The Park Hill housing project in Sheffield, U.K. has suffered a turbulent, roller-coaster ride since its completion in 1961. Now a listed building—the largest protected building in Europe in fact—Park Hill has been subject to scorn and adoration from politicians, architects, artists, musicians and residents. Park Hill is currently being renovated by developers, Urban Splash, who this month, announced that the project will finally be completed by 2022.
In 1945, British architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith began designing Park Hill; they drew from on Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation and Peter and Alison Smithson’s unbuilt ‘streets in the sky’ concepts. Upon completion, Park Hill had a warm reception, receiving praise from the likes of Reyner Banham along with positive articles in national newspapers such as The Telegraph, The Times and The Economist.
Writing for the Architectural Review in December, 1961, Banham said:
Park Hill seems to represent one of those rare occasions when the intention to create a certain kind of architecture happens to encounter a programme and a site that can hardly be dealt ‘with in any other way, and the result has the clarity that only arises when – as in the Villa Rotonda – aesthetic programme and functional opportunity meet and are instantly fused. But what Park Hill abundantly demonstrates is that there are other kinds of architectural clarity besides the Classical.
(Courtesy Sheffield History)
By the 1980s, however, the area had become notorious for attracting trouble. Flats had become rundown and Park Hill was synonymous with drugs and crime with this being down to a number of complex reasons including “poor management, deindustrialisation and better council housing stock in other areas of the city.” Sheffield City Council then decided to award the estate—as public housing projects are known in the U.K.—protective Grade II Listing status in 1997. The move proved controversial among locals and the general public alike.
Four years later, a bridge within the complex was infamously vandalized by a man only known as Jason (not this author.) His painted message of “I LOVE YOU WILL U MARRY ME,”* scrawled in white and visible for miles, stirred journalist Frances Byrnes to eulogize it as “love yelling at the top of its voice in an estate thought to be desolate.” Upon first sight of the message in 2001, estate caretaker Grenville Squires remarked: “How are we going to get that off?” Squires never found a way. Unbeknown to Jason, his work was later showcased at the 2006 Venice Biennale. Now, the vandalism-cum-artwork has found permanency through British architecture firms Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West. They’re working with Urban Splash to trace and illuminate the text with neon lighting.
Jason’s marriage proposal lives on. (Courtesy Hawkins/Brown Architects)
Cut to today: Urban Splash said that, after agreeing on a timeline with city officials, their ongoing work on Park Hill is due for completion in 2022. The work will continue with the gutting of the concrete structure and with the installation of new apartments. “This is great news for us and for Sheffield, we can now fulfill our ambitions for the project,” said Simon Gawthorpe, managing director of Urban Splash, who later added how the recession had caused delays to the project.
In 2013, work on Park Hill was one of six projects up for the RIBA Stirling Prize. Approximately 600 people now live and work in renovated Park Hill units and, by the project’s conclusion, the it will contain 210 apartments and 330 student housing units. Also funding the scheme are the Sheffield City Council, Great Places Housing Group, and national conservancy group Heritage England.
Inside one of the Park Hill apartments now. (Courtesy Hawkins/Brown Architects)
Despite Park Hill’s success, the Robin Hood Gardens estate in south east London has not enjoyed a similar fate. Designed by the Smithsons and built in 1972, the project saw the realization of the Smithson’s streets in the sky project (on their own terms). The building, however, even after campaign work from Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers, is due for demolition having been refused Listed status by Heritage England.
*For the record: Jason’s then lover, Clare Middleton, said yes but the couple didn’t marry, splitting a month later. More on the story can be found here.