Estate of the arts – Park Hill becomes a gallery

Curator Helen Kaplinsky with  Pointing Figure by Bernard Meadows
Curator Helen Kaplinsky with Pointing Figure by Bernard Meadows
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Sheffield’s Park Hill Flats, world famous for their Brutalist architecture, are providing inspiration for young artists. Nick Ahad reports.

When they were first erected in the late 1950s, they were a monument to the future.

Streets in the sky, open spaces, the Park Hill flats were the future, not just of Sheffield, but of Europe.

Now, a city centre developer has stepped in to try breathe new life into the development. Today it is the largest listed building development in Europe – so unloved, perhaps, that it needs protection.

Designed by architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, the flats were opened in 1961 and were heralded as a signal of progress.

The flats only ever fulfilled their potential, of being a wonderful community haven, briefly.

Today they are occupied only sporadically, despite the best efforts of developers.

While the concerns of developers Urban Splash are commercial, and the original designers intended them to be a community hub, the Park Hill flats have taken on a new life – they have become a source of fascination for art students.

“Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith were heavily influenced by Corbusier,” says Helen Kaplinsky.

“And in terms of brutalist design, it’s a great example of that style from that period in European and British design.”

Kaplinsky is a 28-year-old who recently completed her postgraduate studies at Goldsmiths College in London. In the final year of her studies, she pitched an idea and won a competition which allowed her the keys to the Arts Council collection to organise an exhibition.

The Arts Council runs Select.ac, a curatorial competition that seeks out the most promising young artist curators of tomorrow, visting the country’s most renowned centres of arts study to find people who can make the most of their collection.

“I had to come up with an idea of how I would use the collection. You only had three pages to put forward your idea, so I pitched the idea that I would take ten pieces from the collection, stretching from when it first began in 1946 to more recent time,” says Kaplinsky.

“I wanted to find pieces that would reflect modernist British design through those times and examine what constitutes British modernism – but the idea was always to have the exhibition held in a building that also reflected British design through that period.”

Having studied Fine Art at Leeds University and then Manchester before going to Goldsmiths, Kaplinsky was aware of Sheffield and the Park Hill estate.

“They were such a huge design statement in Britain, taking the European, Corbusier-influenced architecture and coupling it with this brutalist design, that they are something you know about if you are interested in and studying design,” she says.

“When I pitched the idea of the Arts Council Collection exhibition, I always knew I wanted it to sit in a British modernist building, so when I was told that the Arts Council wanted to commission my exhibition and that it would be staged at the Park Hill flats, I was delighted.”

Kaplinsky was given access to the Arts Council Collection, which is run by Southbank Centre on behalf of Arts Council England. It is one of Britain’s foremost national collections of post-war British Art. As a collection “without walls”, it has no permanent gallery; it can be seen on long-term loan to museums, galleries, schools, hospitals, colleges and charitable associations and in touring exhibitions and displays at home and abroad.  

The Select.ac competition allows the curators of tomorrow the opportunity to use the world-renowned collection to create an exhibition that will set them on a career path.

Kaplinsky has chosen ten pieces from the collection, including John Forrester’s painting Two of a Kind – Forrester advised architects Lynn and Smith on the design of the facade of Park Hill.

Kaplinsky says she is “flattered and excited” to have been given the opportunity to work with the collection and curate an exhibition in the iconic Sheffield buildings.

“The idea is that it is almost like a performance. It’s an exhibition that starts the moment you enter the development, to getting in the lift and seeing the works in the flats,” she says.

“Because the architecture was always going to be integral to the exhibition, it’s about so much more than just the objects from the collection, it’s an exhibition that wraps itself around the visitor.”

With a thriving art scene in the city, powered by many of the artists, graduates and undergraduates in Sheffield, the free exhibition is expected to attract a large number of visitors – not least because it will reveal something about an iconic building within the city.

“The buildings were created with these grand ideas and functions in mind, but they were also created with a real eye on the design. It’s a real privilege to use this exhibition to reveal the design of the building itself and maybe make people re-examine what the development is.”

British modern remade – details

British Modern Remade, Kaplinsky’s exhibition, opens today until June 16.

There will also be a seminar held in line with the exhibition on May 22 from 2pm to 6pm, which will explore the exhibition at Park Hill and the relationship between Modern and contemporary art, decorative design and architecture. Speakers include: Jaspar Joseph-Lester and Dale Holmes (Sheffield Hallam University), Lisa Le Feuvre (Henry Moore Institute), and Simon Martin (Goldsmiths).

Helen Kaplinsky will lead tours of the exhibition on May 12 and May 22. To book email Helen.Kaplinsky@southbankcentre.org.uk