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A second chance for Sheffield's streets in the sky

Designed in the 1960s by two pioneering architects, Park Hill thronged with international visitors for the next decade. Yet as Modernist high-rises and equality fell out of fashion, the socialist ideal turned into a ghetto. Today, developer Urban Splash is animating its streets again with a bold programme

Sheffield grew up around producing steel, in the 18th century knives and tools, in the 19th century heavy industry, with a high population of low-paid but skilled manual workers. Social provision was important from early on, and before the 20th century, the city boasted the best collection of board schools outside London. In the era of slum clearance and provision of new houses following the Second World War, heavily bombed Sheffield was again at the forefront, and Park Hill marked the peak performance of Sheffield’s City Architect’s Office as run by J Lewis Womersley, regarded by Nikolaus Pevsner as an outfit of national importance.1

Public service for local authorities was then viewed not purely as altruistic − building the Welfare State − but also as exciting and progressive. Park Hill was designed by two young architects almost fresh from university, Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, but executed under the watchful eye of Womersley and built by the council’s own labour force, allowing consistency and control of detail. The urbane Womersley smoothed the way politically and carried the Labour Council with him, even organising a visit abroad to progressive examples, which included Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation.2

The housing scheme was completed in 1960, with accompanying pubs, schools and other shared services. It proved popular with its residents, who loved their flats and soon formed an effective association. It was also much lauded in architectural circles, including star treatment in Reyner Banham’s The New Brutalism.3 Its size and hillside location made it the prime example of ‘streets in the air’ nationally, and for a decade or so it thronged with international visitors. Then came a gradual decline as the ideal of equality was eroded, social housing became the ghetto of a suppressed underclass, and the more active, capable, and employed were encouraged to buy themselves out, leaving the disadvantaged in possession.

The political changes enacted by Margaret Thatcher were accompanied by a growing prejudice against modern architecture, against concrete, against high-rise building in general. Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman had their say and buildings became causes of crime.4 Lack of care and maintenance added to building failures due to unperfected techniques in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, so 50 years after slum clearance, new slums stood again.

AR December 1961. Reyner Banham

‘When one looks out from some part of Park Hill and sees another of its limbs swinging across the view, the effect is like that of suddenly realising that the railway lines on the other side of some valley in Switzerland are the same that one’s own train has just traversed a few moments before.

The chances are that the vantage point from which the other limb is viewed will be on one of Park Hill’s much discussed street-decks, and that what one recognises on the other side of the site is not merely another street-deck, but another part of the same street-deck. For the ultimate unity of Park Hill depends on the inviolate continuity of horizontal communications; the street-decks make it possible to walk to any other point on the same floor level without ever having to go down to ground and come up again.

But these decks are more than glorified access balconies. Their width is sufficient to accommodate children’s games and small wheeled vehicles. Functionally and socially they are streets without the menace of through vehicular traffic, and a lively argument is developing, and will continue, about the social function in particular.’3

Click here to view the rest of the article in the AR archive

At the same time, the reputation of 1960s architecture sank into a trough of despair, between being current and historic, and now much is being destroyed, especially in Sheffield, which has a short memory for its own triumphs.5 The Kelvin, third sister of Park Hill, was mercilessly erased a decade ago, and its second sister up the hill, Hyde Park, was subjected to a PoMo facelift, which destroyed its integrity. There was a great temptation to destroy Park Hill too, and the site could easily have been suburbanised with a peppering of pseudo-traditional boxes. But it is nearly in the city centre and next to the railway station, an advantageous position with much impact on the city skyline. Furthermore, if as a nation we are to keep any housing reminding us of that era − and some is needed of every era − is not Park Hill the paramount example?

After much pondering, English Heritage was bold enough to designate it the largest listed complex in Europe, but what was to be done? Recreating the ethos of social housing in a changed, even ‘broken’ society would be difficult, far beyond the means of the City Council. Handing it over to the National Trust in order to recreate steelworkers’ housing with actors dressed for the part would seem laughable, although that is what we do with country houses.

No: clearly a radical reinterpretation was needed involving changes of content and form, if only to reinvigorate the deprived territory and sustain it in a capitalist world. A few years back, a draft mission statement from English Heritage declared defensively ‘conservation is not about managing change’, but in the case of Park Hill that’s precisely what it is.

Enter Urban Splash, the Manchester-based property developer with a reputation for ambitious design-led conversions, several successful past projects in their portfolio, and an impressive survival through the recent economic crash. What they could do with a 19th-century industrial mill could perhaps also be done with 1960s housing, but a bold programme of changes was needed to reverse degradation, correct original faults, supply new social and commercial content in place of old community elements, and inevitably to change the image. It appointed as architects Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West, and as landscape architects Grant Associates.

The Original Design

Striking in the original publications of Park Hill is the lack of context, as if the buildings stood freely on a virgin site, but this was typical for the time. New housing could follow its own formal rules without stylistic concessions. It operated within a system for mass production of parts and to produce volume with a small team. The logic was straightforward: a slab block up to 13 storeys high and about 10m wide would permit a habitable room each side and centrally serviced bathrooms, while gallery access was preferred to a double-loaded corridor.

By making maisonettes with internal staircases it was possible for one gallery to serve three floors, an arrangement pioneered at Ginzburg’s Narkomfim Building in Moscow of 1928. Greatest design ingenuity went into planning interlocking flats of different sizes, making best use of the limited space. Although the design phase predated publication of Parker Morris,6 it belongs to the period when those standards were being set, and they now seem generous, in relation to the products of mass house-builders.

Also typical of the period was a generous provision of green space, the green lung promised by Le Corbusier as a recompense for the density of the Unité d’Habitation. In Sheffield’s case, there was the excuse of a former deer park, but the re-transformation was arguably un-urban, for by the early 19th century the former park had been subsumed under a dense street pattern, which covered the whole Sheaf Valley. Streets between back-to-backs led down past pubs, schools and chapels to a major artery on the line of the buried river.

It was a typically Modernist move to obliterate all this, although Womersley and his architects did intend to substitute a new kind of urban continuity by separating pedestrians from traffic and carrying them across to the city on a system of decks and footbridges, an extension of the streets in the air that was never completed.

Park_Hill_9_THUMB

Park Hill’s isolation was increased by greening the space between South Street and the railway. It was too steep: the architects chose instead the gentler slope between South Street and Duke Street, and it is telling that the first publications include drawings of ground conditions and contours, for changes of level were at first a problem but finally the making of the scheme.7 Because of the hill, the streets in the air could meet the ground at one end, and due to the irregularities of site in plan and section, Walter Gropius’s parallel lines of the Zeilenbau development − the automatic Modernist solution − was precluded.

The key to the layout became instead the development of connecting knuckles between the slab blocks angled on plan at multiples of 22.5°, allowing the blocks to snake about on the site to take best advantage of terrain and light. The departures from right angle in plan, highly unorthodox for the time, also made good sense in the flats, allowing more aspect than with corners at 90°. The changing, turning blocks lent Park Hill a picturesque appeal that contributed to its international popularity, reading as far less numbingly repetitive than more supposedly ‘rational’ housing schemes of its size.

Although its streets in the air have been much criticised, they have a degree of inevitability. Walk-up flats paired around staircases work only up to three storeys, four if the top one is a maisonette, so higher developments require horizontal access to share expensive lifts. Side galleries with air and views are preferable to double-loaded corridors, also permitting double aspect even if one side is compromised.

The trick of one gallery to every three floors brought the triple advantage of economy, unimpeded aspect on intermediate floors, and social concentration; bringing more people together for chance meetings and self-policing. The logic still holds if one accepts the inevitability of flats for high densities in urban situations, as exist in cities worldwide. It may be that without open space, sufficient density might have been achieved in courtyard housing, but so close to the centre of England’s sixth largest city, an urban typology was and remains appropriate.

The Reinterpretation

The Brutalist identity of Park Hill depended on frame and infill, which produced the rhythm of the structure, the layering of the facade, the contrasting textures of in situ concrete, precast concrete and brick panels in two colours. The original elevations were not so much composed as allowed to develop in response to the changing sizes and types of flat, enlivened by the layering of galleries and balconies.8 Refurbishment architects Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West agreed with English Heritage about the primacy of the concrete frame − ‘the grid’ as they call it − and although it had spalled in places, a successful technique was developed to excavate faults, clean reinforcement and patch it up.

Also highly important to maintain character were the badly eroded precast balustrades, which were replaced in a modified and lightened form. More controversial was the treatment of the infill, since windows needed replacing and the solid parts insulating. Rather than repeating the original fenestration, the architects decided to enlarge the glazing − two thirds instead of one third − and to ventilate via side panels to keep the main windows simple. Instead of repeating the brick infill they clad solid parts in brightly coloured anodised aluminium panels, the most radical change of image, but swallowed by English Heritage after some debate over colour. It was essential to declare the refurbishment to the world, as well as making the flats trendy and attractive.

Within the block, rooms could be reassigned in new combinations, and a relative generosity of space could be attained by reducing the assigned number of inhabitants. In the first completed flats, high-quality finishes and minimalist detailing combine with well-planned built-in furniture and previously spartan bathrooms have become luxurious. In a reminder of Brutalist origins, selected structural walls and beams are left stripped and naked, with scars of previous services.

The big new windows welcome breathtaking top-floor views across the city and the restored balconies exploit the generosity of the layered facade with a changeable relation to the outside world. On the entry side timber extensions invade the formerly bleak streets in the air, adding storage within and recessed porches without. New corner windows are a nice touch, inviting personal display as well as allowing supervision. It would be a good place to live.

Park_Hill_16_THUMB

Getting to the ground now occurs through paired glazed lifts facing the view, much more inviting. A bold spiral stair with shiny balustrade articulates the connection and plays within the frame. Arriving at ground level, you might in future step out next to a newsagent and take your paper to a corner café, or visit a hairdresser further along before strolling off to the nearby tram-stop. Such close-hand sociable and commercial activities are the essence of civilised city life, and in a determined bid to attract them, Urban Splash has designated the bottom three storeys at the north-east as shops, cafés, and other businesses, with decked terraces for sitting out at ground level. Fully glazed both sides, they should attract customers from either direction and allow glimpses through.

Park Hill’s original social provision was generous, with a nursery, a primary school, a chapel, a small shopping centre, three pubs and five children’s playgrounds. But much proved unsustainable and fell away, for it was too self-contained, reserved for the residents rather than for the rest of the city. Further to break this isolation, Urban Splash and its architects have cut a four-storey gateway at the north-west corner closest to city and tram-stop, adding a generous paved walkway to welcome people through.

The previously neglected surrounding landscape has been imaginatively redeveloped by Grant Associates with large trees, a new planting scheme and good-quality paving. Further round to the south-west an amphitheatre has been formed in the slope of the hill to enliven the climb from the railway station. Whether it will actually be used for performances is currently less important than the change of image as an essential catalyst to bring commerce and new public life.

Not all the original tenants have left, and some await transfer to the refurbished blocks. The City Council intends for about one third of refurbished flats to remain as social housing, let through an agency called Great Places, and priority will be given to former residents. This means that two thirds is being privatised (and gentrified), whereas communal services will be straightforwardly commercial. This was the best deal the City could get, with others taking the main risk, and if it succeeds it should allow a mixed community to grow and change in place of a social housing ghetto, but little will remain of the altruistic if also paternalistic aspirations of the Welfare State.

From a building conservation point of view too, much has changed, and we may yet regret the lost authenticity, but Park Hill is better preserved in an altered state than not at all, and for the sake of its inhabitants’ memories as well as for its architecture. Another wanton reduction to a tabula rasa has been avoided, kinder to the planet in terms of embodied energy and lower running costs.

A more thoughtful and interesting architecture has arisen than standard new-build, and it is happily less constrained by the existing than inspired by the challenges of reinterpretation. Every place has its qualities: there are always layers, memories, a potential palimpsest, but there is also always need for change, which makes pure conservation a rarely realisable ideal. Reinterpretation is the middle way, and it need not imply compromise. The debates surrounding what to do with Park Hill revealed a heartening will to understand and to work with the given, whether or not the right predictions have been made about what it will become.

Further interviews

Interview with Mark Latham: Urban Splash

Interview with a Park Hill Resident

Interview with Jan Fitzgerald: Sheffield City Council

1 In Nikolaus Pevsner, Yorkshire West Riding (Buildings of England), Penguin, London, 1967, pp446-449, the author praises Womersley for recognising the potential of the city and rates 1950s Sheffield as second only to London for architectural development. Pevsner calls Park Hill ‘sensational’. A good visual record of the city’s achievement is the Sheffield issue of Architectural Design, September 1961.
2
See Andrew Saint, Park Hill: What Next?, Architectural Association, London, 1996, for the best general essay on Park Hill. Saint acknowledges as his primary source the PhD thesis of Christopher W Bacon, University of Sheffield, 1982.
3
Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism, Architectural Press, London, 1964.
4
Oscar Newman, Defensible Space, Macmillan, New York, 1972; Alice Coleman, Utopia on Trial, Shipman, London, 1985.
5
Several school buildings by Womersley’s office have gone, including Tapton, and its market building is set for demolition, as is Yorke Rosenberg and Mardall’s Cole Brothers, now John Lewis. Avanti Architects has completed a wonderful restoration of Gollins, Melvin, Ward & Partners’ University Library, but the firm’s other university buildings have been handled lesssympathetically.

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