11:21am Thursday 10th September 2009
EVERYONE has an opinion on architecture and post-war housing encourages some extreme views.
Britain was re-building in the 1950s and the powers that be, rightly or wrongly, encouraged brutalism in public housing.
As such they marketed massive developments such as the Park Hill Estate in Sheffield as a quick-fix Utopian dream. Dream or nightmare? The debate still goes on.
This illuminating little film, narrated by the likeable and amusingly named Tom Dyckhoff, pitches both sides of the argument and it’s hard not to conclude that the likes of Park Hill were well-intentioned and, to a degree, successful.
Sadly though, whether or not such projects could work in 2009 is another issue altogether.
At the time of its building, many people were living in prefabs after having been made homeless by the war-time bombings and slum clearances taking place. So up went the towers and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said 300,000 homes would be built every year.
Park Hill, built on the hills of Sheffield, climbed up to 13 storeys at its highest and housed an incredible 13,000 people.
The architects used Le Corbusier as an inspiration for this industrial mass of concrete, with little thought for art. But it worked.
The streets in the sky enabled the working classes to live in the city rather than be shipped out to the suburbs, as happens now.
There were shops, estate pubs and a community centre. The media flocked to look at the homes of the common people.
Former resident Joyce Dyson went back for the first time since the 1960s and was visibly moved: “It was a real community and it was wonderful.”
“It’s like being in heaven up here,” one resident told the TV presenter on the opening of the estate. I hope not!
“It looks a lot better than the estates. They are just rows of houses. This is modern,” another said.
Sadly, cheap imitations built in other cities and Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of ‘right to buy’ meant many people moved on from their council homes, mostly replaced by the homeless and dependant.
Lifts were broken, shops and pubs closed, the drug dealers moved in and the short-term tenants had less love for the place than their predecessors.
The nickname Utopia was replaced by St Quentin, with the estate’s only hope of survival coming in the shape of English Heritage, who listed the building in the 1980s.
Salvation comes with Urban Splash, who have gutted the interior of the estate, but kept the listed shell, though sadly less than half the properties will go to the removed council tenants of Park Hill.
For some reason councils these days don’t have the money they had in the 1950s and have to rely on developers to fund such projects.
At least Park Hill is being recycled and, as a piece of graffiti on a link bridge there says: “I love you, will you marry me?”
Dyckhoff rightly says this controversial development pushed Britain forward in the 1950s and, as such, lessons should be learned and Park Hill deserves a second chance.
I think he’s right. What building would you save?
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