Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Rough Poetry

Yesterday I had the opportunity to make a quick visit to Park Hill in Sheffield. Much has been written about this building lately and it was the subject of a recent BBC documentary following the story of its rebuilding by Urban Splash. I've been to Sheffield a few times and gazed up at its impressive bulk from the town below but I've never, somewhat shamefully, been up to look at it closely before.

Several things struck me when I did go and see it. The first is just how impressive a building it is. The concrete frame is indeed a beautiful thing - whether squinting or not - and its rhythm of single and double height openings has a tectonic vivaciousness which puts it way ahead of most comparable buildings of its period. Or any other period come to that.

Secondly, its extraordinary formal ruthlessness in maintaining a single roof datum while stepping down a steep hill throws up all sorts of vertiginously exciting spatial moments. I particularly like the way that its gargantuan scale at the bottom becomes almost intimate and traditional at the top of the hill. The concrete frame - a thing of stark abstract beauty when seen from afar - becomes a richly textured and endearingly rugged object close up.

One can see clearly how the twisting and turning plan form was intended to create partly enclosed public gardens between the blocks although these have an inevitably somewhat desolate quality today. The gaps between these areas, crossed by high level walkways, have an undeniable spatial thrill as the spaces tumble down the hill and the frame marches relentlessly on. Musically this building has been compared to the stark futurism of Sheffield's electronic pop, from Human League to warp, although looking at it now it seems to have more in common with the Krautrock of Can. Its relentless metronomic repetition and thumping low end register reveal subtle modulations the more you look at it, like staring into a very deep river.

Given all that the state of the place at the moment is deeply ambiguous. The decision to rip out not only the internal flats but the external brick and window infill panels might be justifiable on any number of less well realised housing schemes but seems particularly odd here. The different shades of stock brick give the block its distinctive Brutalist/Late Corbusien quality. Like Corbusier's Unite, the building offers an intruiging collision of machine like precision and cultivated rusticity.

Most odd of all though is the half-built half-demolished aspect of the building at present. With a bunch of earth movers - possibly pointlessly - moving muck around and the tallest section of concrete frame standing gaunt and exposed, it's possible to imagine that Park Hill is in the process of being built rather than re-built. In this state it has a bittersweet quality, both brave new world and failed vision of the future at one and the same time.

Not that this failure is necessarily a fault of the building iself. It seems, in principle, an eminently liveable place, a machine for living in the best possible sense. It's often said that buildings look best when still under construction. Certainly that's true when you see the exposed shuttered concrete bones of contemporary office buildings soon to be clad in jaunty, bar code facades. But Park Hill is heading the opposite way. Not for ever for sure, and hopefully not for that much longer, but its concrete frame whilst undeniably striking and strange with the sun shining through it ultimately looks a lot better with people living there.


owen hatherley said...

Well...'Odd' is one way of describing the decision to take the bricks out. 'Utterly fucking stupid' is another. There should be some sort of architectural court where Studio Egret can be tried for their insufferable arrogance...The idea that you'd look at Park Hill and think - 'what this needs is anodised aluminium panels!' - not to mention the insufferable arrogance of always assuming we know better than people 50 years ago, which runs through the entire restoration/rebuilding project...

Anyway, this is a great post - it's such a careful building in so many ways, the way that by the time it reaches the terraces at the top of the hill it becomes's actually a very contextual building, albeit not contextual in the term's current dullard usage. And an immeasurably better building than bloody Robin Hood Gardens, whatever Stephen Bayley thinks. And the walkways! The sheer width of them - they must be the only example of an access deck that you could lay a sunbed out on...Sorry, I could bore for England about Park Hill...

There is something terribly heartbreaking about the place, and the hauntological point is a good one. Always makes me think of a phrase used, funnily enough, by Simon Reynolds about an early Human League track which mentions Kelvin (one of the demolished post-Park Hill schemes) in its sleevenotes - a combination of 'euphoria and grief'.

owen hatherley said...

One more thing: a funny thing someone said about Park Hill on Skyscraper City forum. A bilious (and dimwitted) call for demolition from one poster ended with the phrase 'Park Hill is just a wet dream for Communists and social fantasists'. As I am both of these things this may explain my love for it, though its architectural merits are, I think, as indisputable as it gets, especially when you walk round inside it.

Charles Holland said...

I tried to talk about the building more than the new design elements, although I did write a bit about it and then not publish it for some reason. But seeing as your guardian piece had covered that ground pretty thoroughly I really wanted to just describe the building, particularly as one way or another it won't stay in its present state for much longer.

I've had a few criticisms for the post of the "well go and live there then you posh git" variety, which seems particularly pointless, especially with the building being completely gutted and then refurbished into desirable city dwellers flats. I Mean, I'm probably just the sort of person who WOULD go and live there!