The story of Park Hill, the 995-unit housing estate built on the edge of Sheffield city centre between 1957–61, closely mirrors that of east London’s Robin Hood Gardens – up to a crucial, divergent point. Both provided radical new approaches to domesticity and building design, deploying concrete in previously unseen ways and creating new social spaces such as the much-vaunted ‘streets in the sky’.
In a short number of decades, however, both would suffer material and reputational decline as a result of Margaret Thatcher’s industrial and housing policy. While demolition began at Robin Hood Gardens this January, Park Hill was given grade II* listed status in 1998, though it was subsequently taken over by developer Urban Splash in 2004 and is midway through a renovation (and gentrification) process that will continue up to 2022.
This summer has seen a renewed interest in both estates from an arts perspective. First, a chunk of the doomed Robin Hood Gardens made its way to the Venice Biennale of Architecture for a display by the V&A that skirted sheepishly around the housing politics that brought it there and disconnected the architectural material from its potent social history. Meanwhile, in Sheffield, S1 Artspace has relocated from its former site above a thrash metal club to a garage space in the centre of Park Hill.
‘Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future’, the first exhibition at the new site, explores the work of documentary photographers Roger Mayne and Bill Stephenson, who spent time at Park Hill and neighbouring Hyde Park in the early 1960s and late ’80s, respectively. Where the V&A exhibit is markedly architectural in its focus, ‘Love Among the Ruins’ is remarkably human. In Stephenson’s work, close focus, warm colouring and an arresting series of subjects makes the environment irrelevant, at times invisible. His portraits capture the residents of Hyde Park, their gazes fixed on the camera, but their poses suggesting activities interrupted; a trip to the shop or a cigarette outside the pub.
Taken in the months before Hyde Park would be cleared, part-demolished and later reclad to erase any remnants of brutalism, Stephenson’s photos emit a certain nostalgia before the fact; a bittersweet melancholy that mirrors the photographer’s experience on the site. ‘I did not meet a single resident who wanted to be rehoused, despite the current condition of the flats,’ he says.
Mayne’s work, captured a generation before Stephenson’s, is imbued with a different energy. In keeping with his photojournalistic style, the black and white images are close yet disconnected, framing the first residents of Park Hill in the context of their new homes. Any direct confrontation between subject and camera seems accidental, almost misdirected, as milk is delivered, bingo called, football played and life imprinted onto the estate’s virgin concrete.
Viewed separately, the photographers’ work is clearly exceptional. Brought together in the context of S1 Artspace and the estate itself, however, the story becomes more complicated. The chronological jump between the two series creates a thread that inevitably leads to the present day and the wildly different context in which Park Hill finds itself, with businesses such as a branding agency occupying the ground floor of the newly jet-washed and primary-coloured slab blocks. These photos, and indeed the gallery itself, are not events isolated by the passing of time, but are elements in an ongoing housing and urban development narrative that continues to let down those most in need.
This said, it is encouraging to note that S1 Artspace is embracing the complexity of their position on the site and as part of the area’s history. To open their new season with an exhibition that deals quite so directly with their controversial locale is bold. Yet it’s an approach grounded in social sensitivity and site awareness, which will only be strengethened with their context-conscientious programme unfolding in the coming year.
Main image: Bill Stephenson, Donna Hargreaves and Carmen Bello sit on an unguarded fourth storey concrete parapet, 1988, Hyde Park Flats, Sheffield. Courtesy: © Bill Stephenson