Wandering around Park Hill, July 2011
(Ed. This piece was a half-completed set of notes, written in the summer of 2011 but never finished. I’ve tidied it up enough to post, even though there is now much more to say about Park Hill, and Sheffield. During 2017 and 2018, I worked on the city centre strategy for Sheffield, with my then-team at Arup, but never really managed to connect that work to Park Hill, despite trying. I had also worked on numerous other urban strategies by then, from Amsterdam to Melbourne via London, as well as a mission-oriented approach to the UK’s industrial strategy, and would now write some of the following reflections on economics and place, buildings and culture, a little differently. Doing that later work in Sheffield, I (re)discovered so many great people and projects happening in my home town, all over. But equally, many systemic problems remain. And deeply. They are rarely, if ever Sheffield’s fault, of course. Anyway, you can read this great, furious piece by Owen Hatherley from 2018 for a view on what happened, and is happening, at Park Hill. My piece below, scribbled in 2011, works as a precursor to that, and as a partner to the slightly earlier ‘Sheffield and the North’, which dug into the popular culture of the city as well as its history and possible futures.)
We’re holidaying in Sheffield. That isn’t a phrase you hear often, but family ties is more than just a 1980s sitcom. I grew up here.
A quick trip home to Sheffield leads to the following notes and images, augmenting one of my earlier posts on the city, and particularly concerning the iconic, brutalist Park Hill housing estate.
I managed to find a few minutes to grab some photos of Park Hill, climbing through fences and wandering around the largely deserted outdoor spaces of this most mega of megastructures.
Immediately one is struck by the eerie quiet, particularly in somewhere once so populous. The only sound, other than the distant rumble of traffic and trains, is the sharp wind blowing bits of plastic sheeting, flapping in broken windows, as if waving for help.
Orange netting is wrapped around an aerial, presumably still picking up radio and TV, yet with no receiver. Some flats may still be inhabited, judging by the satellite dishes. The tarted-up Urban Splash wing is visible in the distance. A few hard-hats wander around aimlessly.
LADIES is clear against one wall, the ghost of a sign left embossed. A wall of red tiles is rather nice. Half the tiles have been removed on the opposite side around the corner, leaving odd shapes like pixelated maps, in relief.
GENTLEMEN is around the corner. Following its lead, I realise I’m now standing in front of what was once a pub.
BAR/GAMES ROOM + LARGE SCREEN T.V. HAND PULLED CASK ALES.
Aside from the sign, the other way you can tell this was a pub is that there’s a faux-Edwardian gas lamp on the outside of the ruin. How bizarre to see this here, how out-of-place — a token of old, fake Englishness amidst the uncompromising modern forms and textures. It’s tempting to read too much into this tiny, forgotten detail, that it’s emblematic of how uncomfortable some of Sheffield, and by extension some of England, was with this pattern of living; it needed a physical and sentimental reminder of ’home’ amidst this alien craft. Perhaps the majority, perhaps the minority, who knows. Either way, a tension, visible in this ludicrous lamp fixed to the concrete. Les Dawson rather than Arne Jacobsen.
(Ed. Actually, never mind Jacobsen; what about Sheffield’s own David Mellor? He more or less defined modern street furniture, from down the road. Why could he not define these details, across Park Hill, just as it is Jacobsen’s or Aalto’s details of light fittings like this, in other Northern European cities, that make the difference to those places. The lack of imagination, curation and care of these details is breathtaking.)
And yet Park Hill was loved by many, perhaps most, of the first residents, and seen as a major step forward from the damp, dark slums that preceded it, just as with other fine modernist blocks around the country, such as Alton West, Trellick Tower, Keeling House, Alexandra Road, and many others.
(Ed. Or indeed London’s Barbican, of course, which Owen Hatherley sharply points out is essentially the same as Park Hill; the primary difference being not architectural, but that one is private and the other public. Read another Hatherley piece, surveying Brutalism for the London Review of Books for an overview, including of Park Hill. There you will also discover a little known hero, Elain Harwood, now an author, then a case worker at English Heritage, who listed Park Hill Grade II*, ensuring the council could not pull it down. Yet in the mind of David Cameron—perish the thought—a craven austerity agenda happened to elide neatly with an ignorant or perhaps deliberate misunderstanding of what brutalist architecture even is. In this way, the government could a) further prevent any new visionary public housing at scale, like Park Hill, emerging in the UK, and b) throw over the existing public housing at scale, like Park Hill, to bulldozers or property developers, with either scenario reducing the availability of good and affordable housing.)
As my earlier piece, Sheffield and The North, points out, many Sheffielders have, and had, no problem with The Future. They have, however, been let down repeatedly by those ‘in charge’, whether in the council, the local establishment of business leaders, or the national capital-E Establishment in and around the capital.
Back in Sheffield, the wild flora. is reclaiming this end of Park Hill more rapidly than Urban Splash are the other end. It feels like The High Line pre-Ethan Hawke. Grasses, trees and flowers are slowly covering everything at ground level here.
An empty playground does little more than reinforce the pervading air of poignant despair. It’s a distinctly British air — the grey sky, the soft light, the washed-out flat colours, the careworn public spaces, the damp, the rough edges, the careless buildings (as in, building without care, and then not cared for afterwards; the architecture on the drawing board was fine, in this case.) The forgotten people.
Mawkish, I know, but it’s difficult not to get mawkish around here, just as in the surrounding Manor estate. There, atop one of the seven windswept hills that define the city, it’s magnificently bleak. The views are majestic from up here, even in — or perhaps especially in — the pale white Northern European light under a pale white sky.
On the ground, the road surfaces of the estate, always a giveaway, are a litany of terrible maintenance regimes, patterns of patchy lack of attention that earlier undid Park Hill. Some older, gnarlier residents are walking around with a scowl and a fag in their face, as if caricatured extras bussed in from a Ken Loach film-set. In the interests of balance, a bright young mum pushes her kids on a stroller, looking perfectly happy, confident. Both views are face value only, of course.
It’s a tough area that looks after itself, which is just as well, really. It tends to resilience as well as mawkishness, so you’re left with a sense of the area’s strength above all. Park Hill is ludicrously large and firm, facing the winds and rain year after year, stolid and relentless in the face of the decades of neglect that northern towns have to endure. Sheffield, like many northern European towns, has an inner-strength that makes the most of unpromising surrounds. I’m not aware of a local word equivalent to the Finnish sisu, but Sheffielders would recognise the sentiment. It works hard, makes, sometimes fights, and just gets on with things in entirely unshowy fashion, head down into the wind and rain. It is well ‘ard, as we used to say in the playground. Perhaps that’s the sisu equivalent.
As a result, Park Hill is still standing there, looming over the railway station and city centre, graciously suffering the ’tarting up’ of its southern facade, a stop-start process somehow at the whim of global currency markets, or the largesse of local government. It’s too early to gauge whether the development will fundamentally improve things, though it feels compromised already. Yet things can only improve, in a sense, as the place had effectively been allowed to become a ruin beforehand, and so it only just escaped the fate of its relations down the East Lancs Road, or in East London. It could well have ended up like the sorry excuse for a ruined castle a few hundred metres away at Manor Top, the trace of a wall holding only some bricked up windows and the faint, and presumably fading, hope of an English Heritage grant.
But could the retrofit recapture that progressive zeal that the original building had? I can’t help but recall that sorry lamp stuck on the ruin of the pub, of how aspects of a culture resisted these moves from within. The times have changed, and many new aspects of Sheffield culture would now be perfectly happy with ’European-style’ (whatever that means) apartment living and café bars, a rather thin lifestyle-led agenda that nonetheless fuelled Urban Splash’s rapid early success in Manchester—even if that success did not last. But how ‘90s that all sounds now (I know; I was there and often feel somewhat ’90s too). That sentence might as well be set to a backdrop of Dummy. It’s entirely out of step with Austerity Britain, and the reality of what happens to lifestyle-led anything.
Sheffield does need vision; the city is (was) doing OK economically, all things considered, head just about above water. But you still can’t perceive a long term vision for the place, at least not here. Many local people here have it. But do those actually nominated to drive the city forward have it?
Given I was up close and personal, what these photos don’t show is the sense of the topography, the great sweeping slopes in all directions, leading mainly though not exclusively down into the valleys that converge into what would become the middle of Sheffield. It’s something that I took for granted, growing up here, and having played football on almost all of those bitterly windswept hills — being in a football team as a kid gets you about the city in a unique way. But perceptive ‘outsiders’ like Hatherley noticed it instantly, wandering about a local ‘hill town’ urbanism.
These landscapes are so beautiful if would be relatively easy to work with the grain of the topography to make something truly memorable, truly wonderful. To work with the idea of hill towns woven into big city, and to take the language and social emphasis of brutalism and pioneering ‘60s architecture — as sketched out at Park Hill, but also reminiscent of Lasdun’s terraces of UCL in Bloomsbury or the South Bank, or Neave Brown’s work in Camden— and converge with the elegant sweeping forms of contemporary architecture. Looking at his masterplans and built work in Urbino, Italy, we might wonder what Giancarlo di Carlo would do with Sheffield.
Draping medium density terraces of richly varied activity and diversity over these tumbling valleys would create a new kind of hill town, working with both the ancient landscape and the modernity of a Sheffield making new things. You can still see the tentative results of a similar gleam in the eye of various post-war architects and planners, if you look hard at this bit of town, not just here, but in the housing estates around this end of town.
The city certainly deserves it, as much as any city deserves anything, perhaps. Yet for all of Urban Splash’s efforts—or because of, arguably—Park Hill still feels delicately poised between ruin and salvation, and possibly getting nowhere, somewhat like Austerity Britain itself, perhaps.
What would make the difference, of course, is not architecture at all; at least not directly. We do not make cities to make buildings. We make cities to come together with other people, to create — to create commerce, culture, community, conviviality, or more people. Buildings and infrastructure are entirely secondary, they are enablers. In that, they are incredibly important, but they are not the point.
And what Park Hill needs now is some more coherent sense of how those primary drivers are part of the vision — in short, at this point, jobs and culture. If Park Hill had a significant job creation element, in terms of its spaces and functions, it would have a broader point. Accommodation is not an economic driver in itself, no matter how property- and debt-oriented the British economy has become. A significant proportion of space could be given over to production, at the end of production lines of talent stretching from the powerful universities and training centres on the hills immediately opposite—drawing buildings, like inhabited bridges, across the railway tracks, would properly connect Park Hill to the productive end of town.
In that way, somewhere between informational infrastructure and pipeline of people, a better balance of living and working and creating can be co-located within Park Hill, forging something genuinely new from the ruin of mass housing. That would be a start, and ensures that the property investment is in line with a concomitant productive asset—or if you prefer, the true value of a diverse community. This is not jobs in café bars, or wealth created through housing speculation, but something genuinely productive, with a multiplier effect over and above simply multiplying the input of labour. A diverse set of entry points, supported by a diverse array of stimuli, is far more resilient than a monocular focus on housing.
As noted previously, and as the images show, Park Hill is resilient enough to withstand the weather, even lying empty with the minimum viable maintenance. Yet it is not resilient enough to withstand the economic weather glowering over Northern cities now, or for much longer at least. It needs a future as a place, not simply as housing.
Yet during the Eurozone debt crises, and amidst the Global Financial Crisis, we saw clearly where the British Establishment’s priorities lay. Cameron moved billions to save the City, but little else. The North, for all the emerging talk of the Northern Powerhouse, has barely received a small fraction of that investment. Millions live in these northern cities, each town and city with their own an intensely powerful identities. They have powered so much of the UK’s economic engine in the past, and potentially can do in the future. Yet walking around Park Hill, we can see that they continue to lie in the margins of the government’s agenda at best. And at some point, sooner or later, that will surely bite back.
Ed. The notes that this piece comprises were written in summer 2011, just after I took the photos. I’ve largely completed unfinished sentences, rather than revising, though I have updated a few. On a similar theme, see ‘Sheffield and The North’
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