With Saturday’s game against Sheffield Wednesday on the horizon, we’ve been turning our minds to things that would be worth going to Sheffield for, even if you didn’t want to pay £33 to get into a football match. Chris pointed us in the direction of one of Sheffield’s less expected landmarks and this article that originally featured in the January 2016 issue of the Mudhutter Football Express.
I’ve had an interest in Architecture from a (relatively) young age. In high school when we had to undertake a fortnight’s work experience, whilst my peers were off to sample working in the library or a JJB store, I’d arranged to spend my time with a small local architect’s office. I loved every minute of it. He was working on a few projects at the time, and we spent our time between site visits, looking at plans and paperwork, and discussing our favourite buildings. He liked St Paul’s Cathedral, mine was and still is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. We also talked about different styles and it was then I was introduced to Modernism and Brutalism.
Modernism is an architectural movement, the origins of which date to the early 20th Century. Most notable of the modernists was Walter Gropius, whose Bauhaus art school in Germany changed the view of architecture from that of design based mainly on appearance to one which promoted a balance between art, function and available technology. Architects sought to remove ornamental features to expose functional detail such as steel beams, which had been made possible as a result of the advancement in manufacturing brought about by the industrial revolution.
Brutalism is an architectural approach that took the modernist idea of stripping back building design to expose the function to the next level. Born initially from a necessity for relatively quick methods and low cost building methods in order to rebuild large areas of Europe that had been devastated by the Second World War.
Perhaps the most famous pioneer of the Brutalist movement is the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, a socialist who looked for ways to solve the housing crisis problems of Paris, whilst improving the quality of life of the lower classes.
His Unite d’Habitation (trans – Housing Unit) named Cité radieuse (Radiant City) in Marseille is probably the best known example of early Brutalist architecture, and Le Corbusier’s most famous work.
Using “béton brut” (raw concrete) a block of over 300 apartments, with shops, a restaurant, and medical facilities are all contained within the building’s ‘four walls’ over 12 floors.
(It should be noted that concrete was used due to the expense and shortage of steel for a frame.)
In post war Britain, a similar housing shortage led the Government to view high-rise buildings as a solution, and with the country struggling economically, brutalist designs took hold in the rebuilding effort.
In September 2000, I left home and moved across the Pennines to study Architecture at Sheffield Hallam University. I only managed to last a year before jacking Uni in and moving home. Despite not completing my degree or going on to gain employment in the field, my fascination with architecture and the design of the urban environment remains.
In my first lecture, we were given a short talk about why we were there “work hard but enjoy yourself”, what the course entailed, and told to “open your eyes to what’s around you, get out and explore” but then the lecturer said something that made me sit up and listen “…but don’t go anywhere near Park Hill on your own, even in the day… and NEVER go up there at night.”
If you’ve ever been to Sheffield you might have seen Park Hill, it is a massive complex of flats built on the hill up behind the train station. If you haven’t been, you might have seen it on the telly or in a film, as it has been used as a shooting location on many occasions. Most recently it housed Harvey and Gadge’s flat in This Is England ’90, and was also used in the film ’71, to represent The Divis Flats in Belfast from the time of The Troubles.
I stayed well away from Park Hill until September last year. I’m a member of the National Trust and they ran a ten day project to celebrate Brutalism in Britain. I booked myself onto a guided tour, and one Sunday morning set off to finally go and have a gander at something that had held my curiosity for years.
Park Hill was originally the site of back-to-backs and tenement slums, (I should imagine similar to some of the areas of Birmingham depicted in the TV show Peaky Blinders), and following “The Slum Clearance Act of 1930” the demolition of all buildings in the area was started however later put on hold because of the war.
Following the end of WWII, the clearance was completed and architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith were enlisted to provide a modern state of the art solution for the area; the concept of the flats, which would become known as ‘Streets in the Sky’ was born.
Leaning heavily on Le Corbusier’s Cité radieuse, the flats were built from exposed concrete and brickwork, and replicated the original back to back streets but were ‘stacked’ upon each other in the blocks.
The residents’ front doors opened onto the deck or ‘street’, which were wide enough to drive a milk float along. There were actually milk deliveries on all floors, as they were accessible via a service lift. When completed the original residents of the Park Hill streets were moved into a flat next door to their old neighbours (where possible) to try and engender a feeling of community, and even the previous street names were reused.
As the complex is built on along a sloping hill side, it is just four storeys high at one end and thirteen storeys at the other. This allows the roofline to remain constant across the width of the building.
The development consisted of around 1000 flats as well as ground level amenities including pubs, shops, a nursery, a primary school, a community centre, a doctor’s surgery, a pharmacy, a dentists and a number of play areas.
Built between 1957 and 1961, for a while it was considered a modern utopia, and it is believed some residents never left the complex on a day to day basis. They had no real need to, with everything they required being onsite.
After a while, in the 1980s Park Hill fell into a state of disrepair due to council cuts and badly lit walkways made it an ideal location for muggers. As is usual with concrete buildings graffiti was commonplace and a reputation for crime meant it was no longer a popular place to live.
Despite being repeatedly referred to as an eyesore and calls for the blocks to be demolished, Park Hill was given Grade II listed building status in 1998, making it the largest listed building in Europe.
On the day of my visit in late September, we were given a tour and told of the history of Park Hill, both from an architectural design and a social history viewpoint. We were shown one of the flats, mostly with original décor, fixtures and fittings.
I met a bloke who lived in Park Hill as a child growing up and he recalled how he felt when he first moved in and how the complex was “an age away from where he’d lived previously” and “was all modern and brand new”.
The use of open space between the separate blocks is remarkable for a development of its size and can only really be appreciated by standing in it and taking it all in.
Following the award of listed building status, Sheffield City Council have partnered with Urban Splash, and the first phase of the redevelopment is now complete. Cleverly using coloured panelling to reflect the original graduated brickwork, it creates a visual link between the future of Park Hill and its past.
They’ve also done brilliantly to maintain/restore/enhance the famous graffiti which appeared overnight on one of the bridges linking two of the blocks in 2001, turning it into a piece of modern urban art.
Like many things these days, Brutalist architecture divides opinion. Many consider it to be ugly and outdated – most famously Prince Charles gave an infamous speech at the 150th anniversary celebrations of RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) railing against modernist architectural design.
Despite these wide held views, there is a growing community of people who love these “concrete monstrosities” and think it only right that as part of our history and heritage, they are maintained and restored.
I personally think that many of them are wonderful examples of form and function, whilst also linking to that post war period; the rise of the welfare state, socialist principles and a time when architecture was no longer just for the rich and the aristocracy but for everyone.
If you’re ever in Sheffield and you’ve got an hour or so to spare, have a wander up the hill. Go and have a look round at Park Hill, and try to imagine how this could once have been seen as state of the art and ultra-modern. You are literally standing surrounded by recent history.
There’s some great bits and pieces online regarding Park Hill…
A video from the 1960s on the Yorkshire Film Archive –
An article about the famous ‘I Love You’ graffiti on the bridge –
Radio 4 programme about the graffiti –
BBC Saving Britain’s Past (2009) –
Sheffield Archives – Park Hill Study Guide –
(Originally published in the Mudhutter Football Express , January 2016)