Falling in love again with city’s best modernist architecture

Park Hill Flats
Park Hill Flats
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Sheffield Design Week starts today with a celebration of the city’s mid-century modern architecture. Sharon Dale reports.

The bold concrete buildings that dominate Sheffield’s skyline have divided opinion ever since they started springing up in the 1950s. Architects have almost always appreciated them while others condemned them as austere and depressing.

Modernist Guide: The Roxy , Sheffield

Modernist Guide: The Roxy , Sheffield

Now, just like the colour of their coats – on-trend grey – Sheffield’s uncompromising, brutalist structures are becoming increasingly fashionable. The shift is being fuelled by our love affair with mid-century modern design and by a growing sense of pride in the city’s remarkable architectural legacy.

To mark this, today sees the launch of The Modernist Guide to Sheffield, complete with fold-out map charting 32 buildings constructed between the 1950s and the early 1970s. It’s the first in a series of guides to modernist architecture hotspots, including London, Tel Aviv, Chicago and New York, and its publication is timed to coincide with Sheffield Design Week. The Modernist Guides are the brainchild of Patrick Murphy, the director of Made North, which supports northern designers and creative industries.“The idea is that they will be tourist guides that celebrate the best examples of architecture built to modernist principles,” says Patrick.

The reason Sheffield is blessed with so many high quality modernist buildings is thanks to the post-war Labour council and its city architect J. Lewis Womersley, who came up with radical plans to rebuild after the Second World War Blitz.

Emma England, Yorkshire Director of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who wrote the foreword to the Modernist Guide to Sheffield, says: “They believed in the ability of city planning and architecture to improve the lives of ordinary people. The appointment of J. Lewis Womersley from 1953-64 was fundamental. His creativity and boldness of vision transformed Sheffield. Womersley’s response to the topographical challenges of Sheffield and restrictions of city boundaries was to build upwards, creating seminal works such as Park Hill and the Gleedless Valley estate.”

The competition to design the University of Sheffield Arts Tower in 1953 is a key point in modern architecture history, according to Emma. “It was the first time that modernism was specified as an architectural approach and gave us the Tower and Western Bank Library, two of Sheffield’s most elegant and enduringly beautiful buildings.”

Other buildings that feature in the new guide include the 1960s Broomhall housing estate; the 1971 Crucible theatre and Moore Street sub station.

“A lot of people unfairly judged modernist architecture as concrete carbuncles but now they are beginning to appreciate them. Sheffield, in particular, has some great buildings that are a testament to Womersley’s vision of creating the best places for people to live and work in,” says Patrick.

Sheffield’s most famous mid-century modern building is the gargantuan Park Hill flats, completed in 1961. The “streets in the sky” and the homes with all mod cons were welcomed but by the 1990s Park Hill was a bleak, crime-ridden estate. Thanks to the vision and determination of the city council and regeneration specialist Urban Splash, it is now seen as one of the coolest places to live and work.

Urban Splash director Simon Gawthorpe says: “People thought we were mad to take it on but we knew this was a really special building It’s intelligently designed and it is now attracting a lot of creative people and businesses. They seem to have an affinity with the building and what it stands for.”

The transformation of Europe’s largest listed building is about to enter its second phase. There are already 78 flats and two offices and an £18m investment will create 182 duplex apartments, which start at £100,000. The properties retain all that was good about the original building and include enormous picture windows giving incredible views over the city. There will eventually be 850 homes at Park Hill and the public will have a chance to get a closer look this weekend as the high rise hosts the launch of Sheffield Design Week. There will be tours of the iconic building and a new small-scale model of the flats is on sale.

“It’s amazing how many artists and designers get inspiration from Park Hill. It’s on everything from T-shirts to mugs. Footballer Kyle Naughton even has a tattoo of it on his torso,” says Simon Gawthorpe. “It is fantastic when you think that this place was once a no-go area.”

** The Sheffield Design Week launch takes place today and tomorrow, 11am to 6pm at Park Hill. The event includes the launch of a new phase of development at Park Hill and there will be tours of the building. The new Modernist Guide to Sheffield will be on sale and visitors will also find music, craft beer and food. For details on the Park Hill apartments, which start from £100,000, tel: 0333 666 6000 or visit www.urbansplash.co.uk/parkhill. The Modernist Guide, www.themodernist.co.uk; Sheffield Design Week includes exhibitions, workshops, talks, open studios and walking trails, www.sheffielddesignweek.co.uk