‘I love Park Hill because you always know when you’re home,” says Joanne Marsden. “When I come back on the train, I look up and think: ‘Wow, I’m here. I’ve made it.’” She’s talking about the colossal housing estate that stands on the hillside above Sheffield like a great concrete castle, where she was born in 1965 in her nan’s back bedroom. Her grandparents were among the first residents to move into the bold vision of 1,000 council flats when it opened in 1961, her grandad taking a job in the boiler house that heated the homes. Marsden got her own flat a few doors down when she had her first child, then moved out in the 90s when the family grew. But, after some time in London, she moved back here in 2015, into one of the newly refurbished flats in the first phase of the estate’s redevelopment.
“They modernised it and put bling on it,” she says, “but I can’t say it feels any better than what it were. It always felt good living here.”
Eighteen years after Sheffield city council sold the entire estate to the developer Urban Splash for £1, with the hope of seeing it refurbished in a few years, the project is about two-thirds of the way through. Almost scuppered by the 2008 financial crisis, and beset by funding problems ever since, the first phase opened in 2013; the second phase is nearly finished. It marks the completion of 450 flats, of which 20% are classed as affordable, as well as 356 student bedrooms in a third phase, which opened last year. The current state of the place – still completely derelict at one end, spruced up at the other – reads as a surreal diagram of how attitudes to postwar architecture have shifted over the years, and how an estate can be scrubbed up for sale in different ways.
Designed by the architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith when they were in their 20s, working at Sheffield council’s architects department, Park Hill was the jewel in the crown of the Labour authority’s housebuilding boom, a dazzling essay in “the new brutalism”. It was built on the site of a cleared slum, but rather than rehousing the residents in towers, the architects attempted to replicate the tightly packed grid of the area, with elevated streets stacked to form blocks that snaked down the hillside.
“It was amazing for playing out,” says Marsden. “We’d go up in the lift with our bikes, ride all the way along the street, then cycle down the hill through the middle of the estate, right back to the bottom. No matter what the weather was, you could always play out because of the covered streets.”
As well as providing a fun vertical playground, the “streets in the sky” were an ingenious way of dealing with the sloping site, so you could access any floor of the building from ground level at different points on the hillside (sadly no longer the case, with access confined to a central entrance). It might look like an intransigent megastructure, but the blocks have totally different characters, as the frame adapts to the context like a concrete chameleon. At the top of the hill, it’s the scale of low-rise terrace housing, while by the time it reaches the bottom it becomes a 14-storey cliff face, the roofline remaining a constant height throughout.
With a butcher and baker, doctor and dentist, as well as community centre, creche, primary school and four pubs, it was conceived as a self-sufficient hillside hamlet. “We had it all,” says Marsden. “You didn’t have to go into town for anything.” It became famous throughout the world: a 1962 book, Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield, documenting the council’s programme, was published in English, French and Russian.
The story of what happened next is well told, if not always accurately. The collapse of the Sheffield steel industry in the 1980s, aided by Margaret Thatcher’s onslaught, saw mass unemployment, with many dumped in Park Hill with no choice in the matter. What had been a source of intense municipal pride became branded a sink estate, the elevated streets synonymous with muggings, drug addicts and an easy getaway for burglars. People saw it as a no-go area, a place of no hope. But that’s not how Marsden remembers it.
“It wasn’t a no-go area at all,” she says. “That was just what people who had never been here said. You talked to anybody who lived here and they didn’t fear nowt. You could walk through the landings at any time of day and it was fine.” The dodgy reputation, she thinks, “was engineered to get us out of there so they could redevelop it. It was a time when people wanted access to inner-city living and they realised how valuable the site was.”
Had it not been listed by English Heritage in 1998, Park Hill would almost certainly have been demolished. A second similar estate nearby, Hyde Park, was partly flattened in the 90s, its remnants horribly clad like a fridge, while a third scheme, Kelvin Flats, was erased completely.
“We were the only ones stupid enough to take it on,” says Tom Bloxham, the founder of Urban Splash. He is sitting in the vegan cafe that now occupies one of Park Hill’s ground floor commercial units, dressed in a black Prada x Adidas tracksuit, with a matching hat. “When I first looked at the place online, I thought: ‘Fucking hell, that looks like a disaster,’” he recalls. “From the outside, it looked really crap. But as you get inside it, you see there is this object of beauty.”
He was wooed by what residents had enjoyed for decades: the fact that every flat is double aspect; each has its own balcony and views on to green space; every one faces south. “And it has better space standards than modern so-called ‘luxury’ flats,” he adds, exceeding the now defunct Parker Morris minimum space standards even before they were adopted in the 60s.
But fixing it up hasn’t been straightforward. The project had to be rescued from the jaws of the 2008 financial crisis with a £39m injection of public funding, which saw the first phase completed in 2013. Then Urban Splash had to be bailed out by the regeneration giant Places for People, with which it formed a joint venture to complete the second phase, while the student housing provider Alumno took over the third. The fourth phase, which includes a big arts centre at ground level, has planning permission, but funding remains up in the air.
The first block received a mixed reception: it was nominated for the Stirling prize, but purists were aghast. Following Historic England’s “squint test” principle (that it should still be recognisable as Park Hill from a distance), everything was ripped out except the concrete frame. The rhythm of the facade was inverted, so that what once had been window became wall, and vice versa, while the subtly toned brickwork was exchanged for shimmering aluminium cladding panels in eye-searing tones of bright yellow, red and orange. The work of architects Egret West and HawkinsBrown, it screams “Regeneration!” from every angle, a tutti-frutti billboard trumpeting the public-private asset transfer from the hilltop with garish glee.
“We had to do something radical,” says Bloxham. “The perception of the place was so bad back then, we had to make a big statement. It did the job it was supposed to do – it got people talking.” Almost a decade later, the second phase of work at Park Hill – joined to the first by a trio of bridges – couldn’t be more different. From a distance, it looks almost exactly as the day the building first opened. “It’s more like how you’d treat a listed Victorian house,” says Bloxham. “More subtle and sensitive.”
The brickwork has been cleaned, revealing that subtly coloured gradient from terracotta at the base, through ochre, to pale mustardy yellow bricks at the top floor, each level matched with coloured mortar. The window openings are where they were originally, only bigger and more thermally efficient. Step inside and the elevated streets feel as they once did, except the tarmac floor has been exchanged for a rubberised version, with geometric patterns cast in front of each front door, inspired by the 1970s lino doormats that residents laid outside their flats. A huge amount of work has been done to improve thermal performance, including insulating the exposed concrete beams inside the flats, after thermal imaging of the first phase revealed how much heat was being lost through the concrete frame – which can’t be clad externally, due to the listed status.
“We wanted to keep as much of the building as we possibly could,” says Annalie Riches, of Mikhail Riches architects, the firm that won the 2019 Stirling prize for its pioneering low-energy social housing in Norwich. “I loved the brick from the beginning – it kind of humanises the structure, as something that’s been laid by hand. And it was in really good nick, with not a single crack.” It was a battle to convince both the developer’s project manager (“Who would want to move into the old brick one when you’ve got the shiny one next door?”) and Historic England, which wanted the estate to read as a whole. But thankfully the architects persisted.
Their argument for a light-touch approach was aided by the words of Grenville Squires, who was caretaker at Park Hill for 28 years. “I think of her as an elderly lady who’s fallen on hard times,” he said of the building, when refurbishment first began. “She just wants to wash her face and put on a new frock.”
While the first phase went all out with the neon makeup, Mikhail Riches has given the grande dame a more dignified makeover, with some subtle flourishes of their own. On their site visits, the architects noticed how residents used to personalise their flats by painting the brick walls outside their balconies – highlighting the individual lives within the bigger uniform grid. At the same time, they realised they would need to insulate these exposed brick walls. One observation informed the other, leading to a solution of coloured render, in 13 shades of lilac, blue and green, lining the flanks of the recessed balconies. The result is a subtle optical trick, recalling the colouring of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation: from straight on, it looks like Park Hill always has, but, from the sides, you can make out the individual homes.
Juggling the internal plans, meanwhile, turned out to be a fiendishly complex jigsaw puzzle, given that no two units are the same. “We thought we had four flat types to work with,” says Riches. “But it turned out to be 37.” Ivor Smith, one of Park Hill’s original architects, had always regretted not designing windows facing on to the raised streets, as the lack of overlooking was blamed for antisocial behaviour, but the load-bearing structure makes it impossible to cut new openings. Instead, the architects have cleverly inserted a thin vertical window next to each front door, complete with little shelves on which the new residents have already started displaying their possessions.
A neat row of pot plants in the window greets visitors to the home of Craig De Gouveia, a South African software engineer, who moved into one of the new flats in January. “I’m into brutalism, and I was attracted by the ethos of the original development,” he says. “The ceilings are quite low by modern standards, but you get so much natural light up here, as well as amazing views across the city.”
How does he feel about buying a flat that was built as council housing? “There’s obviously a sense of guilt that comes with it, and the conflicts of any area being regenerated,” he says. “But otherwise it would probably be derelict or knocked down. At least it’s preserved something meaningful.”
Urban Splash insists that every former council tenant was offered the right to return to Park Hill, but, given that they had been rehoused elsewhere for a decade, few took up the offer. Rules in the tenancy agreement forbidding the homes’ newly raw concrete walls to be painted also put some tenants off, banned from recreating their cosy nests of magnolia and Anaglypta.
“I don’t buy this nostalgic thing of the good old days when it was all social housing,” says Bloxham. “To make a place work you need to bring multi-tenure, you need to bring mixed uses, you need to bring change.”
At the top of the hill stands the future final phase, the last block to be “decanted” of its tenants a few years ago, which is still technically in council ownership. It is encircled with a construction hoarding, emblazoned with the words: “We were never derelict”, from a poem by Sheffield’s young poet laureate, Otis Mensah, ironically commissioned to celebrate the regeneration. “Just displaced and out of sight,” it continues. “Carrying home inside us / When home they tried to break.”
It’s a damning assessment of the council’s neglect of this public asset, but one that should be a call to arms. With more than 20,000 people on the city’s council housing register, Sheffield could take this final flank of homes on for itself and restore them to their original status – a monument to what the welfare state can do, and a beacon of municipal pride.