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The colour of controversy
Amy Knight

Continued... Issues of security, which had been a serious concern, have been addressed through architectural strategies: “At ground level the structure of the building has been opened to break the sense of ghetto. Ground level commercial units commit to a future of true mixed-uses. The entrance has more clarity and now the famous streets in the sky can only be accessed through a secure lobby. The landscape has been completely re-thought to anchor the building to its setting and to extend links with the city, the railway station and the tram.”

Last Saturday, the first 52 apartments went on sale at £90,000 per property. While there will be a total of around 900 residential units, the developers are also encouraging businesses such as cafes and retail outlets to set up camp by including a portion of commercial units. This first renovated block, or ‘Phase One’, faces the city directly to give an instant impact of the building’s transformation to the rest of Sheffield, with its former brick infill panels replaced by metal panelling in fade-resistant red, orange and yellow.

Encouragingly for the developers, there has already been strong interest from businesses and potential residents, and original architect Ivor Smith has reportedly given his seal of approval to the new design. Writing for UK newspaper The Guardian, Peter Walker even suggests that the project could ‘indicate a possible wider shift in public opinion towards such post-war schemes.’

Yet while its makeover has been welcomed by inhabitants of the estate and by Sheffield’s wider community, critics argue that the new development elevates the widening gap between classes that contradicts the socialist premise on which the estate was originally built. Also writing for The Guardian, critic Owen Hatherley goes so far as to suggest that it’s a form of ‘class cleansing’, using public money ‘that might have been better spent renovating the place for those who already lived there.’ Hatherley argues that residents are only welcoming the change because it is ‘at least something’ as an

 

alternative to literally leaving it to fall apart.

Many critics have also drawn comparisons between Park Hill and London’s coveted arts centre, the Barbican; both started as emblems of brutalism and socialist pride but, because the Barbican has always been private it doesn’t have that ‘unpicturesque’ association with council residents, and therefore apparently doesn’t need ‘regenerating’. Comparisons have also been made with the Shard; conceived during a greedy economy, it is now perceived as an inappropriate monument to excessive wealth; an unwelcome shadow of the reckless boom period piercing London’s skyline, embedding in the UK’s collective consciousness the uneasy gap between the super-rich and the socially marginalised.

Having been ‘decanted’, many tenants have registered their interest in returning to the estate. Yet concerns have arisen due to the fact that the ‘social units’ that will be available to them consist of less than a third of the block – not enough space to accommodate them all. While the new sections are priced at a relatively reasonable £90,00, this is a cost that original tenants are unlikely to be able to afford. Opposition Liberal Democrat councillors have also expressed fears that there might not be enough money left to finish the development after Phase One, meaning there could be only 56 flats left available to council tenants - working out at £696,000 of taxpayers’ money per property.

Approaching the issue from an entirely different perspective, preservers of twentieth-century British heritage The Twentieth Century Society (TTCS) have criticised the project for too heavily changing Park Hill’s original appearance. Director of TTCS Catherine Croft points out that the respect for preserving older heritage buildings does not seem to have been applied in this case, stating: “It’s early days to tell if it will be a social success - I hope very much it will be - but it’s not a conventional ‘conservation’ success… Everything except the concrete frame was stripped out and thrown away. New concrete balustrades have been recast to a redesigned profile with a chunky timber handrail on top, the famous ‘streets in the sky’ are a new width... Large areas of floor-to-ceiling glazing and coloured aluminium panels replace the subtly toned brickwork and original windows of the façades. All these are very major changes, any one of which would have been very controversial on any listed building of an earlier date.”

However, its architects and developers argue that it was necessary to completely revamp the building in order to overcome its ingrained negative associations. As Egret suggests: “From far away, the new anodised aluminium panels give a new shimmer to the iconic silhouette of Sheffield. This transformation should mean that Park Hill will in time become part of Sheffield. It will be a place that people choose to go to

 

for work or play and aspire to live in: city living in a park with the best views of Sheffield and the surrounding hills!” Jonathan Falkingham from Urban Splash also states: "The largest listed building in Europe had been left deteriorating for far too long, so it’s with great pride that we can bring it back to life. We have been working on the scheme for a number of years and in that time have taken it from a dilapidated structure to somewhere that people can live, work and play.” He goes on to claim that the original design is respected, yet taken to necessarily new levels: “We have developed a scheme which serves the demands of contemporary occupiers, with high design standards, light and space, whilst acknowledging the deep-rooted heritage of the scheme by reinvigorating the imposing concrete structure and adding bright coloured panels in lieu of original coloured brick work.”

Critic Rowan Moore defends the decision to completely revamp the building: “The original building was never supposed to be frozen, but open to accident and circumstance, and it now registers both its original intentions and its recent changes,” and even Croft agrees that this was going to be inevitable: “Park Hill faced total demolition. Its reputation as a sink estate and a refurbishment problem case was so strong it would not have survived in any form without a radical reinvention—Park Hill has been remade and vastly altered, not conserved.”

While in terms of heritage conservation it may not be considered the most desirable outcome, there are no straightforward answers as to how buildings such as this should be dealt with. Simultaneously pointing out the project’s positive attributes, Croft emphasises the fact that this is an issue that needs to be seriously addressed, with new strategies implemented for similar cases in the future: “The newly refurbished parts of Park Hill look and feel very glamorous... The flats feel wonderfully light and have fabulous views, but they have very little sense of connection with the Park hill of the past. The big questions that remain unanswered are: will there be a market for what it now offers, and will the whole estate be completed before the new interventions look dated? Having started, I hope they will finish. But in ten years’ time I hope a whole different strategy will be possible elsewhere.”

Amy Knight
Editorial

Editorial


 
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