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