My final post as guest curator. As previously alluded to earlier this week, I’ll be making reference in this post to Park Hill and high rise living. Anybody familiar with me will know I’m a bit fanatical and passionate about this sort of stuff and Park Hill does feature quite heavily in my work (like the image above!).
Possibly Sheffield’s most famous building – certainly the one that causes the most controversy and arguments in pubs! I’ll try and condense what its all about, alongside my own thoughts and feelings about the old girl. I’m aware I can go on about this if left to ramble!
An enormous complex of just under 1000 flats, spread over a relatively small area of hillside behind Sheffield’s Midland Station, Park Hill was designed by radical young architects Jack Smith and Ivor Lynn in the post war years to provide high density social housing close to the city centre. Completely innovative for its time in its concept of ‘deck access’.
At that time other towerblock schemes had been built, but it was becoming increasingly recognised that these were quite isolating places to live in, with little interaction with neighbours, other community members etc. Taking inspiration from Alison and Peter Smithson’s Golden Lane estate in London, Smith and Lynn designed what was to become a much discussed and loved example of Brutalist Architecture. Among planners and fans of modern architecture, Park Hill is an icon of post war optimism, socialist chic and cool. Its historic importance is reflected in the fact that it gained listed building status of 2 in 1998.
Constructed between 1957 and 1961, Park Hill was built using a concrete frame with the walls made of bricks. The bricks were one of the great assets to the structure – they make the building of much higher quality than many of the substandard tower blocks from the same era, which were constructed using just large concrete blocks bolted together. These suffered from damp and poor insulation.
The brickwork of the original frame (red, yellow, cream and brown) also provided a splash of colour and identity to the estate. The names of four slum-cleared terraced streets that were lost to provide the land on which to build the flats are remembered in the names of each deck. The decks (or streets) provide access into properties at every third level, entering either at deck level, straight upstairs or straight downstairs .This is known as scissor and in its time was incredibly forward thinking.
The change in coloured bricks every third level reinforces the different identity of each street, which is given its own corresponding colour.
This original design feature – clearly marking different streets at every third level – has been replicated by Urban splash in their renovation.You can clearly see a change of colour every three levels:
The four separate curving blocks ( N-north, S-south, E-east and W-west ) are connected by bridges at three points in the estate, to continue each “street” into the adjacent block: Norwich Row(the highest); Long Henry Row; Hague Row; and Gilbert Row (the lowest). Below Gilbert Row, at ground level, a row of shop units make a further row: ‘The Pavement’.The top two ‘streets’, Long Henry Row and Norwich Row, cover the whole of the complex, Hague Row covers two thirds and Gilbert Row appears only in the bottom of the northerly tallest block. Further to that, the Northern block, at 14 stories, is so high that the bottom story forms an additional street - ‘The Pavement’. Essentially, you could start at flat number 1 of your ‘street’ and walk to the furthest point on your ‘street’ via the interconnecting bridges between the four main blocks, passing every property on your level – hence the term ‘streets in the sky’.
The roof height of the whole structure is maintained at the same height (above sea level) but the amount of floors decreases as it goes further up the hill. Famously, the landings were wide enough for a milk float to drive along each ‘street’ leaving fresh produce at each resident’s door (see below). As the flats get less tall further up the hill, each ‘street’ meets the ground, and the milk float was able to exit the complex via an exit ramp.With the exception of Norwich Row, being able to enter the vast majority of Park Hill from street level made the estate a radically accessible building for mothers with prams and wheelchair users. This design was forward thinking, modern and quite futuristic.
The flats contained four integral pubs, a parade of shops and two schools. It was truly designed as a complete community. I’ve always been a bit geeky and Park Hill still fulfills my childhood science fiction dreams of cities in the sky, clean brutal lines, raised walkways, utopian socialism for all etc. Even the Daleks could access Park Hill if need be!
I was born into an age when these planning ideas were still seen as exciting, radical and the way forward. Admittedly things did start to go a bit wrong for tower blocks in the 70s and 80s. They were an easy scapegoat and a convenient peg to hang all the country’s troubles on. Consequently, as I grew older, the inner-city and its tower blocks became the classic post-apocalyptic punk backdrop. Either way…sci fi-utopia or punk rock dystopia…it was good enough for me!
The listing of Park Hill is often a matter of incredulity for its quite vociferous critics, who see the estate as an eyesore and a huge representation of society’s many failings. With vocal nay-sayers demanding its immediate demolition, and many others, like my good self, wanting the building to be restored and continued for use as accessible urban housing. Park Hill divides opinion.
My argument to such miserable drizzlers and their catastrophising one liners is that they have an extremely discriminatory and misinformed view against such places and the people that (heaven forbid!) choose to reside there.
Possibly they believe that all sorts of misdoings and criminal, anti-social activities occur only in towerblocks and nowhere else. Almost as if you can’t trust people to live together in high density because they won’t be able to stop themselves misbehaving. The usual remark from a Park Hill critic doesn’t really go beyond two short sentences, with extreme remarks such as ‘full of druggies, prostitutes, low lives, dole scum’ and ‘should just knock it down’.
I always feel quite angry for the past and present residents at Park Hill, and indeed other areas with high density social housing, many of whom lived there quite happily for many years. I have met and worked alongside many people who have lived in Park Hill, whose comments about life there were pretty unanimous… “its a great place and community to live in.”
As a public servant in Sheffield during the past fifteen years, I’ve seen and continue to see far more grief and social problems in the larger 1930s estates than I’ve ever seen in Park Hill. I’m sure Park Hill’s detractors aren’t proposing that such huge estates get razed too…no, because there’re houses with gardens! Surely that’s a prerequiste for acceptable behaviour! I’ve counted the number of times a client from Park Hill has been referred to me in fifteen years: four times. Yes, thats not a typo.
The vast majority of Park Hill is presently derelict, with all entrances into unoccupied wings blocked up with steel doors. However, there are still council tennants in the west wing of the estate that borders Talbot Street at the top of the hill. The tallest blocks of the estate (North Block) are currently undergoing refurbishment by the Manchester based company Urban Splash (click here for a detailed account of their approach to Park Hill). New tenants have started to move into the new blocks and rather than the new flats being sold solely to private tenants there is to be a mix of tenure: Private, Social and Responsible Landlord (Housing Association).
This is a biggie of a Park Hill argument… Shouldn’t the flats be all given to social housing? Yep, I’d be up for that, but realistically, has this council got the cash to be able to do this, as we face crippling cuts for the third year on the trot? Park Hill is now over 50 years old and needs work doing to it, and unfortunately this building is somewhat of a big one to renovate!
Another argument is, “I’m not paying £90K to live next door to dole/ASBO scum from the council.” Try having a neighbour with anti- social tendencies who OWNS their home, believe me, pal, you really are powerless then. I’ve lived in flats and owned my home and there’s a lot more accountability and power over such things when the council is involved.
I make no bones that lessons have been learned about high rise living since its inception after WW2, but that doesn’t mean to say that we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater and eradicate such places as if they’re an embarrassing reminder of an optimistic past.
I do, however, have opinions about how such schemes like Park Hill could be managed better. Firstly, I go with the notion that people who don’t want to live in a tower block shouldn’t be made to (personally, my vision of hell would be stuck five miles out of town in an amenity-free housing estate!) However, this obviously has implications for homeless persons, who get given one offer of accommodation.
Secondly, the addition of a concierge helps to curb the access of unwanted vistors that may have less than honorable intentions. It’s an understandably British thing that we recoil from living in ‘gated communities’, but if you look towards other countries, particularly European, it is perfectly normal and acceptable to live in flats and apartments that have an element of security. Don’t think ‘gated community’…think Berlin/Barcelona apartment!
I’m glad that Urban Splash are taking the plunge (get the pun!) with Park Hill. New tenants are starting to move in and business space is being rented in the ground floors. It’ll take time, but new life will gradually breathe into this part of town. It’s time to put the old girl back to use!
Contrary to popular belief, Park Hill isn’t necessarily my favourite building, but its probably one of the only ones that’s still standing. Being as though its a mile from my house, it gets photographed a lot and I would recommend you get up close while you can. It’s a shining example of the post-war dream.The sleek glass and steel renovations by Urban Splash are breathtaking and the derelict parts are somewhat ambient and awe inspiring. Most of its cousins and extended family members are now hardcore – Park Hill is lucky to survive.
Before my week on ‘A Wondrous Place’ ends, there’s just time to leave a question for next week’s guest curator, Chrissy Brand, creator of the excellent Mancunian Wave blog:
Hi Chrissy… You’ve experienced living both in London and now Manchester… What sells Manchester to you over the capital?
Thanks to Chris at Northern Spirit and to everyone who has followed my exploits this week. Hope to see you again soon.