Sheffield’s Park Hill: the tangled reality of an extraordinary brutalist dream

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Sheffield's Park Hill: the tangled reality of an extraordinary brutalist dream
he old and new blocks of the Park Hill estate stand side by side. // Photo: Paul Dobraszczyk
Sheffield's Park Hill: the tangled reality of an extraordinary brutalist dream
he old and new blocks of the Park Hill estate stand side by side. // Photo: Paul Dobraszczyk

To some, the redevelopment of Sheffield’s giant concrete housing estate is long overdue. To others, it represents nothing less than the ruin of the ideals upon which Britain’s welfare state is based

In 21st-century Britain, social housing estates – and particularly those described, usually pejoratively, as “brutalist” – serve as archetypal contemporary ruins. Artworks such as Laura Oldfield Ford’s Ferrier Estate picture them as decayed and dilapidated remnants of a former age now taken over by the creative class.

Even as many of these prefabricated concrete tower blocks have been demolished – usually in spectacular explosive-induced “blowdowns” – some have been reclassified as “unfinished” projects, or ones in need of updating to the new political landscape dominated by neoliberal capitalism.

Park Hill in Sheffield was the largest-scale application of the approach known as New Brutalism, characterised by an emphasis on massive scale, the use of unpainted concrete, and a concern for social cohesion in mass housing.

By the 1990s its 985 flats and “streets in the sky” – built from 1958 to 1961 by the architects Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn under the auspices of Lewis Womersley, the chief architect of Sheffield’s housing committee – had become known as a failure. Like so many others, it was equated by many with ugliness, social decay, drug use and family breakdown. []

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