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Park Hill's Original Architect Responds to AR Revisit

Ivor Smith discusses the balance between the respect for authenticity and the need to embrace change in the Urban Splash regeneration of the Park Hill estate

In his perceptive Revisit to Park Hill Peter Blundell Jones points to the dilemma of reconciling authenticity and change. This is a recurring and sensitive issue, especially in relation to listed buildings. It called to my mind a comment I made in an AA publication entitled Park Hill 2000. ‘What of Park Hill now? I suggest it should be treated like any other important building in need of repair and renovation. This would require a well-considered plan and a detailed analysis of its potential for imaginative regeneration, as well as a study of what living above the ground now requires…. As with all such renovations, this work should respect the essence of the scheme as it exists.’

So what is the essence of Park Hill? Firstly, in such a commanding position its scale is impressive in relation both to the little houses to the south and to the city centre to the north. On the inside, in response to the light, the space between the buildings becomes bigger as the building increases in height down the hill. Secondly, the ‘streets in the air’, the decks as they became known, have worked well, designed as they were for children’s play, for neighbourly chat, and for deliveries. However, over the years cities have become less safe, and a concierge supervising entry will be welcome. Along its length the deck changes from one side of the building to the other to give the best orientation to the dwellings, and it also serves to give them a sense of place and identity. Thirdly, the cluster of dwellings three storeys high and three bays wide containing two flats below the deck and two maisonettes on deck level and above each have their own generous balcony. This gives a deeply modelled facade where the scale of this repeated cluster and the boldness of the structural grid relate well to the immense size of the building. Each three-storey band served by its deck has its own colour to emphasise its identity, and each is named after a former street on the ground. These are all issues that are still valid.

As Peter Blundell Jones has described, for the first decade or so Park Hill was regarded as paradise for those who lived there in contrast to what they had before, but over the years things began to go wrong. The three industries that had made Sheffield great ceased to exist, the management of Park Hill changed, the building fabric was allowed to deteriorate, and it was used as a place to dump difficult tenants. In addition, society was incubating a growing culture of drugs and violence.

The task facing Urban Splash and their architects was new, different and difficult. It went far beyond the repair of the structure, although that in itself is impressive. After years of a bad reputation it needed to demonstrate a fresh start, to attract new residents, two-thirds of whom would buy or rent from the open market. That reputation had caused Park Hill to be regarded as a hostile and forbidding place, and it now had to become welcoming to the city. This demanded some imaginative and positive moves.

Twenty-first century living was considered to be more spacious, and the dwellings now have more open plans with views right through and light from both sides. Double glazing allowed larger windows, and the brickwork has been replaced by brightly coloured aluminium panels. This was a controversial proposal that required the approval of English Heritage. They applied the ‘squint test’ - if you half shut your eyes, does it still look like Park Hill? - an intriguing way of assessing authenticity. At first, the colours may seem a bit bright but they serve well to demonstrate a pristine new beginning, and they continue to indicate the different deck levels. The change to the elevations when the panels are open is a witty device.

A new entrance now invites you into Park Hill - it is a splendid monumental space four storeys high. New shops will add life, and the glazed two-storey offices and studios give an effective base to the building. The journey up in the glass lifts is a delight, with views over the city to the moors beyond. At night this will be very special, and the shiny steel stair spiralling up the building gives an added sparkle. The way the entrance, lifts and stairs are set within the structural frame shows a masterly respect and understanding of what existed before. The arrival at each level is similarly spacious, and the qualities of the deck are still apparent, even though the dwellings now encroach on it a little. This is very clever; it not only gives useful space inside but also provides a significant threshold, a public/private space, to each group of four.

The choice of materials, the quality of detail and workmanship show great care. This is apparent in the entrance doors, stairs, windows and the design of the kitchens and bathrooms, which benefit from more resources than were originally available. It is refreshing that the whole design is free from gimmicks, and that there is a consistency and inevitability to each part.

Urban Splash, Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West have got the balance right between respect for authenticity and the need to embrace change. What they have done gives real meaning to the word ‘regeneration’ - it represents a new beginning, a new vitality. I sense in those who have been involved the same enthusiasm and excitement that Jack Lynn and I experienced half a century ago. It will be a great place to live.

Ivor Smith

Read Peter Blundell-Jones’s AR Park Hill revisit

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