The largest listed building in Europe presented Sheffield City Council with something of a conundrum when English Heritage decided to save it for the nation in 1998. Once a bold statement of modern architecture and utopian home to 3000 tenants, it now stood glowering over the city from its prominent hillside location, a grim no-go area riddled with petty crime and antisocial behaviour. There was no money to compensate for the decades of chronic under investment, yet now they couldn’t demolish it as they had with the neighbouring Hyde Park and Kelvin estates.
Park Hill had been over a decade in the planning when construction began in 1957, and young architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith’s revolutionary deck-access housing solution finally opened in 1961, significantly indebted to Swiss architect and concrete champion Le Corbusier’s pan-European Unité d’Habitation developments. For a while everything was rosy, but this was a radical social reorganisation based on post war values and fifties optimism. Subsequent societal changes would reverberate unforgivingly through Park Hill’s spalling concrete and incite comparisons with the notorious San Quentin prison…
Its decline coincided with the collapse of the city’s steel industry, and by the 1980s the broken communities and rising deprivation in a city that previously had to worry about neither affliction, turned the ‘streets in the sky’ once so celebrated in to hide outs for muggers and drug dealers. Cosmetically the brick facade was failing, stained by heavy industry and passing trains, the paint was peeling, the wood rotting and the shops and services slowly disappearing. Far from epitomising the utopian dream it had become a dystopian nightmare – the last resort.
So how then do you save such an enigmatic listed building, and why would you bother? Enter Manchester based developers Urban Splash, celebrated saviours of many a condemned structure, who negotiated with English Heritage to maintain the concrete skeleton and continuous roof line – but demolish and remodel everything in between.
Five years in to the project, the refurbished façade of the north block was finally delivered in 2012 – representing just one third of the estate. Two years later and only a third of that has actually been fitted out and sold. It looks good – but then they said that in 1961. Only time will tell if the reshaping of Park Hill works, and the continuation of the project hinges on the success of a first phase dogged with problems and delays that brought Splash to the brink of collapse.
The derelict central and southern blocks still cast a forbidding shadow over the city and sit uncomfortably beside their shinier counterpart, abandoned by all but the ghosts of the past and the birds that have colonised it, but there’s still something quite enthralling – if uneasy – about it that draws me in every time I step off a train at Sheffield station. It represents a golden age of optimism gone wrong, a lesson in urban planning for the future, an increasingly rare example of architectural brutalism and – going forward – a shining example of how to rejuvenate such a problem building for the future.
The listing of Park Hill continues to attract criticism from scores of local people. I for one am glad it was saved.
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