Park Hill offers chance to learn from the past

Ric BlenkharnBramhall Blenkharn Architects

Ric Blenkharn

I recently visited Park Hill Flats in Sheffield, and was fascinated the see the ongoing transformation being undertaken by developer Urban Splash, which started in 2009.

The flats occupy a prominent position overlooking the city centre of Sheffield and were originally built between 1957 to 1961, to a design by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith under the supervision of Lewis Womersley - Sheffield’s City Architect.

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Nearly 1000 flats were constructed to replace an area of back-to-back housing, which had seen severe decline during the 1930s. The flats were designed to give split-level dwellings with dual aspects to enjoy both morning and evening sun and to have excellent views across to the city centre.

They were inspired by the architect and planner, Le Corbusier, whose professional career was dedicated to providing better living conditions for residents of crowded cities. His Unite d’Habitation built from 1939 to 1952 promoted a number of innovative ideas. Unite was designed not just to be a residence, but to offer all the services needed for living. Every third floor, between the apartments, was a wide corridor, like an interior street, which ran the length of the building from one end of the building to the other. It had shops, eating places, a nursery school and recreational facilities. A running track and small stage for theatre performances was located in the roof. The building itself, was surrounded by trees and a small park.

This ideology was taken in the design of Park Hill, which comprised a number of “streets in the sky”, with access decks large enough to take milk floats and these streets served as areas for community interaction and safe play.

The development included three pubs and over 30 shops. Initially the flats were incredibly popular, but a range of social and material factors led to their decline.

Today their popularity has been regained with thoughtful changes to the Grade II* listed building. Park Hill has been stripped back to its original concrete structure with much of the concrete exploited visually in the internal fit out. The exterior has been re-clad. The street decks have been modified in size to give more internal accommodation, yet still retain a pleasant place to meet.

Whilst there, I met a number of residents and asked for their views about living there. They were all full of praise about the bright, light dwellings with brilliant views and being so well sited close to all city centre services and transportation. It was obvious that with a secure central access point to the development, the raised streets in the sky have become spaces for community interaction. There is a clear sense of neighbourliness, where casual encounters are encouraged by the design. It has a sense of belonging, which is lacking from apartment blocks with only vertical circulation routes. T

The scale of the development seems appropriate for the city, an essay in well considered mid-rise building. It is tall enough to create good built densities, yet not too tall to be daunting.

There are a number of such 1960’s buildings across the country, which might now be seen as an eyesore, but with imagination and investment, can create vibrant places to live. Perhaps Le Corbusier had a vision, which is wholly appropriate to our city housing needs today.