The once notorious Park Hill flats are getting their very own guided National Trust tour. It will make for a fascinating, if dizzying, experience, reports Grant Woodward.
THINK National Trust tour and images of grand stately homes, picnics on the lawn and tasteful, if rather overpriced, gift shops float readily to mind. The cultural institution’s latest expedition, however, will offer an altogether different experience – a visit to what was once dubbed the ugliest building in Europe.
The infamous Park Hill flats are actually four buildings. Snaking their way across one of Sheffield’s seven hills, they overlook the city’s revamped railway station. Their stark concrete edifice puts the brutal into Brutalism – the architectural fad that swept Britain in the 1950s and 60s.
Once a city within a city that was home to almost 3,000 people, the original flats now boast just one solitary occupant and a newly-arrived gaggle of Irish travellers, whose caravans have taken up messy residency near the abandoned playground. It’s enough to leave National Trust stalwarts choking on their cucumber sandwiches.
Yet what many see as a monstrous blot on Sheffield’s skyline is officially the largest listed property in Europe. And where former National Trust chairman Simon Jenkins was scathing of Brutalist buildings, its new broom director Ivo Dawnay is determined to embrace less obvious monuments to Britain’s past.
“We’re now making a conscious effort to look at stuff outside our own estate,” he says. “Places that have had a big impact on people, whether good or bad, and find what’s interesting about them in an architectural and sociological sense.
We’re not saying that you’ve got to like Park Hill, but it represents a moment in British social history. There is a fascination to Park Hill and the thinking behind it.Ivo Dawnay, director of the National Trust
“We’re not saying that you’ve got to like Park Hill, but it represents a moment in British social history. There is a fascination to Park Hill and the thinking behind it.”
Having long been a byword for inner city decline and social decay, it’s easy to forget what Park Hill once stood for. Conceived as a bold experiment in mass housing, it was the largest-scale application of what became known as New Brutalism, an architectural movement characterised by its emphasis on massive scale and the use of unpainted concrete.
Inspired by the modernist architectural movement of the early 20th century, the term originates from the French word for “raw” as used by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier to describe his choice of material – béton brut, or raw concrete.
But it was two British architects, Alison and Peter Smythson, who championed the modern take on Brutalism which became the template for Park Hill. The flats’ designers, Jack Lynn and Arthur Smith, both still in their twenties, were part of a new breed who believed architecture had the power to solve society’s problems.
Their concept was to create a new community housed within a purpose-built complex that had everything its residents would need including shops, doctor’s surgery, dentist, nursery, school, four pubs and a police station. Grenville Squires – a caretaker on the estate for three decades – recalls that it “was like a medieval village; you didn’t have to leave”.
To keep the community spirit of the slums that Park Hill replaced, old neighbours were housed next to each other, former street names were preserved and even the cobbles of the old terraced streets were used to pave the pathways. Its communal walkways – dubbed “streets in the sky” – were wide enough for a milk float.
The new residents, who had left behind their decrepit, overcrowded back to backs, loved it. “You think I live in council housing,” said one. “I’ve got a penthouse.”
Yet this vision of an urban utopia was to prove short-lived. Funding cuts meant maintenance slipped and the exodus from Sheffield as the city haemorrhaged jobs in the 1980s brought a new influx of residents who didn’t always share the values of those who had first moved in.
Those who stayed and had once chatted and gossiped on the walkways now took to locking their doors. Park Hill became synonymous with drugs, destitution and crime.
Many in Sheffield, faced with this constant reminder of broken dreams, wanted the flats to be levelled. But this was when English Heritage stepped in, slapping a grade II-star listing on it to make Park Hill the largest listed building in Europe and protecting it from demolition.
“A lot of people think it should have been ripped down,” admits Aimée Ambrose, an architectural expert at Sheffield Hallam University. “I can understand that there is a legacy with Park Hill. At times it has provided an unpleasant and dysfunctional environment for people to live in.
“But it would have been a crude solution to a problem to pull down a very useful, robust and sensitively designed building. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but then Brutalism is different to everything we’ve been used to.”
At the moment Park Hill is leading a double life. Parts of it remain rundown enough to provide the backdrop for gritty dramas such This Is England and Troubles-era thriller ’71. Yet just a short walk away from the steel shutters and rubbish spewing from the makeshift travellers’ camp lie smart offices filled with young professionals ensconced behind Apple computers.
Park Hill is slowly rising phoenix-like from the ashes. Developers Urban Splash, having bought it for a nominal £1 a decade ago and bounced back from a recession that put their masterplan on ice, are tackling their transformation of the complex with renewed vigour.
Trendy companies like creative marketing agency Über and independent film makers Warp have set up offices here and things are moving fast on the residential front as bright, modern apartments – starting price £145,000 – are created from the original flats. Six hundred people will be living here by the end of the year.
Then there have been the visitors from as far afield as France and Japan, all keen to see how a 1960s behemoth is being turned into a brand new community fit for the 21st century.
Today it is the turn of architects from Switzerland, who are impressed by what they find. “It keeps the structure, the energy and spirit of what they did in the 1960s,” says Jeanne Della-Casa as she gazes up at the curious juxtaposition of old and new. “It’s no longer possible to build something like this, so we have to keep it alive.”
National Trust director Ivo Dawnay agrees. “People are fascinated by the philosophy behind Park Hill. There were other housing estates of this kind but this belongs to a distinct period.
“Brutalism was about giving people new ways of living and all utopias are interesting in the way they failed. The manner in which Park Hill is now being resurrected is all part of that story.”
And the public is clearly interested too. All but one of the slots for next week’s tour of the site as part of its Brutal Utopias season have been snapped up. It may not be a typical stopping off point for the National Trust, but it will make for a fascinating, if somewhat disorientating, experience.
Where have I seen that place before?
IF you live in Sheffield or pay a visit to the city you can’t miss the Park Hill flats, which hover above the bustling train station.
However, Park Hill has also become a fixture on our screens.
Public nominations led it to the top 12 of Channel 4’s Demolition programme, while it was also the subject of the BBC’s Saving Britain’s Past series.
Park Hill played a starring role in the video for Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 hit When The Sun Goes Down. More recently it has featured in the 2014 film ’71, which used the buildings to recreate Belfast’s notorious Divis Flats during The Troubles.
Park Hill can currently be seen on Channel 4 as home to some of the characters in This Is England ’90.