Can Brutalist architecture ever be beautiful?

Park Hill Flats - Brutal or beautiful?
Park Hill Flats - Brutal or beautiful?
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Often dismissed as eyesores and ripe only for demolition, Sarah Freeman reports on a new exhibition which hopes to change our mind about concrete.

FOR years Park Hill flats were a blight on Sheffield’s skyline - a very visible symbol of economic decline.

It hadn’t always been that way. When the first residents moved in during the early 1960s, it was Britain’s first post-war slum clearance scheme. The most ambitious inner-city housing project of its time, it offered a sense of hope to those who quickly formed its tightly-knit community.

However, as the years rolled by, Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn’s iconic ‘streets in the sky’ design was labelled an eyesore and one of the estate’s four pubs was named among of the most dangerous in Britain. When the economic heart was ripped out of Steel City, Park Hill became a cauldron of high unemployment, crime and drugs.

By the early 1990s, the concrete structure, which had once looked cutting edge, just looked tired. Every logical argument led to the same conclusion - the flats, perched high on a hill overlooking the city centre, should be levelled. The consensus was Sheffield would be better off if Park Hill was consigned to history.

Except that’s not what happened. In 1997, English Heritage gave the entire complex Grade II listed status and developer Urban Splash reckoned there was a future for the estate and its Brutalist architecture.

The structure was kept intact, but the concrete balconies and frontages replaced with bright aluminium and much to many people’s surprise it was shortlisted for the 2013 Stirling Prize for architecture. Among those most pleased by the turnaround was Trevor Mitchell, head of English Heritage in Yorkshire.

The organisation is about to open its Brutal and Beautiful exhibition in Sheffield. It celebrates the finest examples of the country’s post-war architecture and the story of Park Hill is proof that at least some of these buildings are worth saving.

“It’s 25 years since the first post-war buildings were listed,” he says. “Now they are popularly admired but at the time the idea of conserving our recent history was fiercely debated and even the future Tate Modern was rejected for listing. We wanted to bring this exhibition, which really looks at our love and hate relationship with England’s recent architectural past and asks ‘what’s worth saving?,’ to Sheffield because the city has some of the most iconic modern architecture in the north of England.

“Although these buildings have been much maligned over the years the city is now coming to recognise their value and importance.”

The exhibition opens as the demolition of the former Yorkshire Post building enters its final phase and it covers the history of architecture from 1945 to the 1980s with the best examples from each year. In the north of England, Sheffield Arts Tower and Farnley Hey, a modernist house near Huddersfield both get a nod.

A building has to be 30-years-old to be considered for listing and since 1987 more than 500 post-war sites have been listed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of English Heritage. The first was Bracken House, former home of the Financial Times, which helped save it from demolition. Amongst the youngest buildings to be listed is the Lloyd’s Building in London which turned 30 in 2011.

“From the tougher architecture which emerged in the late 1950s to the high tech buildings of the 1970s which made Norman Foster and Richard Rogers internationally famous, Britain can boast a spectrum of architectural styles,” adds Trevor. “Hopefully the Brutal and Beautiful exhibition will help people value these buildings and understand why the best should be protected for future generations to enjoy.”

Brutal and Beautiful, Park Hill, Sheffield, June 23 to 29. www.sheffielddesignweek.co.uk