‘A Brutalist masterpiece has been saved from the knacker’s yard and new retrofit standards have been set. These are big wins,’ writes Rory Olcayto
Get off the train, go up the stairs and leave the station by the back door. Cross the tram tracks. Go up the steel steps. They look rusty, but they’re new. Forget Google Maps or Street View. They haven’t been updated yet. Don’t worry - you’ll see them. It says ‘THE STEEL STEPS’ on one of the risers. It’s meant to create a sense of place. Y’know: ‘Oh aye, the steel steps. Everybody knows the steel steps. They’re famous!’
Climb to the top, past the amphitheatre. It’s new as well. This is South Street Park, part of the Sheaf Valley revamp. Who paid for it? You. Central government cash and EU grants. But it’s an Urban Splash project. All of it, the new Park Hill, it’s pretty much down to the Manc developers. More than the architects, Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West, it belongs to Urban Splash. They only paid a quid for Park Hill, but they’ve spent £40 million so far. Thirty million of that was public money too. But it’s not finished yet. Just 78 homes out of nearly 1,000.
You’re on South Street now and right in front of you is a four-storey portion of the fabled edifice. Park Hill unfolds from here, barricading the hillside. But this part looks modest. Friendly. Nothing like the ‘massive cliff with windows’ that Roy Hattersley called it. He was chairman of the council’s public works department when they built Park Hill. And this part still has the original brown brick infill. The colour and scale match the sandstone houses on the other side of the road. Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, recent graduates when they designed Park Hill, really knew what they were doing.
Head north along South Street, towards the red lamp posts. The ones that look like propped-up fishing rods. The ones that boast ‘regeneration’. The landscape is neater. There are no weeds on the footpath. There are gravel paths, paving setts, and cordons of shrubs and leaves. It feels like a private, public space. Business parkish. Expensive.
You’ve reached the north-west corner, where the action is. This three-block segment was completely rebuilt. Almost. For a time it was see-through, stripped to its frame, like a Superstudio collage made real, a Bartlett fantasy monstering Sheffield. Thirteen storeys rise above you. The roofline hasn’t changed though, because you’ve been walking downhill. Park Hill gets deeper, not taller. There’s a crank in the plan here too. A knuckle. A hinge. It used to house a craggy fire stair but now there’s a stainless steel spiral instead. It’s a bit slick, a bit too slick, a Lloyd’s of London transplant, a glossy signal of ‘change’.
There are new glass elevators, and the ‘cut’, a four-storey gateway to a courtyard beyond. The bottom three floors are reserved for commercial use. They’re empty, marooned by the crunch, and like most of Park Hill (like most of Britain), waiting for the market to bite.
Study the facade, the concrete grid. The ratio of solid to void - two-thirds to one-third - has been reversed. Windows are twice as wide, have olive frames instead of white, and the opaque panels alongside have been halved. And where once brick infills progressed from brown to beige, now metal panels go from blood red to lime green. Park Hill’s been Tangoed. Pantoned. Urban Splashed.
Look closer. The concrete balustrades have been replaced. They’re slimmer now and have hardwood handrails in place of the precast.
Inside and up, the ‘streets in the sky’, the extra-wide decks inspired by Corb’s Unité in Marseille, give scissor-section access to flats and maisonettes. They’re better now, more welcoming, and probably easier to use. Corner windows have been added to what was a blank wall, and some entrances have been set back, providing relief. They’ve all been rebuilt to exactly the same size but they’re not exactly the same. They’re still clustered in fours around the service cores, but three-bed maisonettes are two-bed now and two-bed flats have one. Modern man needs more space for machines…
Could Park Hill really win? Less than a tenth of the building has been refreshed, yet popular boxes have been ticked. A Brutalist masterpiece has been saved from the knacker’s yard. New standards have been set for retrofit design. And English Heritage has rewritten its rules. These are major wins. But Park Hill is divided, socially split, a small portion reborn, the rest in decline: Sheffield’s disunité d’habitation.
Park Hill was first built when starchitects worked for the council, housed the poor instead of the rich, and the market was somewhere you bought fruit and veg, not shares in Royal Mail. But is Park Hill still Park Hill with street-decks bisected, the Urban Splash decks - private boxes - cut off? The street-deck, more than the concrete grid frame, was always the driving force, ‘the inviolate continuity of horizontal communications’, as Reyner Banham said, which brought unity to this singular edifice. So what if Urban Splash had, instead of block-by-block, reworked it deck-by-deck? It would never have made the Stirling Prize cut.
David Bickle, partner, hawkins\brown
What was your initial design concept?
We have found Park Hill to be a remarkably intelligent building full of complexity, potential and character. It is defined by its heroic ambition tempered with great humility and dignity. We wanted to capture more permanently the vision, optimism and personality that seemed to have been lost and to elicit ‘transformational change’, but to remain true to its original spirit.
Did the executed project differ from this initial concept?
During the nine-year journey and a major global recession, the design has naturally altered - but only for the better. As a team, we have had to adapt and recalibrate our thinking to the changed economic circumstances and current situation.
What elements of the surrounding context does the building draw upon?
The topography and character of the Peak District was a principal reference for the design of the new landscape by Grant Associates. Its rugged beauty, wild untamed planting and broken angular forms all played their part in creating a purposeful and romantic setting that the building deserved, but never had.
What was the client’s input?
The client for this project consists of a number of key stakeholders, all of whom, at one point or other have contributed to its success. However, Urban Splash, at every step of the way, has positively shaped the proposal. Its input has been invaluable and its loyalty, creative thinking and nerve unswerving.
What was the most challenging aspect of the project - and why?
Changing the long-held perceptions that Park Hill should be written off; that it is damaged, ugly or is a failure. Transforming those long-held beliefs into something more positive has been the biggest challenge. That’s partly why we adopted the graffiti on the building that proclaims ‘I LOVE YOU WILL U MARRY ME’ as a declaration to those who have found it impossible to embrace its qualities.
What is the most important lesson you have taken from this project?
There are a number of lessons that I have learnt while working on the project, but I’d say the most important is that architecture is very much a means to an end - that ultimately what we do is ‘all about people’. Seeing residents and tenants move in is incredibly rewarding and brings real meaning to what we have collectively achieved.
Where does this building sit within the evolution of the practice?
Park Hill is undoubtedly an important project within our studio and it has been critical to the evolution of the practice. It has, by stealth and guile, crept into the very heart and soul of what we do - it’s safe to say we have fallen in love!