sometimes in the middle of the night, in that building…

so, this blog now lives in sheffield. guess i should probably mark the occasion with a look at what i believe is going to become one of my favourite parts of the city. over the past few weeks one of the most consistent views i have had of sheffield has been walking down the hill from the public library down towards the train station, with park hill sitting above it all, peering down on the city. yet this isn’t the park hill that was built as a bright new hope for the city at the turn of the fifties into the sixties. six years ago urban splash, those of turning half of manchester’s old factories into swanky apartments, took over at park hill.

for those who don’t know anything about the building, park hill was built over 1957-61, and replaced masses of sheffield’s inadequate social housing. the massive estate, designed by the city architects jack lynn and ivor smith, moved whole communities into its ‘streets in the sky’ – walkways in front of flats that were famously big enough to drive a milk float down. here was the epitomy of brutalist architecture, with some incredible details such as the orientation of every one of the around a thousand flats planned to maximise sunlight. yet it wasn’t just architectural rhetoric, park hill had shops, pubs, a school – it had community. over time this, and parts of the building, appeared to crumble. yet unlike the crescents in hulme, park hill stood up defiantly, up to the point in 1998 when the concrete shell of the building was granted grade II* listed status, making it the largest listed building in europe.

so here we are. i went to a talk at park hill tonight by the chap who has been project manager of the refurb for urban splash since they started to put ideas together six years ago. it was the first time that i had been up close to the estate, and was really taken aback by the sheer scale of the place. i’ve read loads about it, and have seen it from afar, but nothing quite prepares you for both the height and length of the place. which reminds me, i’ve not waxed lyrical about the different heights of the block. at one end park hill is a 13 story building, but a the other end it is just 4, yet if you look at the building the roofline is absoloutely flat right the way across. i tested this theory by trying to balance my phone across the top of it when looking across the whole estate, and it worked. an absolutely stunning architectural achievement.

     

back to the talk. urban splash seem to have put a lot of thought into what they see park hill as, and where they see it being positioned. as anyone who knows the style of project which they work on in manchester will know, urban splash quite often talk a good talk about social housing, but are very very good at selling fancy apartments to young professionals. which is exactly what they are doing here. one of the finest pieces of social housing design in the country is being converted into aspirational flats which the likes of me are supposed to be snapping up. indeed, they are being snapped up – they shifted five on the first day of opening to the public on saturday.

     

with the approval of english heritage, the developers have knocked down all but the concrete struts of the first phase of their refurbishment, and replaced the old flats with new apartments which match the needs of a ‘new set of social dynamics.’ gone are the original three levels of brick which signified the different levels of homes between the ‘streets’; in are bigger windows (a massive positive) and some fucking horrific day glow panels (a massive negative). the streets in the sky, which were always open to public access, are now there for residents only, as part of a new access control to the building. the decks had been seen as one of the main negatives of 1980s park hill, as clear escape routes for criminals; yet no-one has tried to close roads in any other part of the world – surely they are the clearest escape route for those on the rob?

what about the flats themselves? i got to have a poke around the showflats, and was impressed by the building, underwhelmed by the apartments. the views out across sheffield from one side, and the rest of park hill on the other, are simply stunning. as a man with problems with heights i was a bit shocked at quite how much i was dashing out onto the balconies to stare out across my new homeland. so, views good. i also really liked the touch of leaving bare concrete on show in all of the apartments, with the integrity of the building shouting out against the newness of other bits. yet seeing the concrete on show did make me feel a bit like i was in a park hill theme park, as that surely wasn’t/isn’t the case in the original flats? we’ll say that the concrete is good though.

what about the negatives? well, all three of the different designs i looked round felt a bit pokey. the use of the orignal park hill idea of split level ‘flats’ still worked, yet there was barely any room for things. all the rooms felt like they would be fine as they were, but there was no storage. anywhere. are urban splash looking to market park hill specifically at people who don’t own books, or records, or clothes, or just stuff in general. oh, and don’t even get me started on the marketing. in one of the showflats was a clothes rail with aspirational tshirts (yes, aspirational tshirts), whilst the twisting of a piece of graffiti which resulted in a woman turning a man down is now being used as a bullshit rhetoric about how if sheffield loves park hill then park hill will love it back. at least someone in the urban splash team has a sarcastic bone in their body, a copy of owen hatherley’s new ruins was out in one of the show flats…

     

so i left park hill feeling pretty similar to how i entered. i love the building. it is an absolutely stunning piece of design and engineering (even if a certain sheffield band once called into question the integrity of the building in the face of a thousand orgasms), dealing with the topography of its location and makes the most of it. i’m still undecided about the refurb. park hill was in need of some tlc, well in fact a lot of tlc. urban splash-ing the place means that it is gaining a new life, and that people are going to go on living in it. this is obviously a good thing, as a building as impressive and important as park hill should still be in use.

yet surely it should still be in use as social housing, rather than pushing out council tenants and communities in favour of young professional types. i can’t claim to be anywhere near an expert on this, but it just still seems to be going against the reason that park hill was built in the first place. i know that urban splash are making an effort to include social housing, 26 of the flats in the first phase of 78 are available for part-ownership. i think this one is going to rumble on in my head. the one thing that i am certain of is that park hill is really impressive.

further reading

guardian report on re-opening
observer review of the new park hill
owen hatherley on the social housing repercussions of the new park hill 


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2 thoughts on “sometimes in the middle of the night, in that building…

  1. I’ve done the opposite to you and moved from Sheffield to Manchester, so I’m a bit jealous that you’ve been to Park Hill flats. When Urban Splash were first announced as regenerating it I was glad, because it had been looking half-empty and sad for years. So better that than nowt. But it looks really generic. My chum Andy has been taking photos of the flats and residents for years as part of a documentary project, check it out here: http://www.envioustime.co.uk

  2. Those coloured panels make it look like a massive primary school. I’m glad the place is being kept alive, but why the need for urban splash to infantilise it?

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