Park Hill Estate

To what extent have the architectural tactics of Park Hill Estate hindered the social progression of the working class residents and in turn, how has this affected the way the regeneration is carried out today?

Abstract

Park Hill Redevelopment, located in the city of Sheffield, was designed by Jack lyn and Ivor Smith between 1957 and 1960 as a response to both the housing shortage from the War and accumulation of slums in the city. Yet what makes this building ‘controversial’ (Harman, R. & Minnis, J. (2004) is the radical approach it has taken to solve both the housing issue and social issue.

In this two-part essay, the first section investigates the extent architectural tactics of Park Hill Estate hindered the social progression of the working class residents. Whilst the estate’s social and organizational merits have been widely published and critiqued (Scoffham, E.R.1984:88), many of which have been positive, the essay aims to question the positive role the estate has played in solving the social problem. In order to do this, the general aims of the design and construction of the estate are identified as control, identity and community; from which the architectural tactics are justified. In a series of isolated studies of these architectural tactics, a further examination is carried on the method of application and the anticipated response of the residents. The investigation then turns as it examines how these same architectural features have fallen short of their goal.

The second part of the essay, investigates how the knowledge from the first part affects the current architectural tactics used for the renovation and regeneration of Park Hill Estate. This is treated in much the same way as the first part; a series of questions are put forward about the development’s plans for regeneration, which are then cross-examined against the original intentions of the estate.

The main source of reference is 10 years of housing in Sheffield, the 1962 Publication by the Housing Development Committee of the Cooperation of Sheffield. In this “sad book” (Hetherley, O. 2011:91) the ambitions and hopes of the estate are put across through a description of park, facilities, car parks, etc.

The investigation concludes by noting that architectural tactics have played a significant part in hindering the progression of the working class residents due to a lack of balance between the aims and its delivery, and in turn the current regeneration project to attempts to re-tune the existing architectural feature as well as providing a new set tactics.

Introduction

“It must be left to others-particularly the occupants-to judge to what extent the Architects have been successful in solving this social problem, but some of the photographs included in this brochure lead them to hope that they may at least have gone a little way along the road.”(The Housing Development Committee of the Cooperation of Sheffield (HDCCS), 1962:50)

The optimistic views (Hetherley, O. 2011:91) of Park Hill Estate’s rigorous, good-intended yet highly experimental design by the Housing Development Committee can be justified by the fact that, during a period of high demand for housing; resulting from the clearance of the previously chaotic and increasingly unsanitary slums (Hetherley, O. 2011:89, BBC 2013), and meeting the housing demand after the Second World War; this was one of the first large scale investments into a new radical form of high density, high rise housing (HDCCS, 1962:37). The scheme, designed by Jack Lyn and Ivor Smith, enticed itself as a proposition responding to the internal social conditions of the working class residents and ultimately, the external social class division. But the key to this claim is its attempt to ‘lead’ to this optimistic outlook, regardless of whether the architecture really did  help to solve the social class division or not.

Since the completion of the scheme, the estate has passed through a series of fluctuating but generally declining state (Hetherley, O. 2011:89), and whilst it is understandable to read Hanley (2007: ix) describing the current stigma associated with housing estates as a “sort of psycho-social bruise”, it is important not to lose focus and to be concerned specifically with the part that the architecture; as a product of the design process, has played in the overall story.

Through a re-examination of the architectural tactics used in the design of Park Hill, I intend to highlight three main aim of the scheme; control, identity and community. Whilst as response to the optimistic and perhaps overtly submissive review of the scheme by the Housing Development Committee, I endeavour to take a more critical approach by looking at how these exact architectural tactics and aims hindered rather than helped to solve the social class division.

The grade II listed building is currently in the process of being renovated and plan to accommodate a combination of homes, businesses and retail shops, which leaves us to question the current tactics taken on for this scheme and its implications on the original intention of resolving the social class division.

Part 1

Liminal spaces

‘Streets in the sky’

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Fig 1- “Crowded, haphazard and dismal living in the slums” (Greenwood, A. 2010)

Of the most notable architectural features of Park Hill Estate is the “street in the sky” analogy (Harman, R. and Minnis, J., 2004:211), this could not be denied. A visit to the estate will highlight the importance of these elevated streets on the scheme; Rows upon rows of open access balconies line the entire estate like threads (Nuttgens, P. and Weston, R. 2006:207). In order to understand the role of this analogy, one must look back at ‘street’ life on the slums (fig 1.Greenwood. A, 2010) ; for although lacking in basic needs such as water and sanitation, the slums also “harboured a social structure of friendliness and mutual aid” (Hetherley, O. 2011:89). A sense of community that the Lyn and Smith wanted to translate by “replicate (-ing) the tightly packed street life of the area in the air” (Hetherley, O. 2011:90). But this highly social community were also overcrowded and lacked structure (BBC 2013); the Architect’s task was to therefore extract the culture of the ‘streets’ whilst insuring that the facilitation of a basic organizational system that signifies the progression towards an improved living condition.

This progression is demonstrated in the design of the street; a generous 10 feet wide decking space is located on every third floor as access point into the resident’s home (HDCCS, 1962:42). Buildings with balcony access have existed well before the war (Scoffham, E.R. 1984:89), however to create such a wide decking, was a first and meant that it functioned as “social device” (Scoffham, E.R. 1984:89). A social device that was glorified through the reuse of old street names (BBC. 2008) and praised as a “place for daily social contact… (and) safe…play”(1962).

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Fig 2- ‘Street in the sky’ 

Yet, there seems to be a disjunction between the role of the ‘Streets in the sky’ and the spatial qualities of the space (fig 2. Webb, S. 2013). The use of repeated elements such as structural columns and doors emphasize the notion of single perspective view, and like a void, draws one to walk. The decks are described as a “promenade” (HDCCS, 1962:42) which suggests that it is a gentle, paced and therefore, controlled stroll. The overall spatial arrangement is similar to that of a church nave (Nuttgens, P. and Weston, R. 2006:71) which suggests the extent of control implied.

Moreover, the ‘streets’ also adopt a cinematic effect; the low level ceiling in relation to the width of the deck, means that a large portion of one’s vision is occupied/blocked off, creating a frame for a scene that is frozen in time. In this phantasmagorical space, one must pause, and act; walk up and down, converse with whomever they are with and casually look out towards the communal space whilst leaning on the balustrade (Heathcote, E. 2012:111). The setting of the ‘street’ facilitates a space for use but more significantly it dictates the manner in which this is done, leaving those who occupy the street with a set of further instructions on how to carry one’s self in this new life.

That spatial control of the elevated decks, defies the original aim to bring ‘street’ life of the slums because the flexibility required for cultivating and maintaining the culture no longer exists. Old neighbours from the slums were re-housed next to each other (BBC, 2008) which provided a good start to this “social device”, but as older residents passed away, they took “with them the traditions and spirit of the pre-war communities” (Kelly, S. 2011). This clearly demonstrates that the success of the ‘street’ was dependent on the inhabitants, the ‘street’ does not promote social progression but merely sustains a temporary social ‘state’.

Private Balcony

Whilst the ‘streets’ are associated with the public realm of the scheme, and are therefore more compelled to impose a sense of community, the balcony is a private one and does not feel the need to meet such a requirement.  In the context of modern architecture, the balcony is perceived as “an interface between man and nature” (Heathcote, E. 2012:113) a point in which the “private and quiet” (HDCCS, 1962:46) home presents itself to the outside but more importantly, this “liminal zone”(Heathcote, E. 2012:112) acts as intermediate buffering system that prepares the residents to outside world.

The private balcony of each dwelling in the Estate demonstrates its capacity as an intermediate buffering system by facilitating for the “child’s earliest play needs”. The balcony is sheltered and enclosed by walls from three sides and a balustrade in the opening which effectively provides a large and a safe room that prepares the child for the larger play areas on the ground level (HDCCS, 1962:42). Similarly, the dwelling recedes back from the face of the building, allowing the balcony to protect it from both the weather and equally as unpredictable, the public (Heathcote, E. 2012:111).

But, just as the balcony prepares the child by providing a visual connection with the ground level through the balustrade, the mature resident is provided with a visual connection that encourages and “facilitates a level of control over the street or piazza below” (Heathcote, E. 2012:111). The act of “watch(ing)” (Heathcote, E. 2012:111) is emphasised by the height of the balconies and gives those who watch a “commanding position” (Heathcote, E. 2012:111).

However, to watch suggests that there is something else that is being watched. Ironically, the private balconies of the estate are not facing the communal spaces but rather out towards the surrounding vehicular roads. This suggests that the balcony has an underlining role to allow residents to monitor the estate’s peripheries and entrance; an act that is sure to deter anyone from coming near the estate (Hetherley, O. 2011:92)

Plan

Lyn and Smith designed Park Hill as a single building that provided a combination of “accommodation and amenities” (HDCCS, 1962:42) in an effort to apply the visual theories of Ville Contemporaine (Scoffham, E.R.1984:79). Although the unrealised project was an urban one, the scheme shares many similarities in terms of the social issues it tackles such as density, circulation of people (and vehicles) and green spaces (Le Corbusier 1929:338). Through the layout and meticulous arrangement of services, the estate presents a “fresh notion of urbanity in housing” (Scoffham, E.R.1984:89) that justifies the ‘city’ or ‘village’ analogy.

Amenities

As part of translating the slum street life into the estate, the Architects worked on the existing layout to arrange the placement of the new amenities, choosing to keep the former district shopping street in its original location on the north and instead, to surround the new amenities such as school and community hall around it. The inclusion of amenities as part of the scheme shares similarities with Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation, which features a “kindergarten, swimming pool,(and) children’s playground…”(Scoffham, E.R.1984:57) this has in turn pushed forward ideas on creating a “setting for a ‘new society’” (Scoffham, E.R. 1984:58). Park Hill’s “ancillary activities” (HDCCS, 1962:42) are therefore, an operational strategy that aims at creating a strong sense of community between the residents (Sccoffham, E.R. 1984:111) and convenience associated with modern living.

The Shopping centre-named the ‘pavement’- (HDCCS, 1962:51) dedicated to the residents of Park Hill could be reached “under cover along the decks” (HDCCS, 1962:51); Residents can walk from the elevated streets along the ramps and bridges (that connect the individual blocks) to the heart of the estate’s amenities without the need to physically leave the building. This strong relationship between home and amenities emphasizes a sense of self-contained village (Scoffham, E.R. 1984:111). The small scale of the development makes it easy to familiarise one’s self with routes, views and other residents whilst the ‘pavement’ provides both shared place of trade between the residents and  a “meeting place for young and old” (HDCCS, 1962:51).  It is apparent that the estate’s community is harboured in the heart of the estate; amenities.

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Fig 3- The ‘Pavement’ shopping high street

Providing facilities that are specific to the estate helped to create a sense of community amongst the residents, but this has also heighten the gap between the working class residents of Park Hill and the non-residents. Physical division of amenities results in fewer interaction, and just as a child is provided with a place “where he can play in safety” (HDCCS, 1962:42), the residents are cocooned and protected by the concrete pillars lining the shopping centre (fig 3); Hanley (2007:39) demonstrates this in her mocking reference of material in a similar shopping precinct “how can you fight something as concrete, as concretey, as this?”.

Communal spaces

“The open space which is the lungs of the city” (Le corbusier) is an  anatomical analogy of open space in Contemporary city project seems to be an appropriate comparison to the self-contained scheme of Park hill Estate; for just as lungs have a network of bronchiole’s, the green spaces provide the necessary freedom for the residents to roam through the “system of footpaths” (HDCCS, 1962:43) without consensus from the “inhumane building block” (HDCCS, 1962:47). The aim of the green spaces is to therefore provide a sense of freedom within controlled boundaries of the estate.

Yet, with the lungs, there is a limited number of such branches; in fact, there is a thin layer enclosing all the branches that indicates the boundaries of this organ and the green spaces with in Park hill seem to function in an almost identical manner. When referring to the footpaths provided, term ‘system’ suggests a consciously devised, premeditated network of movements. This implies that whilst the green spaces do provide an escape from the blocks, they do not provide an escape from the design. The intertwining of the residential blocks enables for a graduation between highly private and highly exposed green space in a subtle and indirect approach; defined areas of green space are enclosed by two or three residential block. The highly used social spots are the centre of the community, whereas the peripheral green spaces, which face out of the scheme, are intended to mark out the boundary of the Estate; a boundary that keeps residents in and others out.

Facade

As Hetherley puts it, the short-lived Brutalist style displayed on Park Hill Estate was “Modernism’s angry underside” (2011:87). The harsh and crude expression of material against the highly controlled articulation of form, sets out this style from others of its time, it is paradoxical in that it attempts, according to Alison Smithson,  to represent a “direct result of a way of life” (Scalbert, I. 2000:57, 83); for it was “a political aesthetics, an attitude, a weapon”(Hetherley, O. 2011:87) that responded to the transitional phase of its time, like “the angry young men of the fifties”( Hetherley, O. 2011:89). By this definition, Brutalism aims to capture the past, the present and the future through its aesthetical merits and in the case of Park Hill Estate, also through its structural and organizational merits. And by doing so, it becomes a device in creating a “sense of domesticity and identity for the inhabitants” (HDCCS 1962: 47)

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Fig 4- one of many facades of Park Hill Estate

The incorporation of a series of coloured bricks to the façade of the Estate, initially attempts to provide a means of “identification” (HDCCS, 1962:47) for the inhabitants. The Housing Committee praises this by explaining that residents can “readily recognise their own deck level both from the outside…” (HDCCS, 1962:50). But this is only one part of the story; over time, the accumulation of soot and dirt has created a secondary gradation of tones (fig 4, Park Hill flats. 2013) that overlaps the original bricks from the “bottom up” (Hetherley, O. 2011:93) which is both the result and representation of the nearby heavy industrial area. As the wall continues to “disappear under the grime” (Hetherley, O. 2011:93) it maps out a datum through which the building and the residents share. A sense of identity is implied in the aging of the estate.

The large scale ‘box frame’ structure allows for a “variety of dwelling types fitted into a standard repetitive structure” (HDCCS, 1962:46) where as non-structural walls determine the different dwelling sizes and arrangement. This in turn is expressed in the external grid (Nuttgens, P. and Weston, R. 2006:210) creating an overall effect of a seemingly random disordered cellular layout.

In an attempt to expose function rather than hide it, the logic behind the design of each home becomes its identity and in turn, all the homes in a row or column carry their own identity as a group of inhabitants that share the same access point or view. This hierarchy of communities has been termed ‘cluster’ in an article by Kevin Lyn describing it as a “unit of natural aggregation” (Scoffham, E.R. 1984:86).

The use of Brutalism to create a sense of identity is not limited to the façade of the estate. The presence of deck elevations (HDCCS, 1962:50) due to the change in topography means that one is in a constant meander of ramps, steps and bridges. This change in levels, and therefore change in state of vision, is heightened through the change in wall heights. Walking from the shopping centre towards one of the residential blocks (HDCCS, 1962:50); short walls that double up as a seating area gradually increases in height until completely hindering all vision of surroundings. In doing so, a sense of space and the boundary of this space is focused; a wall, a set of stairs and open sky. The only detail available to scrutinise is the material of this wall; a ‘gutsy finish’ of imprinted timber shuttering (Nuttgens,P. and Weston,R 2006:210) that provides both a calming and self-reflecting effect. This small space draws both physical and spatial comparisons to the effect of the scheme as a single, inward facing space.

As much as Brutalism was an advocated and a highly praised device for creating a sense of identity and community, the “Grim appearance highly criticized by its residents” (Scoffham, E.R. 1984:95) seems to be the overruling factor in this equation.  Research by the Architects journal highlighted that rejection of a scheme occurs if it is “not attractive, ill-maintained, or if there was poor outlook from the windows of dwellings” (Scoffham, E.R. 1984:95).  In the case of Park Hill, the glorified ‘grim’ covering the brick is seen as a “loveless results of redevelopment” (Hetherley, O. 2011:93). For those living outside the estate, Hetherly’s account of his visit to Park Hill Estate explains that a “few who do not live there ever venture that close” (2011:93), and this is understandable. The scale and overwhelming structure of the blocks comes across as frightening (Hetherley, O. 2011:92), the number of small cells piled on top of each other and stretched for half a mile (Scoffham, E.R. 1984:89) creates a defence wall that deters from social interaction between those who are in and those who are out.

This division between the intention and response of the residents has resulted in a “failure to provide satisfactory housing” (Scoffham, E.R. 1984:95). A sense of identity and accompanying image may have developed, but this identity has become its down fall as the homes of the working class go from unhygienic, crammed slums to bleak, ‘hostile’ Estates (Hanley. 2007:44). Ultimately, It seems as though the work class residents have not progressed but rather re-housed into an updated version of the slums; one that begins to deteriorate as soon as it is put up.

Part 2

Renovation of Park Hill Estate

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Fig 5- renovation carried out to façade (Urban splash,2010)

Now, Park Hill Estate is an architectural moment, frozen in time; the majority of the flats are unoccupied and many amenities have closed down. A lack of maintenance and an increased level of crime have split opinions between those who adore Park Hill and its architectural intentions, and those who do not see its appeal. But as the grade II listed building prepares to re-live as a housing scheme for the second time, we must question the tactics taken on today and its implication on the original intention of resolving the social class division.

The Estate is currently being renovated by the trendy, Manchester based architecture firm, Urban Splash. This “cool” firm, takes on the attitude “we make things the way we wanted them to be-different than they were” (Urban Splash, 2011) but like many, I become instinctively sceptical as to whether employing a firm that “threatens to paint the whole thing pink” (Hetherley, O. 2011:93) is the wisest thing to do for the Park Hill.

During an exhibition named 1000 rooms with a view (Hawkins Brown, 2012), showcasing the earlier ideas on the estate’s regeneration, Urban Splash presented a list of ten principles of design (Ilia, M. 2013) as a response to, what they felt, were the needs of the estate. These principles ranged from physically alterations to specific feature; such as the roof, grid structure, brick cladding and concrete balustrade, to more general intentions such as the street engagement, the sense of ‘ghetto’, and transition between building and green space.

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Fig 6 renovated “streets in the sky”(Urban Splash, 2010)

At hindsight, the principles seem to highlight the problematic (and identity related) features of the estates that I have pointed out earlier; for the ‘street in the sky’ analogy, which although designed with good intention, it lacked the sensual experience needed, Urban splash claims to have made it “come alive” by incorporating storage spaces on the elevated decking to create ‘better connection between house and street’ (Ilia, M. 2013). But looking at images of the renovation (fig 6- Urban Splash 2011) the new storage spaces have chipped away at the street, leaving it to look like any other balcony access decking; size of homes on offer over rule the experience of the streets.

The location of Amenities, which I criticised from creating an enclosed community, will be provided in the form of ‘independent retail areas’ (Ilia, M 2013) in the hope of attracting non residents to the site. In addition, communal spaces, which initially operated as a boundary between the estate and its peripheries, is broken down and new pedestrian links are introduced to create a better flow (Ilia, M. 2013). The break from the self-contained ‘village’ will assist in breaking down the stigma from single class use, but brings new challenges as the scheme turns gradually evolves into a commercial project.

The downfall of the brick facade was its lack of newness and ill-maintained appearance which also provided its identity, but the firm retaliates by explaining that this non-structural element “weakens the strength of the grid” (Ilia M. 2013) and instead, resorts to brightly coloured steel sheet cladding (fig 5- Urban Splash 2011), to create a stronger ‘visual’ statement (Illia, M. 2013). Re-inventing the identity of the estate as having a quality of “Shimmer!” (Ilia, M. 2013) signifies the start of a “new beginning, a new vitality”. (Urban Splash, 2011)

Fig 7- attempt to respond to the private balcony
Fig 7- attempt to respond to the private balcony

The private balcony, which acted as retrieval from the outside world has come to be a monitoring device for the estate. Attempts have been made (fig7 Illia, M. 2013) to explore ways of easing the effect such as extruding the balcony out of the building and therefore, also exposing the viewer. However, from a design perspective, the detrimental impact of such a vast change on both the strength of other individual features (such as the exposed grid structure) as well as the unity of the estate, makes the private balcony a feature that will remain within the regenerated scheme.

Socially, the prospect of maintaining the design of the balconies regardless of their negative impact leads to two possible speculations. Firstly, our understanding of the role of the private balcony has remained more or less the same since the estate’s was originally built, or that we have come to understand the role and see it as an appropriate feature in today’s housing. But there is a third possibility, a more sceptical one, which combines the two possibilities above; that the role of private balcony as a monitoring device was understood at the time of constructing Park Hill Estate and  that it continues to be seen as an appropriate architectural tactic in our time.

Conclusion

Whilst the Architects of Park Hill Estate attempted to design a socially appropriate building that considers both the need for a high density housing and the social class division; between the working class residents and other groups. Through the examination of architectural tactics, specifically ‘street in the sky’, amenities, communal spaces and façade, it has become apparent that with each feature, the decisions behind its application was in some way, also a reason for its failure. It is unreasonable to put all the blame of the persisting social division in housing on the architecture, there are greater and more complex psycho-social factors involved (Scoffham, E.R. 1984:95). But the lack of balance in the three themes; control, identity and community, has significantly contributed to the social stigma of housing estates, and equally to its praising as an  architectural case study.

50 years on, the regeneration of Park Hill Estate takes the project to the other extreme by transforming it into a commercial project. But just as the original Architects failed to create the harmony in the three themes, Urban Splash is at risk to making the same mistakes. The firm attempts to re-tune the level of control, identity and community by choosing to maintain specific architectural features (for spatial, organisational and aesthetic purposes) whilst introducing a set of new and up-to-date tactics. The success or failure of the task at hand is therefore, determined by how well it has achieved its original aims in the long run.

Bibliography

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