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Architecture | Topics | Magazine 4/2013

Northern English Housing Solution: Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Park Hill is the largest listed building complex in Europe. Towering above Sheffield railway station, the housing estate dominates the once proud British industrial city, the level roof line of the four- to thirteen-storey buildings adapting to the hilly landscape like a great big crown. At the time of its completion in 1961, the brutalist construction containing 995 council flats was praise – not only by architects – as a symbol of a new beginning, a modern and ambitious model for future housing developments, and a showcase project of a large housing programme.

Architects: Hawkins\Brown, London; Studio Egret West, London
Location: Park Hill, GB–S2 5PN Sheffield

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

View of Park Hill from across the tracks. Photograph: Thomas Madlener

Inspired by Le Corbusier as well as by Alison and Peter Smithson, the monumental construction offered multi-storey apartments in narrow meandering structures oriented to both sides, with lots of light, cross ventilation and extensive views across the city. Park Hill had shops and laundrettes, a nursery school, a police station and four pubs. The access routes on every third floor, known as "streets in the sky", were named after the former streets in the neighbourhood demolished to make way for Park Hill. They were intended to be meeting places, spaces encouraging the development of a sense of community and social life of the residents.

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Photograph: Daniel Hopkinson

Like the whole city, the initially popular estate experienced a continuous decline between the 1970s and 80s. With increasing neglect, the complex soon became a sinkhole for social ills. Had it not been listed, Park Hill would probably have been demolished. Both traditionalists and politically motivated opponents denounced the complex as a highly visible eyesore, as well as blatant evidence of the failure of housing based on social democratic policies.

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Before revitalisation (2008). Photograph: Keith Collie

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Before revitalisation (2008). Photograph: Keith Collie

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Stripped to the concrete frame. Photograph: Keith Collie

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Before revitalisation (2008). Photograph: Keith Collie

The conservation authority decided that only the concrete frame should be retained and an investor bought the grounds for a symbolic pound. So far, the northernmost and tallest part, a double-kinked ten- to thirteen-storey structure has been dismantled down to the supporting shell, followed by elaborate renovation of the board-formed concrete.

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Stripped to the concrete frame (2009). Photograph: Keith Collie

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Stripped to the concrete frame (2009). Photograph: Keith Collie

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Stripped to the concrete frame (2009). Photograph: Keith Collie

The deliberate change in image, driven by the political and social environment as well as the marketing plans for the now mostly privately financed apartments, is clearly apparent in the new façades. The original white lattice windows between brick infill panels ranging from dark brown on the ground floor to ochre under the roof, have been replaced by large areas of glass and movable anodized aluminium panels in deep red at the bottom brightening to lemon yellow at the top.

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Renovated structure next to an original part. Photograph: Thomas Madlener

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Renovated structure next to an original part. Photograph: Thomas Madlener

To make the bedrooms lighter, the window-to-wall ratio was reversed in the north and east, with the proportion of glass now at 66%. Leaner concrete parapets with finer surfaces and pleasant-to-touch wooden handrails have replaced the old balustrades.

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Foto: Daniel Hopkinson

The fundamental structure – with the typical basic element of triaxial and three-storey "clusters" with apartments set on two floors, as well as walkways on every third floor – hasn't changed. Undisputed qualities, such as apartments with natural cross ventilation also safe at night, living rooms oriented to the west or south, and at least one balcony, were also retained. Changes included more open and spacious floor plans and intentional visibility of specific interior concrete surfaces.

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Show apartment. Photograph: Peter Bennett

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Show apartment. Photograph: Peter Bennett

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Show apartment. Photograph: Peter Bennett

A new four-storey recess creates a representative central portal, flanked by mirrored helical external escape stairs and fully glazed lifts offering views of the cityscape. To make Park Hill a lively destination, the lower floors will offer a selection of generously glass-fronted units across one-and-a-half to three storeys, intended for shops, studios, cafés, bars and restaurants along the newly designed outdoor areas.

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Foto: Keith Collie

In a few years, the completely revitalised complex should offer 874 attractive apartments, with 240 of these subsidised to varying degrees. Although this will increase occupant diversity, the lost proportion of funded housing will not be replaced elsewhere. This is however a political rather than an architectural decision.

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

The new entrance. Photograph: Thomas Madlener

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Mirrored escape stairs and glazed lifts, Photo: Daniel Hopkinson

A detailed documentation of the project in print can be found in DETAIL 2013/4 focussing on "Refurbishment".

Park Hill Estate in Sheffield

Foto: Keith Collie

Further information
www.hawkinsbrown.com

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