All photographs courtesy of Urban Splash
By Cat Martin
The Park Hill Estate: Brutalism in Sheffield
Dramatically perched above Sheffield city centre, the Brutalist mass of the Park Hill Estate still remains a pervasive presence over the city. In 1961, when the first residents moved in, this was the most ambitious public housing project in post-war Britain. An estate modelled on Le Corbusier’s Unités in Europe, a sense of community thrived. The vast concrete structure contained a shopping precinct, a school, pubs and play areas. Above, broad decks ran the length of the buildings and these ‘streets in the sky’, as they became known, were designed to provide some of the functions of a traditional street, wide enough for kids to play, neighbours to talk, service trucks to make deliveries and more famously for milk floats to do the daily round.
The Park Hill Estate: a monument to optimism
The 995-unit estate was built between 1957 and 1960 to replace the traditional urban street pattern of 19th century terraces that had seen a gradual decline into slums. With their high density and relatively low-rise design, young modernist architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith created a remarkable monument to optimism and a bold new housing model. Four distinct blocks sit on a steeply sloping site; 14 storeys high at the north, and four at the southern end.
The Park Hill Estate: a fall unto decline
Despite the dramatic difference made to the lives of the original inhabitants, the estate fell into decline over its 50-year lifespan. The textured concrete finish became increasingly blackened by industrial pollution, services began to fail and local feeling towards this modern vision shifted as crime and vandalism set in. Controversial Grade II* listing in 1998 prevented demolition and created the largest listed building in Europe.
The Park Hill Estate: an extreme makeover
The estate recently underwent an extreme makeover, endorsed by English Heritage, who helped fund research into the repair of the concrete frame. In 2004 property developers Urban Splash were appointed to take on the challenge of the £145 million refurbishment – a ten-year project, divided into four phases, to create 875 new homes.
With a fine balance between what to retain and remove, there has inevitably been friction. Mark Latham, Development Manager for Urban Splash, shows me around, “The perennial challenge of regeneration is not about making a quick buck, you must take time. Urban Splash are taking a very long term view, but we believe it’s a building worth saving”.
The Park Hill Estate: preserving the ‘streets in the sky’
Working with architects Studio Egret West, Hawkins Brown, and landscape consultants Grant Associates, Urban Splash dived in at the deep end by developing the two tallest blocks to the north first. The preservation of the original ‘streets in the sky’, the dual aspect flats, and clarity of the structural grid were paramount to the plans. Mark admits, “We’ve taken on the hardest bit first” – the 78 apartments of Flank A square up to the city full frontal, and it’s a bold statement that can be seen from afar.
The Park Hill Estate: penetrating the exterior
The original layout of the estate attracted criticism for its impenetrable exterior. To combat this Urban Splash has made some radical changes to the original design. The main entrance on South Street is now a vast four-storey gap in the façade, which makes the site more visibly and physically accessible. Removing four floors of a 14-storey building is a complicated piece of engineering, but well worth the effort.
Glass clad lifts replace the corner flats between blocks, and it’s a thrill to scale the building in one, emerging onto the highest deck or ‘street’. While the original ceiling heights feel surprisingly confined, gawping at the extensive city-wide view more than makes up for this. This is my first chance to get a close-up on the exposed concrete frame now stripped back to zero. Original balustrades are replaced with slender versions in crisply detailed pre-cast concrete and the resulting difference between old and new provides a careful reading of the original frame, which still strides powerfully across the site – not bad for a 50-year-old with a makeover.
The Park Hill Estate: the introduction of colour
Urban Splash has tried to soften the impact of the concrete exterior façade with the introduction of colour. Original plum and ochre brick infill panels are replaced with vibrant anodised aluminium cladding in iridescent shades of red, orange, and yellow. Ceramic tiled paving, irregularly grained ply cladding and a heavy wooden handrail add warmth, and another humanising touch is the immortalising in neon of the Estate’s most famous graffiti – ‘I love you will u marry me’, which was sprayed on a high bridge.
With new floor-to-ceiling glazing, blocks are angled south or west to catch the sun and all flats retain the original dual aspect layout, with living rooms facing one way, bedrooms another. However, the width of the decks has been reduced to provide a larger entrance area for each flat, now designed to be accessed by folding bikes rather than milk floats. Eventually the streets will connect to other blocks through the reinstatement of link bridges between buildings, so residents will get high-level access routes to see friends at the far end.
The Park Hill Estate: open-plan spaces
Modern space standards are very different from those of the 1960s and complex arrangements of rooms have been replaced by open planning with breathtaking views over the city skyline. The double height stairs in most flats provide a welcome sense of depth, tall sliding windows flood the space with light and each flat has a balcony off the living area. The interiors of the flats I saw were upbeat and fun – exposed concrete ‘feature walls’ and the remains of old switch sockets in the concrete celebrate its previous incarnation. In the same way that the original residents benefitted from mod cons of the time – many experiencing built-in washing machines, fridges and freezers for the first time in their lives – the flats are fitted out to a high standard.
The Park Hill Estate: creating a sustainable mixed community
Originally designed for up to 3500 people, the majority of existing tenants have made new lives elsewhere and only 120 flats are still occupied. Residents have lived with the prospect of change since the late ’90s, and the remainder welcome refurbishment. Longstanding tenants have a ‘priority right’ to apply to be re-housed within the new scheme, although with only one third of Phase One allocated to social housing this clearly won’t be an option for all. Crucially, however, the social housing is not isolated on separate floors, as Urban Splash aim to create a sustainable mixed community as seen in many terraced city streets. Mark elaborates, “We want to keep the tenants, they form the kernel of a new community. The previous scheme failed because of its monoculture. Diversity of income group, of tenure type and of ages, is fundamental to its success.”
The Park Hill Estate: a fond tribute from Urban Splash
The radical reinvention of Park Hill raises many questions in how to deal with buildings of this scale. A fond tribute to the original structure rather than a rigid reinterpretation, Urban Splash have conveyed a colourful display of optimism that has undoubtedly prevented Park Hill from further deterioration. In trying to build new communities and a collaborative way of living without destroying the original, the project is an experimental urban dream that is still in the making. And for the next decade, enthusiastic new residents may find it impossible to ignore the brittle mismatch between the developed and the undeveloped. Park Hill continues to instil both pride and horror alike, but I remain hopeful. In Mark’s own words, “You need to rethink your idea of the estate. It’s an icon of Sheffield, and for better or worse, Park Hill is like no other.”
Do you live on the Park Hill Estate, or visited someone who does? Then share your thoughts on the project with us below!
Read more on this topic in Modern architecture: The True Heroes of Post-war Social Housing
More on Le Corbusier’s Unités here
More about the Urban Splash project here