Park strife

10 Oct 2011

Colourful rejuvenation of council estate proves an uphill struggle

They may look innocent enough, but the brightly coloured panels adorning the façade of a UK building have become the symbols of widespread controversy. The colourful regeneration of Park Hill, a 60s council housing estate in Sheffield, UK that had fallen into disrepair, is proving a contentious subject. With roots firmly in the era of post-war brutalism, the inherent political implications of the building are inevitably rising to the surface as its transformation begins to take shape.

A vast grey mass - once coined ‘the ugliest building in Europe’ - that has overlooked the city of Sheffield from its hilltop location for exactly half a century, Park Hill has deeply ingrained social and political ties that extend far beyond its concrete façade. And in this era of new austerity, its £100m renovation is awakening polemic opinions, not only about the project itself, but the issues of class divides, social tensions and the future of council housing in the UK that it raises.

Designed in the late 1950s by young modernists Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn, with completion in 1961, there were high hopes for this new housing block as a symbol of socialist pride, reflected in the optimistic and well-considered design, with its ‘streets in the sky’, its gradually reduced storey levels to attractively counterbalance the hill’s incline, and the positive community feel amongst its long-staying residents. However, it gradually began to decline - due in part to poor maintenance and the use of the streets-in-the-sky as a convenient zone for criminal activity - becoming an area to avoid by the 1980s. In 1998 it was declared Grade II listed by English Heritage, becoming protected from demolition with limited possibilities for renovation.

Now, as part of a seven-year project, developers Urban Splash and architects Studio Egret West, Hawkins Brown and Grant Associates have taken on board the delicate challenge of regenerating this building whilst retaining the brutalist strength of its original design. Christophe Egret, co-founder of Studio Egret West describes their approach: “Park Hill has been repaired but also re-invented. The facade has kept its powerful grid but is now far more transparent. The flats are more open and light, refurbished to celebrate their raw functional elegance.” Issues of security, which had been a serious concern, have been addressed through architectural strategies ...more

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