Street Life in the Sky: Roger Mayne’s Photographs of Park Hill, Sheffield, 1961

Image: Roger Mayne, Park Hill estate, Sheffield, 1961. Courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library

Writer Owen Hatherley considers Roger Mayne’s photographs of Park Hill estate, Sheffield, 1961.

***

Sheffield’s Park Hill is a building so much discussed and mythologised that in writing about it, it’s tempting to just state the basic facts and leave it at that. It was designed as a council estate, accommodated in one huge single building, in the early 1960s by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, under the direction of Sheffield Corporation’s City Architect, J.L Womersley. Between its completion and the late 1990s, not much happened – people lived their lives in it, some were happy, some unhappy, most in between.

The original playgrounds – rather abstract shapes in concrete, that kids could crawl in and out of – were replaced with more standard stuff in brightly painted metal, and a few little ingratiating, slightly postmodernist things were added to the starkly modern building – a clip on ‘PARK HILL’ sign over the entrance. Other than that, it stood as designed, when it was given a Grade II* listing by English Heritage in 1998 as an architectural work of both national and international significance. The building was then given by Sheffield City Council to the property developer Urban Splash; the residents were cleared out, phase by phase, and one extensively redesigned part of the complex – around a quarter of the building – was sold on the open market to private buyers. This part was nominated for the Stirling Prize in 2014 and is currently the only part of the building to be inhabited. The rest is often used as a film and TV set for work set in the 1970s-1990s, something encouraged by the close proximity of Warp Films, just down the hill in central Sheffield. That’s the bare facts. After that, it’s all emotion, politics and pop history, things which the building’s designers can’t possibly have imagined would come to dominate its interpretation.

Roger Mayne, Park Hill estate, Sheffield, 1961. Courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library

For some, particularly in the 1980s, Park Hill is a social and architectural disaster; a failed experiment in social engineering perpetrated on its working class residents. This goes along with Urban Splash’s own marketing, which concentrates on the ‘creative class’, with the implication that only they would have the outré tastes and wherewithal to enjoy such an unusual, avant-garde building. Locally and nationally, it is an icon of Sheffield pop culture, a building that sums up the city of ABC, Cabaret Voltaire, the Human League, Pulp and Warp, and the more recent likes of Arctic Monkeys, Richard Hawley and The Long Blondes (apart from the first two, all of that list has referenced Park Hill in one way or another). In this capacity it appears on T-shirts, prints and mugs, and is available as a make-your-own model. Some, in which I’d include myself, interpret Park Hill as an emblem of a socialist modernism that had until very recently been expunged from architectural history as an embarrassingly overambitious act of hubris. For many, in which I’d also include myself, it is a political scandal, a public asset transferred to private profit at great public expense.

—Owen Hatherley

This essay can be read in full in the current issue of Loose Associations, The Photographers’ Gallery’s periodical on photography and image culture, available from our online bookshop here for £5, all proceeds going to support our programme.

Owen Hatherley is a writer based in London. His books include Militant Modernism (Zero, 2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso, 2010), Uncommon – An Essay on Pulp (Zero, 2011), Across the Plaza (Strelka, 2012), A New Kind of Bleak – Journeys through Urban Britain (Verso 2012), Landscapes of Communism (Penguin 2015), The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso, 2016) and the forthcoming Trans-Europe Express (Penguin 2017).

One Comment

  1. Strange – those flats were built to replace the slums where my grandfather had been born. The idea was good – to provide some modern homes and green spaces. What they hadn’t thought of was how the environment of flats such as these can affect those living in them.

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