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Brutalist Architecture: Park Hill Flats in Sheffield

Rob is an avid traveller and a keen photographer who showcases his work on Flickr and sells his images through Adobe Stock and Shutterstock.

Post-war Building Boom

The second world war was a hugely destructive phase in human history and it left a physical scar across towns and cities throughout the world. In the UK, large parts of inner-city areas were reduced to rubble. The years following the Second World War also led to a baby boom and those in power in the 1950's looked to the future. The past was now associated with decay and destruction and plans were being made for a brighter, peaceful future. The decrepit living conditions that were a hangover of the Victorian period were no longer tolerated. A huge rebuilding programme was enacted across the country. New Towns were created offering generous green spaces, cleaner air away from the factories and polluted cities.

Victorian slum houses were cleared in their thousands, and land was assembled to build new settlements. Whilst much hope and focus was placed on these New Towns however, there was also a pressing need to provide new housing for the millions of people living in the existing towns and cities: places that had been decimated by the war years.

Park Hills Flats in Sheffield, UK

Park Hills Flats in Sheffield, UK

Building the Community of Tomorrow

These post-war years saw young, idealistic and aspirational architects and planners given opportunities to introduce new ideas: ideas that represented a break from the past and embraced the future. Cars were becoming more popular and it was generally accepted in the middle of the twentieth century that cars were the future and that they would soon be the defacto mode of transport for people. As a result, architects started to plan buildings that turned their backs to the street and placed public spaces above ground. The streets were given to the cars and 'streets in the sky' were created for the exclusive use of people.

New blocks of flats, such as Park Hill in Sheffield, and later, Hulme Crescents in Manchester, introduced what was known as 'deck access': linear corridors lined with the front doors of individual flats. At Park Hill, these linear corridors were designed to be not only wide enough that children could play their games, but wide enough even for the milk float to drive along and deliver milk to the residents. This was made possible due to the topography of the land upon which the housing is built. The ground slopes and so whilst the blocks appear to maintain the same roof level they are actually varying heights. A milk float could drive onto a corridor at ground level but as the ground slopes downwards it be driving long the first floor, then the second floor and so on.

Refurbished section of Park Hill Flats for private sale

Refurbished section of Park Hill Flats for private sale

Facilitating a sense of community was an important part of the architects' vision. Park Hill was built to contain a total of 995 flats, fronting on to the aforementioned linear corridors where residents could socially interact, and where children could supposedly play safely outside their front doors, but social and community infrastructure was also accommodated within the blocks. This included a Doctors' surgery; a nursery; 31 shops; and 3 pubs. The design of the blocks - long and linear - also meant that plentiful green space was provided around the building.

A Brutalist Icon

Park Hill Flats was built in the brutalist architectural style which was part of the international modernism movement. A number of internationally-renowned architects are known for their brutalist works. These include: Le Corbusier - probably the most famous of all; Marcel Brewer; Mies Van Der Rohe; Moshe Saide; Erno Goldfinger; and The British couple, The Smithsons.

The vision for the Park Hills Flats was one of the architects Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn who worked for the Sheffield City Architect, J.L. Womersly. This was a team of enthusiastic modernists, keen to implement their architectural vision for a new future. Womersley himself was an early proponent of the Radburn Design for new housing developments. Many New Towns and new housing estates of the 1960's and 1970's were built to this design ethos, yet by the 1990's this had seriously fallen out of favour, with many such estates suffering from crime and anti-social behaviour and management and maintenance issues.

Part of the site still to be refurbished

Part of the site still to be refurbished

Buildings built in the brutalist style have had their detractors ever since they were built and they are often much-maligned today. The raw concrete frames and lack of decoration are uncompromising and can be seen as harsh, inhuman and quite simply ugly. The problem with these major housing projects of the mid-twentieth century isn't necessarily the architectural style but more often the issues lie in the often poor build-quality and the lack of on-going maintenance. In the years that followed the completion of Park Hill and other grandiose municipal housing projects such as Hulme Crescents in Manchester, the public sector budgets were susceptible to swingeing cuts from the Central Government. Without the funds to adequately maintain the structures, and the funds to deal with the socio-economic problems experienced by some residents, places like Park Hill deteriorated quickly, both architecturally and socially.

The Beton: part of the site refurbished into student accommodation

The Beton: part of the site refurbished into student accommodation

A Short Life

From its completion in 1961, and an initial positive reception when it first opened (the Council even produced a glossy booklet, boasting of the merits of the development which it was confident would be of interest to architects and planners around the world: in fact, the booklet was reproduced in several languages), within only 30 years the development was forced to be mothballed.

However, rather than facing the wrecking ball, as was the case with the Hulme Crescents, the complex was granted Grade II* listed status in 1998, thereby effectively protecting it from demolition.

Active frontages

Active frontages

Restoration and Rebirth

Whilst the structure was, thankfully, protected, as a result of the recognition of Park Hill Flats as a classic example of brutalist architecture, and for it's role as a landmark both in terms of its place in the Sheffield built environment but also as a landmark in municipal housing, it was some time before the necessary investment could be secured to halt further decline and lead to a full restoration.

This investment was finally found when British developer, Urban Splash, took on the building in 2009. In the years since, the developer has brought several wings of the building back into use in the form of student accommodation (in a development branded as Beton House) and a mix of homes for private sale and social rent. It has been quite the undertaking and has taken well over a decade, but the final wings are estimated to be fully refurbished and occupied by the middle of the decade.

Park Hill Flats: A brutalist icon

Park Hill Flats: A brutalist icon

Further Reading

  • The Redevelopment of Birmingham City Centre
    A look at some of the recent changes to the built environment in Birmingham, a city that is trying to shake off its tag of being an ugly concrete city with wide roads, dull architecture and a lack of attractive spaces for walking and cycling.
  • Modernist Architecture in Manchester
    This is an introduction to some of the finest examples of modernist architecture in Manchester from the peak 'modernism' period of the 1960s. At various times, these buildings have been derided for their ugliness; but in recent years, there has been
  • Top 10 Brutalist Buildings Still Standing in the UK
    Here, we take a look at some of the finest examples of brutalist architecture built in the UK during the mid-20th-century modernist period. We'll examine 10 iconic buildings that span two decades between 1958 and 1978 which have managed to escape the

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Robert Clarke

Comments

Robert Clarke (author) from UK on August 31, 2021:

Hi Eurofile, I think some of these brutalist buildings that have been unpopular can be repurposed and admired by future generations. With the climate emergency I think there's now less of a threat of demolition given the huge amount of embedded carbon in concrete buildings. It makes more sense to refurbish than it does to demolish and build something new. That's what we're starting to see in Manchester anyway.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 31, 2021:

The post war building boom certainly threw up some unpopular designs. I first came across brutalist architecture when I did a review of the Intercontinental hotel in Prague. It has since been taken on by another hotel chain and refurbished.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 31, 2021:

This is a very interesting article, Robert. I have to say I do not like this type of architecture. There many facts in your article that were new to me, so I enjoyed reading it.

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