Saturday, 28 July 2012

A brief visit to Park Hill

I recently had occasion to visit Sheffield again, albeit just an overnight stay. I was giving a talk up at the University's Arts Tower, a fantastically refined Miesian block, famous for its paternoster lift, which was unfortunately out of action on the day I was there. After arriving on the train up from London, however, I had a few hours to kill before depositing myself at the hotel, so I decided to take my first trip up to Park Hill.

I probably don't need to explain this to you, but Park Hill is one of the UK's most experimental developments of public housing. Built from 1957-61, and listed Grade II in 1998, it was designed by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, who had been students of Alison and Peter Smithson at the AA. It is perhaps best known as the most significant built example of the concept of 'Streets in the Sky'.

The design for Park Hill was essentially based upon the Smithsons' losing competition entry for the Golden Lane estate in London (which ended up launching the career of Chamberlain, Powell and Bonn, how about that for a counterfactual!), and was an attempt to recreate the positive aspects of working class communities while getting rid of the sufferings caused by the old back-to-back slums in which tenants had previously lived.

"The vital relationship between the house and the street survives, children run about, (the street is comparatively quiet), people stop and talk, dismantled vehicles are parked: in the back gardens are pigeons and ferrets and the shops are round the corner: you know the milkman, you are outside your house in your street." - Alison and Peter Smithson, An Urban Project
"The old houses, built during the nineteenth century, were in narrow streets, and the new homes that have replaced them, within the multi-storey buildings, have a system of access by means of 10-foot-wide street decks. These street-decks, open to the air and named after the demolished streets, run through the whole length of the buildings, often for over half a mile. As only specially designed electric trolleys for delivering milk and bread are allowed on these street-decks, they are virtually traffic-free. They have proved to be a useful meeting-place for mothers outside their front doors and a place where children can play in safety close to their homes." - Lady Allen of Hurtwood, Planning for Play, 1968

You get the picture; but now is not the time to dwell on the history of Park Hill, a long and fraught story of institutional neglect and the caprices of 'official' taste. Many others have written comprehensively on the subject; it is very much a cause célèbre in architectural circles. Like with most of the things I write in my own time these days, this is just an occasion to ruminate on my visit and its impressions. 

A defining feature of Park Hill is the way that it utilises the landscape. Unlike similar (and now demolished) blocks in Sheffield such as the Hyde Park or Kelvin flats, which were massively high and long slab blocks, at one end of the Park Hill complex the buildings are only four storeys (two flats) high, more or less matching the Victorian houses that face them across the street. When I arrived, only a very small cluster of flats were still occupied, their balconies full of plants and clutter, decidedly lived-in. A corner was turned, and the entire estate had been boarded up.   

The perforated steel panels instantly reminded me of the large estates in Glasgow that would stand empty for many years in places like Ruchill and Sighthill, waiting for the very last tenants to be moved out, mile after mile of hazy grey panels sealing the gaps in buildings waiting to be taken down. The difference however was that most of the Glasgow estates that I saw emptied and demolished in my time there were in a decidedly vernacular mode, all pebbledash and pitched roofs, but the less modern aesthetic didn't stop them from falling into the same state of neglect and decay that brutalism did. Indeed, every time I visit Glasgow I'm always shocked by the persistence of large areas which still have their streets, pavements and street-lamps, but no buildings occupying them - ghost neighbourhoods (here's just one example).

But one thing about Park Hill that's hard to get one's head around from drawings and photos is the way that the coiled up arrangement of blocks creates a varied set of spaces in between; not far from an Oxonian 'quad', or perhaps even a Great Estates' garden. The landscaping is certainly rudimentary and pretty neglected, but there's no sense of the windswept cliche of housing blocks set in pointlessly expansive greenery. 

Actually, it's being kind to describe the landscaping as rudimentary. It's often said that in photographs, modernist architecture looks totally incongruous when set beside its contemporary vehicles; the Citroens that pop up in the foreground of images of Le Corbusier's early villas seem to belong to another era than that of the crisp and futuristic buildings they are parked beside. There are many reasons for this; one of which is the way in which the bespoke, immobile objects of early modernist architecture deliberately disseminated themselves through media; the use of white stucco over standard brick panels creating a near abstract effect in black and white, but more than that there is something about the very formal language of modernism that still seems futuristic; wibbly neo-organicism aside there has been no new architecture since modernism -especially not of the quotidian sort- that genuinely has a visual stake in the future. 
This disjunction also seems to apply to the landscape around the buildings; while the housing itself looks tired and in need of love, it is still recognisably experimental and forward looking, whereas much of the cheap paving, walkways, benches and so on smacks of genuine neglect and cheapness.

"toddlers play on them; teens mend bikes, keep dates, swap gossip on them, teds occasionally brawl; heroic grans sit, legs akimbo, at the street-deck door" - Reyner Banham, The Vertical Community

Passageways (admittedly perhaps once intimidating at night) link the insides and outsides of the unravelled quadrants; here I am standing on the street at the periphery, with the balconies facing out, to the other, inner, side is the decking. The sense of 'relief', or depth, is one of the most important formal effects that the design has going for it; enlivening what might be an unremittingly blank surface. Consider here the logic of the exposed concrete grid (in almost square proportion), with the alternations of panel, balcony and recess. Now think of the contemporary method - frame to the inside, homogenous skin of curtain wall panels (usually arranged in some kind of half-hearted irregular pattern), with occasional coloured balconies pinned to the outside. While the contemporary mode is a more advanced form of construction, it invariably suffers from being caught between the very arbitrary flimsiness of its skin, leading to the confused plethora of materials one sees on 'Cabe-ist' flats everywhere, and the old architectural will-to-solidity.

And there is something intensely satisfying about the way the building gradually rears up as you descend the hill, the datum line of the roof carrying on regardless of the landscape, while new decks peel off from the ground level as it winds its way down. 

And here, here are walkways, those over-invested symbols of urban decay, of blight, of getting mugged  by feral youths, of drugs, of being able to cross the road without going downstairs...

Park Hill benefits greatly from its grid, which keeps the infill in order, without caprice. In its very repetitiveness the building definitely has something of the best character of 18th century housing; those Georgian Terraces that everyone goes on about. The repeating grid, the voids dropping back every three floors (that maisonette vertical rhythm I've talked about in posts before), the minor differentiation of the window panels (nothing like the shuddering banality of the barcode facade, the half-witted curtain wall technique still utilised today), all spread over such a large area, it all combines to create a very noble sense of structure and order; but order not of the type imposed from above, an egalitarian order of equal units.   

The only things breaking the line of the roof are the ubiquitous towers holding the lift machinery.

But you have to draw a line somewhere; this walkway is basically inept. Leading down from the second last closed quad towards the tallest blocks at the bottom, it is also the main route down to the train station and the city beyond. When this was in use it must have been a most intimidating passage; a good hundred meters into a blind spot, with only one way back up. Just picture coming round the corner in the dark to find the local gang hanging around there; if I picture it like Glasgow, then you'd run the risk of at least being given cheek, and, if it was the wrong night, something worse. This kind of thing happens anywhere - certainly most of the violence I encountered when I lived in Glasgow was in 'nice' areas where both me and my assailants were far from home, but I can't imagine a rat run like that being a particularly safe route. That said; the level of surveillance from flats is incredible; there'd be very little chance of getting away with anything without being seen.

This football pitch is about 1/2 size, and at a pronounced diagonal gradient. It must have made for some rather bizarre games in its time.

The way in which Park Hill unravels as it comes closer to the bottom of the hill is masterful. The higher the buildings get, the further they stand apart from each other, modifying their character from courtyard blocks to larger slabs at the bottom of the hill. It's easy to imagine this kind of arrangement being devised by some kind of parametric device, creating a reciprocal relationship between height and distance, ending up with a seemingly random but actually thoroughly considered arrangement of the blocks.

And a first glimpse of the 'problem'.

At times the upper parts of Park Hill began to resemble the 'ruin porn' of places such as Gunkanjima and Pripyat, silence, unchecked growth, the air heavy with the absence of people, the sublime tranquility of a megastructure in the woods. I've often wondered if it would be possible to bring this kind of sensation into architecture that we create now; this is definitely part of the purpose of studies of 'abstracted ruination' that I've conducted into iron & glass culture. Viz, iron & glass seemed to create an environment in which concepts of 'nature' and 'structure' were put into dialectical tension; from studying these built artifacts perhaps we can sense a way of bringing 'nature' into current design processes in ways which are not trite or superficial. Who knows if it's possible, it's certainly not happening at the moment. 

So, just in case you didn't already know; 'arty' regeneration experts Urban Splash teamed up with English Heritage and got involved in Park Hill, agreeing to renovate it, before selling off the new flats, studios, shops etc that they would create. Except they ran out of money to do it, so not only have they only renovated the bottom block of the complex but they required a bailout of public money to do so. While in Sheffield I heard that they were having severe trouble selling any of the flats in the current economic tumult (which would seem to be verified by the total transparency of the block here, suggesting no furniture inside, no inhabitation). So what has basically happened is that the complex has been gutted, emptied, the tenants moved out, state money has gone into the renovation of the block, which has been spent on converting the building for the classes with economic power to buy property, which they seem to be failing to do. Now call me a communist, but surely if the state was going to spend all this money on economically futile regeneration, they could have easily refurbished the blocks for the original tenants? This is just yet another example of the state guaranteeing private enterprise, when the same money it pisses into the pockets of developers could have been spent on the people from whom it comes, and for whose benefit it is supposed to be spent in the first place. 

Some of the most interesting aspects of housing estates in Britain are their pubs; frequently, the cliche of the all consuming, all cleansing modernist aesthetic falls to pieces when one walks into the pubs on the ground floor of tower blocks, and everything inside is leather, ale, old black and white photographs of the neighbourhood when it was still a slum, mock-victorian wallpaper. The sign above refers to 'the Link', one of a number of pubs built as part of the Park Hill complex, now long shut.

One wonders if part of the Urban Splash plan was to hipster-ify the pubs. I must say that throughout the East End of London, which is of course the current mother lode of gentrification, I don't know of any estate pubs that have been requisitioned by the affluent and fashionable. In fact; in some places it would seem that the only pubs preserving their working class East London constituency are the estate pubs. I wonder if there's a correlation?

You might have noticed that the weather has been pretty strange of late. I've been having some problems recently that have merited my immediate attention, to the extent that I've been finding it difficult to even open my eyes and look at the latest news on this front. When I am more lucid I think to myself; "Consider the cultural and technological change between 1900 and 2000, and think what might be different in 100 years time; yes, the challenges are the biggest we've ever faced as a culture, and the outlook the gloomiest it's perhaps ever been, but there's no real way of predicting exactly how it will unfold, and if the dialectic of history is anything to go by, the future will be both increasingly wonderful and increasingly horrible, as it certainly was in the last century; you cannot know for sure." 
That's my optimistic voice.

Nevertheless, as I approached the bottom of the complex, the scene had a John Martin-esque quality.


You must have noticed recently the overwhelming trend in landscape design for a studied wildness. Like a open space equivalent of pre-stressed jeans, every patch of land from the High Line in New York to the Olympic Park has been sown with the intention of making it look like a nonchalant rustic meadow. It's nice, don't get me wrong, but it has the same sense of herd-following that you get in more gullible fashion circles. Here's one; the rough land around the main site for the Park Hill regeneration has been sown with poppies, to match the red panels at the bottom. Oooh, isn't that nice?

There are definitely positive aspects to the refurbishment; the inversion of the glazing to panel ratio (2:1 from 1:2) is an improvement in line with contemporary tastes, while the new escape staircase is an exciting and attractive insertion. The inside of the flats looks great, again in line with a new taste for the rugged exposure of beams and so on, and it has to be said that the concrete, now repaired, looks lovely. 

However, it's easy to see that a lot of the depth of the facade has been lost or incoherently altered, and the inherently disposable character of curtain wall panels detracting from the force of the building. Furthermore, the colours are simply ghastly, jokey and frivolous in the worst kind of Blairite fashion, a distasteful Cool Britannia vibe. Would it be too much to ask that someone, client or architect, had suggested a more sensible colour scheme than this? I mean, those panels all come from a catalogue, they all cost the same, so there is no economic excuse for not thinking more about it. They obviously are meant to evoke the differently shaded brick, fine, but why does it have to be so brash? The building deserves better than childish jollity; it would look sufficiently 'contemporary' with a less saturated pallete, perhaps greener, greyer, more dignified. It could still be fashionable. 

And here is where the two worlds meet. It's unclear what the future will hold for Park Hill. If I remember correctly Urban Splash's original masterplan for the site involved actually increasing the density on the site by building more blocks at the top of the hill; obviously this is unlikely to happen any time soon, so the future is unclear. It's also not clear whether the listing will protect the parts of the complex that have been decanted, or whether their dilapidated state will provide an excuse for full demolition. In all, it seems a bit of a joke that thousands of people were gotten rid of, millions spent on doing up part of the building which they can't sell, leaving most of the thing unoccupied.
But what it seems to come down to in the end is a question of maintenance. It's often remarked that when Park Hill was initially inhabited it was chock full of cutting edge technology, such as the waste disposal system or the communal heating, and these kinds of facilities would eventually be very common in the construction of housing estates all over the country. These were great improvements over the slums people were moving out of, but as improvements they would be accompanied by an extra layer of infrastructural management. For example; if you own a house, then any repairs and maintenance is your responsibility alone. If you rent; your landlord should be the one who takes care of things, although we all know how difficult that can actually be. But in the cases of large, tightly connected and mechanically linked social housing complexes, the local authority was responsible, putting the buildings at greater risk from larger political and economic movements. In the case of British mass social housing, the economic crises of the 1970s followed by the all-out assault on local government from the Thatcher regime onwards created the perfect conditions for the decline and decay of the country's massed housing. So what it boils down to is not aesthetics, not the 'dehumanising' effects of large housing, but simply the question of whether we are prepared as a culture to support the communal project of housing; are we prepared to make the political effort to encourage living together? In recent history, we have not been.

It's not the worst thing in the world, really, for Urban Splash to recuperate the famous graffiti on the walkway as part of their marketing. Branding is rarely subtle, or sensitive, and one can understand utilising the iconic message as a way of underlining the fact that Park Hill can be a place of community, of emotional warmth, rather than the inhuman monstrosity it is frequently seen as. However, of course, life is never as neat as the images of life from branding. The slogan co-opted by Urban Splash (and the neon sign placed above the words themselves) ignore the beginning of the message: "Clare Middleton I love you will you marry me?" Upon seeing the message, Clare apparently said yes, but things didn't work out and the couple never got married, and then Clare died very young in 2007.


Richmonde said...

This is so, so sad - for the building,and for the people who were "decanted" in favour of "childish jollity". As you say, couldn't the council spend the money on doing the place up for the people it was built for?

JudithHaire said...

I came to this post from Twitter; interested because I lived in Sheffield for 5 years though not on this estate. I am saddened too and agree with the comment above
Thanks for a very informative piece

manav said...
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