I missed Simon Jenkins and Angela Brady (in their roles as National Trust Chair and RIBA president respectively) on the Today programme on Thursday morning (18 July). They were discussing the shortlisting of Park Hill for the Stirling Prize. So many people contacted me about it, I thought I’d better search it out on i-player. …I’ve just done so, and you are all right, I’m not happy!
OK. Let’s be positive first. Angela Brady called for the listing of Preston Bus Station, and for innovative reuse of 60s buildings. She also pointed out that poor maintenance has often been the reason for post war buildings falling out of favour. Good for her. The vox pop (of Sheffield residents who’ve not invested their own cash in Park Hill, and so don’t have a vested interest in talking it up, included these comments: “it’s great” /”it’s really good”/ “it was a world leader in its day”/ “superb”. They clearly like looking at it.
But much of the rest of the Today piece (and the item got almost 8 ½ minutes which is a lot), was old clichés and misinformation. For example, the RIBA are not in charge of listing, and it was panels of brickwork, not concrete but brickwork, in subtly modulated shades of buff, mustard yellow and chocolate brown (see image above), which were replaced with brightly coloured panels. Surely referring to buildings such as Park Hill as “a ghastly mistake” / “soviet architecture” and asking why there has been no “truth and reconciliation committee” doesn’t really help us understand either how and when to conserve, or how to build better housing in the future. Yes there were some big mistakes: in the rush to improve the physical condition of post war housing, not enough consideration was given to the break-up of communities and there were some well know design failures, but there were many decent schemes too.
I think Park Hill is beautiful, as well as historically interesting, and yes I think it’s perfectly possible to have “an educated eye”, and a concern for aesthetics (as called for by Jenkins) and still think this. And I am certainly not alone. I think the interesting question Park Hill raises (and which the Today programme completely missed) is what exactly has gone on here? Is this “restoration”? or ”refurbishment”? or what? I’d go for “renovation” or “reinvention”—and say that in this case the drastic re-branding of the blocks was a pragmatic necessity. What I am certain of is, that in years to come, we will have a less interventionist approach, and view these buildings with a calmer, less prejudiced eye. And I think Simon Jenkins would agree that many new housing developments show that we still have much to learn about building housing schemes that are affordable, attractive and pleasant to live in.