Sheffield: City of Landscape and Architecture. Part One – Park Hill.
“Sheffield was once an extremely architecturally important place.”
Owen Hatherley, A Guide To The New Ruins of Great Britain.
Recently a friend came to visit me in Sheffield, spending a prolonged period of time in the city for the first time. Having spent a couple of days seeing bits and pieces of the place, he declared, “It’s a bit weird isn’t it? It just doesn’t feel like anywhere else.” Some cities would take the hump at this kind of protestation, but I personally feel that my friend captured a lot of what I want to highlight about Sheffield. Having spent the best part of a decade living in, and loving, the look and feel of Manchester, all of a sudden Sheffield was something very different in architectural terms – a real hodgepodge mixture of sleek, and in some places not-quite-so-sleek, 1950-60s modernism, coupled with odd elements of new blandness, flashes of civic grandeur, and hidden areas of cobbled streets (now suitably cleaned down to host the inevitable footsteps of solicitors and moneymen). The element of this mix which jumped out to me, and can’t fail to capture the eye and the imagination when on my daily walk down the hill from Crookes towards the train station, is the impact of architectural Modernism on the shape, style and outlook of Sheffield as a city. Like no other place I know, Sheffield is a city in debt to Mies van der Rohe, Fritz Lang, Le Corbusier and Alphaville-era Godard, with straight line, concrete and wood counterbalancing the rise and fall of the hills and valleys, creating a style which is very much part of the landscape.
Overlooking the city from its lofty perch above the train station is the structure which, to me at least, defines just what sets Sheffield out architecturally, the brutalist masterpiece of Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith’s Park Hill. Built at a time when Modernist approaches to social housing were being investigated, and in some places failing already due to a distinct lack of the social/community side of life, Park Hill’s streets in the sky were a triumph, giving communities a home in a building which has endured in a manner which one expects the hastily assembled ‘executive’ housing of the 90s/00s property boom to fail. The largest listed building in Europe sees five-ish arcs of 4 to 13 story flats slot beautifully into their surroundings, cast in concrete balustrades.
It is this fitting into the landscape which has always struck me as the most impressive part of Park Hill’s design; take yourself over the road from the station and look back up at Park Hill, and you’ll see that the roofline of the entire estate is absolutely flat, despite the fact that it ranges in height throughout. This respect of its surroundings means that Park Hill makes the most of the natural makeup of the city, and in doing so becomes integral to the identity of the place. I’m not going to use this piece to re-spark the debate around the Urban Splash-ing of the building, which I have already written about here, instead highlighting the fact that this fantastic piece of architecture still encapsulates what this city is, and endures as a monument to a form of urban and social planning which has utterly disappeared in other places. Where the Hulme Crescents last only as a memory of streets in the sky living in Manchester, lives still revolve around Park Hill in Sheffield. People who moved here when the estate first opened are still in their communities, and whilst the pubs and amenities may have been disappearing over time, the spirit of Park Hill remains; and it remains very much a part of Sheffield.
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Today’s musical accompaniment comes from Algiers. Some of you, though I sadly fear nowhere near enough of you, may know the work of a band called Dartz! who were fairly popular in the mid to late-00s. Well, Algiers is a new duo, including one of said now defunct band. I really like the angular nature of songwriting which underpins these guys, and they are a load of fun to watch live too.