Streets in the sky\

Loved and loathed in equal measure, the Modenist housing blocks of Sheffield's Park Hill have been given a new lease of life for the 21st Century, writes Steve Parnell.

The biggest challenge of redeveloping large blocks of urban housing is accommodating the ideologies, assumptions and aspirations of a different generation to those of today. The way we lived in the 1920s, when the ideas behind Park Hill were conceived, was different to that in the 1950s, when they were implemented, to the way we live today. These periods correspond to Reyner Banham's 'first machine age' when machines became human scale, his 'second machine age' and the corresponding consumer society when machines became domesticated, and a so-called 'fourth machine age', or the interconnected digital age (interestingly Banham's 'third machine age' corresponded to the shift from hardware to software in the 1970s, coinciding with disillusionment with modernist ideas in general). While housing is still housing, our relationships and expectations with work, home, leisure, and each other have changed accordingly.

The idea of community, too, is different now to that of the 1950s when the Smithsons were promoting their 'doorstep philosophy' on which Park Hill's sky-streets were based, and which involved giving 'inhabitants a place for the children and the leisurely back-chat of urban street life.' The doorstep was where the street began and was famously personalised by tenants at Park Hill with strips of lino. Past Park Hill residents testify that a certain amount of socialising did indeed occur at the doorstep and on the decks, but its co-architect Ivor Smith now claims that one of the things he would do differently would be to make the decks more overlooked. This would actually be difficult to achieve given that they are predominantly positioned at the rear of the blocks in order that the main living areas at the front remain unobscured for the outstanding views westwards across the city towards the Peak District hills. Hawkins Brown have acknowledged that in the 21st century, this 'doorstep philosophy' is a romantic anachronism and people tend not to hang around their front doors for a gossip as respite from toil. Instead, the architects included pairs of more private porches, each for two front doors, clad in warm plywood.

Working in collaboration with Studio Egrest West, Hawkins\Brown's approach to Park Hill was to leave the big organising elements intact and rearrange everything else within the completely stripped concrete frame. Four flats over three floors still cluster around the concrete cores, but two bedrooms are lost per cluster, allowing more space for storage and modern gadgets like dishwashers, fridges and washing machines. The Parker Morris report, published the same year that Park Hill was opened, stated that only one household in five owned a fridge, only one in three owned a car, or a washing machine, and two in three owned TV sets and vacuum cleaners. Park Hill may have been a sophisticated machine for living in for those new to indoor plumbing, mains electricity, and communal central heating, but today we take these entirely for granted and possess more clutter.

Although in our current 'fourth machine age', Facebook and Twitter has replaced the doorstep for gossip, and we no longer share technologies such as washing machines in a laundrette, the typology of the high density urban housing block is as relevant as ever as a sustainable solution for the increasing numbers of city dwellers. This makes the redevelopment of Park Hill symbolic – indeed, its history is the social history of post-war British industrial cities reified in a single building. Most obviously symbolic are the controversially bold citrus fruit anodised aluminium panels that replace the gradated brown bricks on the façade. More colour brochure friendly, this new look breaks the link between what Park Hill represented to Sheffield in the 1980s at its most unpopular, and what it represents now as it rebrands itself for a new phase in its life as Sheffield's most photographed and iconic building.

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