I first heard of the Park Hill estate during my undergraduate environmental psychology classes in 1986. The architect’s, Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn’s, vision for a high rise estate to replace sprawling slums in the northern English city of Sheffield with “Streets in the Sky”. Streets in the sky would recreate the strengths of the communities which had flourished in the back to back slums and provide improved living conditions at a bargain price. Taking people out of small, damp, Victorian terraces where kids played in the streets and giving them streets in the sky with views over the city, inside toilets, covered walkways, balcony’s where children could play and neighbours could chat, with room for attractive open park land around the high rise buildings. Smith and Lynn’s designs were heavily influenced by Le Corbuiser’s Breton Brut as evident in his Marseilles Unité d’Habitation. Breton Brut became known in Britain as ‘Brutalism’, simple functional form. They wanted to build in a sense of neighbourliness into these functional spaces.
These changes were intended to improve the standard of living for people now living in a slum area locally know as ‘Little Chicago’ in the gangster era. The Park Hill estate was completed in 1961 with 995 flats that could house over two thousand people overlooking Sheffield city centre. Front doors opened to a 12 ft wide balcony, a street, that runs right across the estate over bridges between buildings. Milk floats could trundle from door to door along streets named the same asthose in the original slums they replaced. People that were neighbours in the slums were rehoused next to each other.
Worthy, admirable intentions
When built, the social ideal didn’t happen
The estate soon became known as Sheffield’s San Quentin. The failure of the original design vision has been blamed on many things including
- easy access routes for muggers
- poor sound insulation
- the streets being open to the inclement Sheffield weather
- the building’s ugliness
- the poverty of the occupants
In 1998 Park Hill became the largest grade 2 listed building in europe.
This centruy English Heritage, Urban Splash and Sheffield city council have been renovating Park Hill.
It’s difficult to tell from the publicity what is being changed to make the project work as a successful place to live this time. A recent BBC TV programme about the renovation focussed on English heritage’s aesthetic and structural requirements for preservation not mentioning any changes to the space aimed at improving the occupants expereince of living there. The programme made the vision appear less social that the original. So what will have changed since it first opened? It looks like the renovation will be
- It’s prettier with bright rainbow colours
- occupants will not all be council tenants, some will be home owners and some shared ownership. They will be a different socio-economic mix
- the streets will not be open to the Sheffield weather
- living there comes with the kudos of living in a classic listed building