The Sheffield Beasts – Park Hill Residence

There was a general belief in my school that pure modernism did not have an impact in the United Kingdom. My direct experience of the UK didn’t change substantially this perception. What did change is the fact that I now see that in spite of the relatively few examples of pure modernist residential buildings, the effort to impose modernism was higher than in continental Europe. After the 2nd World War, it was British architects which revived and tried to sustain CIAM (Congress International d’Architecture Moderne), especially through the MARS group. Soon after, the vanguard Alison and Peter Smithson alongside Aldo van Eyck, Giancarlo de Carlo and others, criticized modern architecture, but let’s not get so far ahead. I won’t jump to any easy conclusions regarding the reason for which in spite of the effort of a good number of British architects to impose modernism, there were relatively few examples of residential buildings inspired by this current. I think that the issue is extremly complex. Still, this is a reason in itslef to admire these few buildings: the rare monsters, currently endangered monsters.

Today: Park Hill Residence

This rare beast emerged between 1957 and 1961. A city made out of concrete with large exterior corridors similar to streets, the courtyard is the resident’s park at a cumulated surface comparable to The Central Park in Cluj Napoca, playgrounds, football field, and even a pub. I will not make a full history or even attempt a theory of this beast, as I mentioned this is not the point of this series. More to read on Wikipedia, in Jeremy Till’s “Park Hill Sheffield: In Black and White” and other sources. I will try just to introduce you to the atmosphere as I perceived it.

I visited Park Hill for the first time in April. It was a cloudy and cold day with small outbreaks of rain. I thought of Park Hill as the most depressing building in Sheffield (and as a note, Sheffield is not short of depressing buildings). But, at the same time, it was fascinating. As an animal skeleton in the desert, preyed upon by vultures, with its bones bleached by the sun. As the dinosaur bones in a museum, thinking about how frightening it must have when it was alive. This impression was doubled by the fact that the building is mostly empty. There were a few noises on the large corridors, someone climbing down the stairs, with the echo of his steps reaching out every corner of the inner courtyard. A derelict football field with only one goalpost. A playground with no children playing … and silence. A deep and heavy silence. Like in the belly of the beast. An architectural Jonah.

A part of Park Hill Residence got itself a new skin. It is not that bad, actually it is a good rehabilitation. At a certain point, the old meets the new Park HiLL. It is still a dead animal with a different skin. It was a good taxidermist job. A stuffed beast with its bones showing: a skinny stuffed beast.

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