blocks, constructed from an exposed concrete framework, which accommodated nearly 1,000 flats with the capacity to house more than 3,000 people.

The most celebrated aspect of the design was the continual network of communal decks; ‘streets in the sky’, which were designed up to 3 meters in width, wide enough for a milk float and long enough to build strong community bonds, whilst allowing residents to walk the complete length of the estate undercover.

The streets enabled the flats and maisonettes to vary in size, which promoted an increase in social diversity and a sense of an active community. Incorporated into the development was a pedestrian precinct known as ‘The Pavement’, and there were a wide variety of communal amenities as well as four pubs and plenty of shops - including a butchers, bakery, betting shop, laundrette, upholsterer, a hardware shop, wallpaper shop, off licence, newsagent, fish & chip shop and a gents & ladies hairdresser. There was also a nursery, primary school, community centre, garages, doctor's surgery, pharmacy and a dentist.

Credit: Whittam Cox Architects

The flats seemed to appeal to all generations, the residents desired to live amongst each other and the sense of community was to be the development’s biggest success story. Great care was taken to settle people in, previous neighbours were rehoused together, each floor was given an old street name, cobbles were reused throughout the landscaping and brick infill panels were made with the same bricks as the previous houses. Children were given several play areas and the whole community came together to socialise in the estate’s pubs and clubs. Residents felt as though they were living in a town within a town, to many it was the utopian dream.

Sheffield boasted about its radical new housing development and Park Hill became the new face of the city’s projected image. Park Hill became internationally recognised and many of its pioneering features were showcased as case studies for modern civic development.

Councils across the country emulated the Park Hill model, but often the design and quality of build were inadequate. Soon many of these developments became dilapidated and people who opposed the new brutalism movement began to attack this much-maligned architectural style. Modernism found itself on the defensive; too many council estates had become shoddily built inner-city ghettos.

The Decline of Park Hill

By the 1970’s Park Hill was to go through turbulent times, these were desperately difficult years for Britain, both politically and economically. The success of Park Hill was reliant on the financial funding from local government for investment, maintenance and repairs. What was affordable in the 50’s was a lot more expensive in the 70’s. Rapidly rising inflation made the complex too expensive to run and Park Hill began to deteriorate.

The energy crisis raised energy costs to unaffordable levels; it was a time of strikes and high unemployment. Traditional manufacturing industries declined across the country. Sheffield was in crisis as thousands of jobs were lost in the

Steel Industry. The government favoured controlling inflation at the expense of jobs and the decline in manufacturing was exacerbated by the global economic crisis.

By the start of the 80’s, public housing estates saw signs of improvement; the Right to Buy scheme was a key conservative policy, which enabled tenants to buy their council homes with generous discounts. However for Park Hill the Right to Buy scheme would lead to a downward spiral of neglect. The best flats were snapped up leaving the less desirable ones behind, segregating large areas of the complex. There were no stigmas attached to renting a home in the 50’s, but by the 80’s the country had become a nation of property buyers and council estates were being labelled as homes for the desperate.

After a decade of decline, the community spirit eroded away as residents felt desperate to escape the soaring crime and drug use, which now blighted the complex. The concrete structure was crumbling; the lifts had long since broken down, the majority of flats had been boarded up and the shops, pubs and clubs had all long since closed down. The estate was being occupied with short-term tenants and emergency housing cases and the ‘streets in the sky’ became a paradise for muggers and drug dealers. Park Hill had become as dystopian as it once was utopian.

English Heritage

The decision by English Heritage, in 1998, to list Park Hill for its architectural significance as well as its role as part of the city’s identity was undoubtedly one of the most controversial decision they had ever made. The decision was met with outrage, shock and disbelief from Park Hill’s critics.

Park Hill had been given a Grade II* listing, putting it in one of the most important categories and giving it the crown of the biggest grade II* listed structure in Europe. The modern had become heritage and there was a determination to preserve this once pioneering building.

New Appreciation

Over the past 6 years, the world has witnessed a new appreciation for Brutalism. People have become excited by its stark and menacing aesthetic and are drawn by its graphic quality. The hashtag #brutalism has over 709,000 images on Instagram and a new generation are now trying to save Brutalist buildings across the globe.

Brutalist buildings are expensive to maintain and difficult to destroy. They are structurally strong and they are extremely challenging to remodel. Therefore they have mostly survived intact and in the same form as the architects had originally intended.

Strategic Partnerships

The redevelopment of Park Hill has not been without problems. In order to move forward, residents have been rehoused. The regeneration of Park Hill was always intended to provide mixed tenure and, as well as private sale, Urban Splash with partners Places for People and Great Places has been able to provide 96 affordable housing apartments. There have also been 28 Help to Buy units in Phase 1 - significantly more than the 68 originally agreed. There will be ranges of affordable housing options beyond Phase 2.

A strategic partnership was formed in 2002, which was made up of Sheffield City Council, Transform South Yorkshire, English Partnerships, English Heritage and Sheffield One Urban Regeneration Agency. This partnership was formed with the objective of developing a vision for the future of Park Hill. The outcome of the partnership culminated with a vision for “Park Hill to become a sustainable, vibrant mixed tenure estate with owner occupation, rented and affordable for sale properties along with high quality retail and commercial premises.”

Phase One

In 2005 Urban Splash embarked on the redevelopment to create a mix of social housing and private apartments alongside offices, shops, restaurants and bars.

The challenge to transform Park Hill’s public realm into a desirable place to live once again started by enlisting the input of the remaining residents in the procurement of a Registered Social Landlord, Urban Splash were selected as the lead developer and Great Places Housing Group were selected as the preferred Registered Social Landlord. Hawkins/Brown and Studio Egret West were commissioned to collaborate in the redesign and regeneration of Park Hill.

The design team commenced with the first phase of the redevelopment by stripping back to the bare concrete framework, which English Heritage were particularly keen to preserve. A new facade of glass and brightly coloured panels were installed to balance the concrete framework and the apartments were remodelled and updated to cater the demands of 21st century living.

The width of the decks was reduced, increasing internal space and storage and also permitting windows to be added to the street side making the apartments dual aspect. Phase one created 260 new homes alongside 10,000 sq. ft. of contemporary workspace. A developer led design competition was launched to choose an architectural practice from 6 selected firms who were each loaned a flat to demonstrate their individual understanding of the complexities of the project and to invite Urban Splash into their flats to individually present their proposed scheme of works.

Landscape Architecture

Grant Associates were commissioned to radically change the public realm and the landscape setting for phase one. Their landscape plan provided useable and useful external spaces to the ground floor flats, improved security and surveillance as well as improving the sites connectivity to the city centre. An extensive planting scheme aimed at improving the sensory delight and ecology of the development.

Phase Two

The successful architects were Mikhail Riches with their winning proposal to retain the successful elements of Park Hill – the concrete frame, brickwork and party walls. They found that by reconfiguring the flat layouts they could reconfigure the internal layouts of the flats to create modern, functional flats whilst working with the parameters of the existing structure of the building. Externally they were sympathetic to the original designs by utilising similar colour palette, rejuvenating the brick infill panels and repairing the concrete frame. Rendering the reveals provided the opportunity to add external insulation. New windows were also added which provide an additional accent of colour and depth to the façade.

Phase two continues Urban Splash’s redevelopment of the estate and will add another 200 new homes and over 20,000 sq. ft. of workspace. A former garage block has been transformed to become S1 Artspace’s new public gallery and artist studios. Urban Splash have also commissioned Keith Wilson to produce sculptures entitled ‘Park Hill Plinths’ which will be situated across 3.5 acres of Park Hill’s landscape, creating a new foot print for sculpture in Sheffield.

Phase Three

Award winning student accommodation developers Alumno aim to breathe a new lease of life into a block situated to the North of Talbot Street. Alumno’s development will create a new neighbourhood within Park Hill, which will complement and build on the regeneration from phase one and phase two. Phase three will produce a high quality student development with the majority of accommodation being unique townhouse-style units. The plans comprise of 8 bedroomed town houses with shared living spaces and personal entrance doors opening onto the celebrated ‘streets in the sky’, all of which are designed to fit sympathetically in the existing listed structure.

Alumno have appointed Kier as their construction partner and collaborated with local architectural practice - Whittam Cox Architects.

The intention is to create a multigenerational safe and enjoyable place to live whilst retaining as much of the existing character of the building. The introduction of the student housing will add to the mix of accommodation across the site and commercial spaces will also be created for the use of residents and the Park Hill community.

Green Spaces

Landscape architectural practice OOBE have now embarked on designing phase three of the Park Hill landscape, which will transform an overrun and unsafe environment into an outdoor space that will reflect the architectural functions within the building. Aiming to re-engage the community, the lower levels will have a range of areas designed for outdoor dining, socialising, studying and leisure.

The design will draw from the Park Hill’s heritage along with the original inspiration of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse. Existing architectural features will be retained and celebrated within the landscape such as concrete walls, ramps and sunken gardens. The planting scheme will be paramount in shaping and defining the site. Entrances will provide drama and a sense of arrival and low maintenance gardens will provide privacy for the ground floor flats. The heart of the development will have green open spaces and the wider landscape will be centralised around a formal lawn.

Phase Four

Following on from the £100 million redevelopment scheme to date. The fourth phase of the regeneration of Park Hill has gained planning permission to develop Park Hill Art Space, led by S1 Artspace and designed by award-winning architects Carmody Groarke.

The Artspace phase is a national flagship project, which is set to transform the heart of Park Hill and provide Sheffield with a world-class destination for arts, culture and heritage. Once completed, Park Hill will feature one of the largest contemporary art galleries in the North of England, building on Sheffield’s reputation for culture.

In addition to the art gallery there will be artist studios, accommodation for visiting artists, workspace for creative businesses, learning and community studios, heritage flats and a gallery shop and café.

Standing at the Sky's Edge

Ever since it’s conception in 1961, Park Hill has stood as a monument to Sheffield’s political, cultural and social heritage. There is no denying that this controversial landmark is well and truly embedded in Sheffield’s culture. A City Centre Park Hill shop now displays artworks by local artists and sells Park Hill themed merchandise. Park Hill features as a back drop to an Arctic Monkeys music video – ‘The view from the Afternoon’. It also features in the ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ musical co produced by Sheffield Theatres with music by Richard Hawley and written by Chris Bush celebrated the uniqueness of Sheffield. The story followed the lives of three consecutive families living in the same Park Hill flat and played to packed houses when it ran for three weeks in March 2019.

Love it or hate it Park Hill is here to stay, which ever camp you stand in, we should learn from previous mistakes and take justifiable pride in our past and a determination to ensure that future generations can enjoy our urban environment like the generations that have done so before. - The old lady has some colour back in her cheeks and she’ll soon be out there again...