Park Hill: What the most divisive building in Sheffield can teach us about design
The old system
Pre-war Park Hill was the worst slum in Sheffield. Densely populated with up to 400 people per acre, it consisted of two story back-to-back terraced houses with communal toilets and standpipes.
The residents were working class, doing shifts in the various steel works and cutlery factories across the city. Shifts were long and the working conditions were dangerous. It was a time of hardship, death rates and infant mortality rates were high.
A report in 1936 by the city’s Planning Officer raised issues of housing density, inadequate light and air, existing services, and proposed a redevelopment.
But throughout the Park Hill area there was a real sense of neighbourliness. There was a community spirit, people would work together to help each other. Often neighbours would pull up a chair outside their front doors and engage in friendly conversation.
It took a number of years for plans to finally be put into action, partly down to the outbreak of WWII. But in 1951 The Festival of Britain ignited the nation’s appetite for improvement. People, and the Government were looking to the future.
At this time Sheffield council had housing targets to meet, but perhaps due to the mood of the time they also made quality of life a priority for the project.
Two young Modernist architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, were appointed in 1953 to work on behalf of Sheffield’s housing committee to design the Park Hill development. They believed architecture had the power to solve society’s problems.
“This optimism was infectious. In these post-war years hopes were high, and in almost every area, in health, education, social services and housing, there was a real concern to build, if not a brave new world, at least a better Britain” — Ivor Smith, Architect, Park Hill
Lynn and Smith were partly inspired by the architect Le Corbusier. Throughout his career as architect and urban planner he was dedicated to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities. He worked throughout Europe, one of his most famous examples is the Brutalist style Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, France, which was completed in 1952, just a year before the team were assigned to Park Hill. The young architects were impressed with the robustness of this building.
It was claimed the plans for Park Hill were “a product of a close study of working-class life by [the architects] who sought to reproduce the safe and sociable streets of the past.”
As well as researching the design and social aspects of the architecture, there were also considerable construction issues in this location. The topography of the site was varied; high and steep in places.
This constraint informed the plans however; the design implemented a consistent horizontal roof line with blocks ranging in height from four storeys to thirteen. The open spaces between the blocks become progressively larger as the height of the buildings increases towards the north, to ensure the maximum amount of light and air.
Due to the size of project the fundamental design also need to be scalable to ensure construction was achievable. The individual dwellings were based on a framework of units, repeated through the block. This pattern provided two single level dwellings and two maisonettes, giving consistency, which meant construction to be complete much faster, but also a variety of accommodation size.
Lynn and Smith were able to align the practical design to the concept for the entire development; the ’Streets in the sky’. The goal being to retain the community environment and cater for the displaced families from the slums.
“Old neighbours were housed next to each other, former street names were re-used, even the cobbles of the old terraced streets were used to pave the pathways to the city.”
“…’streets’ within the building along which prams can be pushed and milk trolleys wheeled. Being covered from the weather and free from vehicular traffic they form ideal places for daily social intercourse — for the conversation of adults and for small children’s play. The deck can, in fact, be considered as an extension of the dwelling so far as children are concerned.” — J. L. Womersley, Sheffield City Council Architect
Park Hill finally opened in 1961. Living in Park Hill was desirable, tenants were happy, the walkways were used as intended, the milkman brought his milk on his float, children played. Because the development considered the community, it was able to achieve its goals. The community thrived.
The speed of completion and cost were singled out as sources of much civic pride. The architecture industry recognised these success in 1962 honouring Park Hill with the Good Design in Housing and Royal Institute of British Architects awards.
“Everybody seemed to get on with their neighbours and there was a strong bond between families and the friends I made there I regarded as friends for life… We all stuck together and looked after each other and felt safe.”
The design of the buildings directly influenced and encouraged the development of strong social ties between its residents. And for 10 to 15 years the community flourished.
However, in the 1970s and 80s the development started to suffer from a lack of maintenance and the flats fell into disrepair. Social problems involving drugs and prostitution took hold.
It could be argued that the design which had been previously celebrated, contributed to the decline. “Poor noise insulation, badly lit walkways and plenty of passages and alleys made perfect getaways for muggers.”
“Shame they were left to run down and all the old families moved away.”
So what caused this? How did the project turn from success to failure? Was the design wrong?
I believe the issue lies with understanding changing needs, and reacting to them.
When you design for human needs you are designing for irrational, emotional, and transitional beings. Fixed requirements will inevitably change, leading to the solution no longer being truly successful.
It’s also important to have a champion of the project. In the case of Park Hill the changes in Government and the impact of the financial difficulties of that period meant the local council were not prioritising the upkeep of the development. No one was championing long term success.
But in 1998 there shone a glimmer of hope when English Heritage awarded a Grade II listing status to Park Hill for its “architectural importance, its ground-breaking use of ‘streets in the sky’ and its impressive scale”, making it Europe’s largest listed building.
This protected the core framework of the building. In 2007 Urban Splash began redevelopment of the flats, modernising them and meeting new requirements.
It’s been controversial at times, but the City has embraced Park Hill as a local landmark and celebrates it’s design. You see many prints and illustrations of the iconic structure at local creative fairs and galleries.
There are clear analogies with the story of Park Hill to the digital design projects I’ve been involved in.
Having a good brief is a start, with backing and support from the project sponsors. Understanding the technical constraints you might have to work with. Knowing what is feasible will inform the design greatly and ensure the end goal is achievable. And don’t forget a good platform or framework to underpin the whole endeavour.
But crucially, to be successful over time a design needs to do three things:
- Have clear goals — what does success look like and how can it be measured?
- Understand its users — what are the needs of the people who will be ultimately using the product.
- Be maintained and supported — react to changing needs and optimise for continued success.
Streets in the Sky: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Jr83Z9k5Zc&feature=youtu.be
The Park Hill Estate, Sheffield: ‘Streets in the sky: https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/the-park-hill-estate-sheffield-streets-in-the-sky/
Park Hill, Sheffield: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Park_Hill,_Sheffield
Park Hill, Sheffield: continuity and change: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/society/park-hill-sheffield-continuity-and-change
Transcript of a lecture given by Ivor Smith, at the School of Architecture, University of Sheffield, 2008: http://www.urbansplash.co.uk/documents/080424_Ivor_lecture.pdf
Park Hill Housing Project (c.1962): https://vimeo.com/75012877
Streets in the Sky a Dozen Perspectives: http://www.futureheritage.org.uk/parkhill/?p=244
Urban Splash: http://www.urbansplash.co.uk/residential/park-hill
Park Hill Regeneration: https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/in-your-area/regeneration/your-neighbourhood/park-hill.html
Park Hill’s history: http://www.bbc.co.uk/southyorkshire/content/articles/2007/03/07/park_hill_feature.shtml
Park Hill and Hyde Park Study guide, Sheffield Libraries Archives and Information, 2010: PDF document