The Twentieth Century Society

Review: British Modern Remade exhibition

Park Hill, Sheffield

Reviewed by Peter Blundell Jones

The Park Hill flats, designed in the late 1950s by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith under the watchful eye of Lewis Womersley, became the most famous ‘streets in the air’ development of the period. They were much visited, and lauded in Reyner Banham’s The New Brutalism. The Parker Morris-sized flats at first seemed generous and the social facilities worked well, but by the end of the 1980s – like most large social housing developments – it had become a slum. Its listing in 1998 was bold and controversial: the largest listed complex in Britain, but perhaps the best example of its kind. It seemed obvious that no simple reinstatement would be possible, but developer Urban Splash came to the rescue. It reached an agreement with Sheffield Council to reduce the social housing element to around a third, privatising (and inevitably gentrifying) the rest, and adding commercial space to provide social cohesion and forge new links with the city. |Cut off by railway, trams, dual carriageway and a swathe of park, it now seems improbable that the whole area was continuous urban fabric lying close to the city centre, but with an extra stop on the tramline it would be well-connected.

With architects Hawkins\Brown and Egret West, Urban Splash launched a radical reinterpretation, enlarging the glazing to exploit the impressive views, replacing brickwork with coloured aluminium panels, and producing up-to-the-moment minimalist-style flats with well-integrated storage. Density is reduced, a sense of luxury instilled with somewhat oversized baths, and the spirit of Brutalism rediscovered by exposing internal concrete walls that were never meant to be seen. The architects furnished show-flats in various upmarket styles and, of the first batch put on the market last autumn, about two-thirds have already been sold, despite the recession. There is a prominent sales office, a huge graffito banner ‘I love you will U marry me’ and glossy poster-sized images of enticing interiors. Urban Splash seem to be riding the current wave of style and image with aplomb, but there’s little to recall the welfare state ethos of half a century ago. Transformation has been crucial and this is certainly not conservation in the traditional sense, but memories are preserved in the retained organisation and in the lovingly repaired frame. Perhaps we are shifting towards a view of buildings as changing entities with layered lives, rather than fixed monuments.

The Arts Council’s recent show held at Park Hill may be a coup for Urban Splash, but it had a more innocent origin: Helen Kaplinsky, an MA student at Goldsmiths, won their curatorial competition with a proposal for which she chose Park Hill as site. The works were drawn from the Council’s collection and ranged from contemporary paintings and sculptures to more recent work. The catalogue essay by Kaplinsky tries to tie it together with historical shortcuts and stylistic associations, but the common factor is her curator’s eye. She must have been pleased to find Anthony Hill’s Construction (1969) which looks almost like a block of flats, and Richard Forbes’s Lexical Groups (1982) which plays with coloured squares, but they are ten and twenty years too late. Toby Paterson’s Rotterdam Relief, an abstract Constructivist composition, is even more neo-, dating from 2005.  The general effect is rather surreal, as sculptures by Kenneth and Mary Martin, Kenneth Armitage and Lynn Chadwick correctly recall Park Hill’s period but belonged to the homes of a more privileged class, while Brian Griffiths’s Untitled (1998), which features large fake control consoles in cardboard with levers and dials in recycled materials, seems mockingly ironic. These recall the launch room at Cape Canaveral, the villain’s control centre in a Bond movie, or even  – in their cardboard shoddiness – the sets of Thunderbirds. But they have serious origins in the shining equipment of the new electronic age, the real context of Park Hill. How far we have come!

For Urban Splash, the exhibition underlines the flats’ trendy minimalism and implicitly legitimises both the preservation and the refit. For the rest of us it’s more tricky, as the more recent cultural layers undermine the seriousness of the original Modernism by linking it to the worlds of celebrity and fashion, and by ironic interpretations which traduce or invert the original meanings. There are so many double-takes and scrambled references that you wonder more than ever what art is and where it should reside. The Arts Council’s move out of the museum can be applauded, but the harnessing of its cultural capital to an essentially commercial development produces an uncomfortable blurring of boundaries.

Published January 2012