Most utopian visions go into gentle decline as the years pass by but Park Hill in Sheffield, like many high-rise social housing developments, fell from grace at speed. The fame it now enjoys is a product of its dramatic domination of the city skyline and the scale of ambition, all the more striking in a culture where the preference is for modest, provisional, interim, incremental solutions to housing needs. It was a major statement that reflected the city’s self-confidence. Almost 3,500 residents were accommodated here when the buildings were completed in 1961 but as the novelty wore off it became an increasingly unpleasant place to live – poor maintenance, sound insulation issues, sub-standard materials and anti-social behaviour all contributed. The argument about responsibility for this goes on – target-obsessed city planners insensitive to the needs of families with children, architects with grandiose ambitions, constant downward pressure on housing budgets and feckless tenants have all attracted blame from one quarter or another.
Fifty years having passed since completion, the scheme fits a historic narrative that leads back to Marseille and le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation and to the Karl-Marx-Hof in Vienna. The linked access decks (streets in the sky) at every third level caught the public imagination and the buildings attracted admirers and detractors in equal measure until in 1998 English Heritage awarded grade II* listing. Fourteen years later, only the southernmost low-rise buildings remain occupied by council tenants. The greater part of the scheme is vacant with the initial phase of refurbishment and internal remodelling by developers Urban Splash (closely monitored by English Heritage) nearing completion. The first block to be finished should be ready for occupation in December and a sales campaign is underway. The campaign must contend with a generalised cultural antipathy to concrete and high-rise (brutalist, unsympathetic, inhuman scale, anti-individualist, un-English) and additional hostility from enemies of the “heritage industry” and opponents of gentrification.
When you go inside, you find yourself trying to imagine exactly what it would be like to live there when the fascination of the spectacular views begins to fade into dull familiarity. Storage space is minimal, so a spare and austere lifestyle would be an advantage. An occupant with acquisitive habits would rapidly come up against the limits of what could be accommodated in rooms of modest dimensions. The original room plans were designed to Parker Morris standards – practical for 1961 but incompatible with the world of home cinema, jumbo-size fridge-freezers, walk-in wardrobes and wet-rooms. These confined spaces will have little appeal for the young professional looking forward to rolling out a four-seater leather sofa and a runway sized coffee table in a city centre loft apartment. Perhaps there’s a developing market for Modernism as nostalgia – a place where the coarse texture of brutalism serves as a corrective to the dazzling surface gloss of corporate aggrandisement. Will the rectilinear Modernist rhythms of horizontal and vertical elements appear models of restraint when compared with the computer-designed formal travesties that tower over the Gulf states or the Shards and Gherkins to be found closer to home?