Love among the ruins: Park Hill exhibition to reopen Sheffield gallery

The modernist Park Hill estate in Sheffield has long been a source of artistic inspiration, firing the imaginations of designers, architects and musicians since it was built as a bold social housing experiment in 1961.

Bill Stephenson, Donna Hargreaves and Carmen Bello sit on an unguarded fourth storey concrete parapet. Hyde Park Flats, Sheffield, 1988  Bill Stephenson
Bill Stephenson, Donna Hargreaves and Carmen Bello sit on an unguarded fourth storey concrete parapet. Hyde Park Flats, Sheffield, 1988 Bill Stephenson

And some of the first depictions of the Brutalist complex are to be seen again in a new exhibition next month that will also shed light on Hyde Park flats, the site's largely demolished sister building.

Love Among The Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future will be the first show at the reopened S1 Artspace gallery, which has moved into temporary surroundings in a former garage at Park Hill while a project to turn a wing of the estate into a multi-million-pound international cultural centre, containing one of the biggest exhibition venues in the North, gains momentum.

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The work of two documentary photographers will be featured. Roger Mayne, who died in 2014, took pictures of the first Park Hill residents from 1961 to 1965, while Bill Stephenson met the last people to live at Hyde Park in 1988. Both buildings were the product of city architect J.L. Womersley's vision for council housing in Sheffield.

A young girl peers out from one of the Upper floor deck walkways connecting some of the Park Hill Estate high rise flats (Park Hill I) in Sheffield, England while a group of housewives chat on a doorstep - April, 1961. Roger Mayne Archive / Mary Evans Picture Library

Love Among the Ruins is billed as a 30th anniversary 're-interpretation' of Streets In The Sky, an exhibition by Mayne and Stephenson curated by Matthew Conduit at what is now Sheffield's Site Gallery in 1988. Rare documents and unseen works will be shown, alongside The Fortress, a film about Park Hill produced by the BBC in 1965 as part of its Landmarks TV series.

Conduit's show emerged in a very different time, when the estates were in steep decline, marred by poor living conditions and crime. Only two blocks of Hyde Park remain today, while Park Hill - its concrete structure protected by a Grade II* listing - is gradually being renovated by developer Urban Splash, which is creating apartments, student accommodation, business units and more, alongside the arts centre.

However, 30 years ago Stephenson - who lives in Derbyshire and was director of Site's forerunner the Untitled Gallery from 1982 to 1995 - still found 'a close community reluctant to be broken up' and 'did not meet a single resident who wanted to be rehoused, despite the current condition of the flats'.

Meanwhile, Mayne - recognised as one of the most important post-war British photographers - managed to catch Park Hill in its idealistic early days, when milk floats buzzed along the neat walkways and boys played football in the well-maintained grounds.

Bill Stephenson, Roller skating paper girls Anita and Emma. Hyde Park Flats, Sheffield, 1988 Bill Stephenson

Love Among The Ruins runs from July 20 to September 15, taking its full title from a satirical short story by Evelyn Waugh, which imagined a dystopian Britain of the future governed by an overbearing welfare state. Written in 1953, Waugh’s story anticipated some of the concerns about the possible social consequences of the government’s post-war approach to rebuilding the country.

S1 was founded by a group of Sheffield artists in 1995 to provide affordable studios. It originally operated from a space above the Corporation nightclub in Trafalgar Street, then took larger premises next door. Architecture practice Carmody Groake has been hired to design the arts centre.

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Delivery of milk on the newly built Park Hill housing estate in Sheffield, 1961. Roger Mayne Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library
Boys playing football in a games area on the Park Hill Estate, Sheffield, 1961. Roger Mayne Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library