Park Hill, as seen in the Sixties

At the moment, I’m looking at a small archive of press images from the 1950s/60s of Park Hill flats, all taken by staff on Sheffield Newspapers (the Star and Telegraph). It’s a sort of slice through the mass of data which records how this building and its surroundings were seen in its early, feted days as one of Europe’s most progressive and ambitious public housing schemes.

By exploring these images (including by drawing them) I’m hoping to tease out a greater depth to our understanding of how this was seen. These images were designed to tell a story (albeit not necessarily of Park Hill) and on publication would have presented – and informed – a particular view of the place. My selection (by limiting my search to digital, online images, authored by ‘Sheffield Newspapers’ and catalogued as ‘Park Hill’) encompasses 63 images, taken between 1962 and 1993 (the majority in ’64 and ’65) all but one, in black and white. The trawl through them should enable me to develop a further set of questions to provide a basis for further investigation – of these images, and also other material relating to the site’s visuality.


So what have they told me? Firstly I’m struck by the sharp contrast, the play of light and shade in these images. Perhaps because I rarely look at large pools of monochrome imagery, perhaps also because there’s the hint of craft behind this. So often the foreground of an image, say, will be in sharp relief, with the background fading to grey. There’s the structure of these images too. In part, this is a natural response to the subject – frequently buildings, building sites or roads – and also the natural topography of this (very) hilly city. All too often photos are taken from a raised vantage point, or look up to a raised horizon.


Which brings me neatly to the subjects of these images. If we disregard those outliers – the solitary example from the 1990s, say predominantly these are of a city in transition. They show new road layouts, or proudly contrast new buildings (Park Hill, but also the web of dual-carriageways being constructed as part and parcel of this one-time-only reconstruction of an entire city) with old. A hint of blackened stone intrudes into one corner of a view, or most notably, the stained, dark, outdated monolith of Sheffield Midland Station stretches across a view of soaring housing, parkland and efficient new traffic gyratories. This shiny new housing – Park Hill phases one and two (Hyde Park) is sometimes the focus of these images, more often a background, slightly out-of-focus, appearing at times like a painted backdrop. Often, to quote from the journalism of the time (and this will be a question I need to look at further) there is this notion of the castle keep, that this vast megastructure acts on the city like Edinburgh or Prague Castles, that its presented as age-less, simply there, humblebrag of the scenery, while the so called news story – daily life – happens in the foreground.


This daily life is pretty Spartan, stylised. In one 1968 image a stylishly dressed couple – with a hint of the Avengers about them, him in a bowler hat – cross a road, avoiding traffic composed largely of Austin Minis. Behind them, Radiant City Park Hill glitters in the sunlight, above them, flags – Union Jacks. The most arresting image is of the play area at the centre of the structure. An image of a vast, concrete, area (now in fact the location of the Sculpture Garden), our eyes is drawn through the shuttered concrete, up a sculptural staircase to the rising towers beyond – but it’s the seventy-odd children playing that we’re interested in. There are so many of them – like a Brueghel painting as crowds of them cluster beneath the stairs, into a void only accessible at child-height. Others clamber over the concrete, not just humanising this scale-less place, but making it feel like a child’s adventure. Elsewhere a game is being played, and groups congregate on different levels, here is place of imagination, a place where everyone has a place.


Yet my eye, at least, is still drawn to the marks of shuttering, on the bright concrete. There’s something about the way the concrete is represented that needs some further investigation too. It can be shown crisp and gleaming, sculptural –a play of shadow in recessed window openings. It can also be shown as dark, stained and dank looking (all in pictures from the mid 60s heyday). It’s hard to avoid the vast expanses of paving slabs and hard too to see the acres of newly planted saplings as offering any kind of softening of the landscape. More often than not, it’s simply not in focus, it’s just a grey, cliff-like backdrop to things going on elsewhere. When we look at this building, and buildings like this now, we are conditioned by viewing them through a narrative of despair, of their failings and not their successes. It’s hard to imagine seeing them through a lens of optimism, harder to still to see them in a way that some of these things just go unnoticed – that in contrast to the grime of the mid 60s industrial North, brutal concrete and this new landscape of freeway, parkland and high-rise was both welcome and, eventually, just part of the surroundings.

Drawing Historic Images

I’ve been making some drawings of old photos of buildings.

Source is the Sheffield Archives, Sheffield Newspaper Collections.
Methods – tracing, cutting, collaging, drawing into printed images from the archive, taken from the Picture Sheffield Website. May also include drawings from archive news reports.

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(Other drawings have included en plein air observational drawings, and I’m planning to include work on contemporary archived representations of the site, from the planning portal, news reports, social media).

So far…
Tracing and drawing into images – a slowing down of the visual processing of the image, an understanding of what might be represented in them – not simply the building but aspects of its construction, setting. For example, many of the images juxtapose (dirty) old and (clean) new – Park Hill, surrounded by grimy older buildings, or dereliction, or the (at the time) retained Victorian Park Primary School.


Tracing images allowed me to understand their composition – the way that the landscape is represented related to the buildings.

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Chalk and Charcoal ‘over-drawings’ render contrasts of light and shade as well more clearly, emphasising the clean new utopia vs the smoke blackened city.


Let’s not forget that these are images catalogued as being about Park Hill, but were taken to illustrate news stories – these might pertain to Park Hill’s construction and the clearance of slum areas around it (they often do) but equally many are evidently about other things – Park Hill is a backdrop – but the choice of backdrop, is significant. So far images are from the 1960s.
Both methods perform a blurring of detail – individuals are reduced to ciphers – representing a very large group of children playing in one of the estate’s play areas – but allow the photographers intention to shine through – these images are clearly meant to show how the building is both radical and modern and different from what went before – but in encouraging street life (cf. Photos of Hulme, Manchester before clearances) are supporting and support by the working-class communities within them. Although individuals in the photos are often unidentifiable, they are archetypal – older ladies with headscarves, young children in short trousers.


Clear tropes in representing the buildings become evident too. Frequently Park Hill, and especially Hyde Park, are represented as sky-line silhouettes in images which clearly relate to other news-stories in Sheffield – the redevelopment of the Market area, or a high level international visit, with the station be-decked with flags.

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This seems like a constant reflection/re-iteration of the idea that Park Hill is, in terms of urban form, a castle on a hill, a people’s palace towering above Sheffield, a symbol of the city’s renewal. It will be interesting to see depictions from later photographs.


These methods have their limitations – they are small scale, and some thought needs to go into how they might be expanded. But, there is a clear relationship to other visual methods of understanding place – I think of them as topographical drawings of topographies which no longer exist. Applied to the planning drawings from 2008 onwards they may come to represent topographies of place which don’t yet (fully) exist. But in choosing such slight methods – tracing, drawing over theprimacy of the original image is respected, yet can be unpicked, unpacked. There is also an archaeology about them, unpicking and understanding elements of the landscape their function, and intended purpose. The no longer existing concrete faced play area in front of tha garage block is a case in oint, traces remain of the quite spectacular cast concrete walls, ramps and stairs, in the form of vestigal concrete walls and setps incorporated into a soften landscape-earthwork. I wonder how much still exists beneath the wildflower planting? Clearly later pictures (e.g. 70s, 80s)will show these areas differently.

Drawing Park Hill

This week I’ve been drawing Park Hill. Fortunately it’s been very sunny, and not at all a chore sitting in the gardens, looking and drawing.
I decided to be led by what caught my view, as well as what was visible from places it seemed good to sit in. I wanted less to undertake a rigorous survey of the garden (there will be time for that later), more to get a feeling of how it is used, who uses it, and what it feels like.


It’s richly, lushly landscaped, and in mid July with drifts of wildflowers and meadow grassland looks good enough to illustrate a Stirling Prize entry, or at least the sales brochure.


Strolling through it was fascinating. I wasn’t sure how best to encounter it. Was it a public park, its gravelled paths and iron furniture recalling Paris, or was it (with its naturalistic planting) a slice of Peak District in the city. Perhaps as I ascended the concrete steps up a bank, feeling ever so much like there was buried architecture beneath me (there is) it’s a heritage site – a country house, or castle? Am I allowed to be here?


I felt drawn to draw the vegetation, to draw the landscaping, the young trees, and to try and get a sense of how this was working with the building.
What did I conclude? Firstly that – midweek at least – these gardens are not very well used. I was on my own in them for a big part of the day. Occasionally people moved cars, and I could hear the sound of children playing in the on-site nursery school. But the only other people I saw were visitors to S1 Artspace (looking lost) and the occasional office worker picnicking (in all this space, why did they need to sit so close to me?). No one sat on the Tuileries- chairs, or played ping pong. With Keith Wilson’s plinths in the middle of the only flat areas (and the parked cars) I wonder how many children kick a ball around?

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The dominance of the car parking, scattered throughout does break the gardens up. It’s hard to feel like you lost in nature, when your picnic is in front of a Toyota Prius. For sure, this may change – only a fraction of the site is open, the plans for car parking seem uncertain (will there be a multistory?). And the maturing of the gardens will make a difference. I wonder how the disjuncture between public and private will be overcome – not just de jure but how do people – visitors and residents alike feel like they are allowed to do stuff here?

On Park Hill

I have spent some time over the summer exploring Park Hill. On site, spending time in the gardens, drawing, walking, photographing. Exploring the estate’s perimeter, and it’s relationship with the areas around – enclosed, impermeable, hemmed in on one side by railway and tram and trunk road, on the other by a low wall, cracked pavement and low rise, un-regenerated 19th century shops (mainly empty) and housing (poor quality). At the top of the site, large parts of Park Hill are empty, fenced off, awaiting redevelopment. Those glimpses through the site reveal a wasteland of unkempt laws and litter. There’s an uncanny correspondence between the abandoned, unmaintained former grassed areas of this area, overgrown, brownfield land, and the newly laid-out wildflower meadows of the redeveloped quarter. There’s something important to unpick here, something that feels like the Hauntology Mark Fisher has written about, the slow spectral failure of an imagined future.


What struck me most about the site was the emptiness of it all. Even in the sculpture garden, I sat for many hours without seeing a soul. At lunchtime a young couple sat down to eat their sandwiches, uncertainly, hesitatingly choosing a spot to picnic. Indeed, I too wasn’t sure – whether I could sit, whether the omnipresent CCTV cameras would summon some kind of private park warden to instruct me to keep off the grass. But no one came.
When I strayed beyond the site, the emptiness continued. I walked the nearby streets, the emptiness feeling at times threatening, at times sad. A fenced off walkway ended in a shooting gallery of syringes, a stroll through the carefully restored elegance of Norfolk Park ended in the empty concrete footprints of the three demolished tower blocks which complimented Park Hill, once.


Of course, no one knew where I was, I was lost in a wilderness, of sorts, on this ramble.


I took some photos, at times over exposed on my phone-camera, the bright sunshine of the hottest summer since the 1970s bleaching out the differences between old and new, causing a ’squint test’ (so beloved of the original redevelopers) that elided the differences. From the sculpture garden, everything seemed rosy. I made some drawings too. Mainly of the landscape, of the sculptural quality of the landscaping. The mature trees which remained, survivors of the redevelopment (I would later come across images of newly minted saplings in the archives). Wildflowers in bloom (carefully chosen species, of course). Gravel paths, an uncertain, hesitant newness to the site. Here and there concrete steps negotiating the changes of levels, survivors of the rather more concrete landscape originally provided. Archaeology in reverse – acres of asphalt covered in earth and wildflower.


Now I am exploring two archives – early press photographs of the buildings original construction, and the extensive planning documents available online. My hope is to understand the way this building – and its landscape has been imagined, and presented. How it has been codified to be understood by others, what the attempt was.

Some Reflections on Skulptur Projekte Münster

On arrival at the city’s main train station, evidence of the Skulptur Projekte is easy to find – adverts for bicycle and bus tours, discounts for visitors – and indeed, you quickly (or I did as I tried to find my internet-booked accommodation on my smartphone) almost stumble across artworks. As a dedicated ‘art-tourist’, here for the Projekte, one’s first port of call is the main information hub in the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, to collect the all important printed may and guide. A fairly compact city, centred on a mediaeval core (albeit heavily reconstructed following the Second World War), ringed by a landscaped ‘promenade’ (the line of the old city walls) the map is an easy way of orientating you, of planning routes through the city to find the various sculptures. It’s also an interface between you and the city – marked on it are other local landmarks – the cathedral, the lake – the sort of thing you might go and visit anyway as a tourist (indeed I did!).
I visited the fifth iteration of the Skulptur Projekte in September 2107. This citywide sculpture exhibition takes place every ten years across the city of Munster (and in 2017, had a satellite in the neighbouring city of Marl). Works are installed (and created for) public spaces (indoor and outdoor) across the city. In 2017, this ranged from a disused ice-rink on the outskirts, to works set in the exhibition spaces of the city’s main art gallery the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur.


The Projekte’s beginnings are interesting and relevant to its contemporary existence – its origins are in a programme of outreach devised following the outcry at the placement of a kinetic sculpture by George Rickey. From this has grown a 100 day long international exhibition which has a significant budget, and forms a key part of the image the City of Munster (population 310,039) projects to the world, to tourists and investors.


One notable aspect of the Projekte is that after each iteration, a small number of artworks are purchased by the city (although ownership may rest with various organisations within it) and many of these remain on public display in their original locations (although with some exceptions, and in some cases in a different form to the original display). These artworks (presented in 2017 as the ‘public collection’) presented on the official map, and in the catalogue (and in some cases brought out of storage specially) have an interesting role to play.


A final element is the choice of artists – with some artists selected to appear on more than one occasion, others working on projects which take place over the decade-long span between each iteration of the Projekte.

Some Questions…
How do we engage with the Skulptur Projekte
• What is the role of the map
• What about the eventness of it? The ‘city dressing’, the extra activities?
• As a major international event – how is our engagement different on the ground to its reception as transmitted by international media?
• How important is it that we engage physically, bodily? Through walking, exploring, finding, navigating, getting lost, taking time?

The ‘Public Collection’
• Who owns the work?
• How did these works get chosen/come to survive?
• How have they been accepted by the people of Munster
• What is the relationship between them and the latest edition of works
• What about other art works in the city?
• How well have they stood the test of time (physically, and as – given that SPM aims to present a snapshot of a particular view of what is best in sculpture, as sculpture – are they still important artworks?)

How does the Skulptur Projekte ‘inhabit’ the city?
• What does it mean for the people who live here?

How does the Skulptur Projekte ‘interrogate’ the city? What questions does it ask of
• The city authorities
• The urban environment
• The forces of capital/development
• The inhabitants themselves
• Visitors
• The city’s history?

How does it ask these?

How does the Skulptur Projekte change the way we experience the city?
• For visitors?
• For locals?
• How do we come to understand Munster as a place, as a land(city)scape?

How does the Skulptur Projekte change the perception of Munster?
• What kind of city is it really?
• How much/to what extent can the image projected be sustained?
• Is it all surface? If not – how and where is it punctured?

How does the Skulptur Projekte sit in time? With a ten year recurrence and a duration of less than a year what can this tell us about the state of the city?
• How does this influence its reception by locals and wider audiences?
• Spaces have been used over and over – what does this tell us?

How does the Skulptur Projekte sit in space?
• How might meaning accumulate in some of the spaces which have been used?
• How does SPM change the way spaces are experienced, used, understood?
• What problems does it cause?

A Place for Sculpture

In March 2017, The Guardian reported[1] that ‘Old Flo is returning home’. One of many sculptures across the country purchased or commissioned in the 1950s and 60s for the new housing rising out of cleared slum areas, this Henry Moore’s Draped Seated Woman, had been the subject of legal action over ownership, attempted sale by a cash-strapped local authority, and removed for safety against bronze metal theft – but had originally graced the Stifford Estate, in Stepney Green, 1963 – three 17-storey brutalist towers housing some 1700 people, as a fitting answer (according to Christopher Marshall) to ‘a deep-seated postwar need for an epic, modern, civic art that might help rebuild a shattered Europe through the reinforcement of universal humanist values that reconnected the individual to the landscape, both urban and natural’[2].

That sculpture can give identity to place has been long understood. A history of the designed landscape – from the contrasting symbolic settings of statues and fountains in the (private, aristocratic) Boboli Gardens and (public, civic) Piazza del Signoria in Renaissance Florence[3], through to the way in which sculpture manipulates vistas and perspective in an 18th century English estate like that of Studley Royal[4], to of course, the installation of important Modernist works on public housing projects and in the new towns in the decades following the Second World War, the history of the sculpture garden is one where it both represents and acts as an agency to project the values of its commissioners. In recent years, this has in fact been the overt aim of much commissioned outdoor sculpture, where projects like Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth programme, and citywide festivals trumpet the return on public investment – the 2016 Liverpool Biennial boasting of boosting the Liverpool economy by £5.3million – and cultural tourism and international profile-raising come to stand for public benefit.

Urban regeneration has meanwhile become a site of increasing conflict. Park Hill, though award-nominated (notably for the 2013 Stirling Prize) has also been criticised, architecture critic Owen Hatherley calling it as a “folly”[5]. Elsewhere projects like Bow Arts Trust and Poplar HARCA’s temporary creative live/work scheme at Balfron Tower have seen artists themselves accused of ‘artwashing’[6] – and art as acting as an uncritical tool of developer-led regeneration. At worst, this is an inversion of our traditionally benign view of artists (as the good guys taking over and improving spaces no one else wants). But at best, there is still much potential in using artists as what place-led commissioning agency Situations has called ‘charismatic agents of change’. A singularly lasting (and notorious!) example is Liz Leyh’s[7] Concrete Cows in Milton Keynes, begun as project to help build a community from scratch, eventually becoming a widely recognised symbol of the new town.

We don’t yet know how visitors and residents will experience Sculpture Park Hill. On one hand, this garden will exist as a visitor destination, a new point on a Yorkshire Sculpture polygon, a stop for ‘Brutalist Tourists’[8] or those bound for Chatsworth. On the other, this is still a place people cross to buy a loaf of bread, or walk the dog. It’s the not-entirely-public backyard for thousands of city dwellers – where, even the first commissioned artist, Keith Wilson, hopes residents will have barbecues on his plinths. One way of thinking about this might be to look at this idea of experiencing place through play and leisure, what Quentin Stevens has termed the ‘Ludic City’[9]. Indeed, although it never included an iconic sculpture, Park Hill’s original playgrounds did feature ‘furniture’ by abstract artist John Forrester (who also designed the coloured brick infill panels on the building) while recently wider attention has been drawn to the playgrounds of modernist housing estates – ASSEMBLE’s Brutalist Playground (exhibited here in 2016) while research by Historic England has resulted in listings for playscapes such as The Rom in Hornchurch[10].

In an open air setting, it’s not only the rules around touching and climbing that are different (whatever the signs might say), space and scale impact on our experience of encountering sculpture in a way impossible within the confines of an indoor gallery. Yorkshire Sculpture Park director Peter Murray has spoken about the ‘need to discover’[11] sculpture in the park, and elsewhere, it is noted, that ‘visitors are equipped with maps’[12]. If this feels somehow akin to setting out on an expedition, then this is how it should be, where nature, the weather, even picnic sites all impact on our experience of what we see. At Park Hill, perhaps (maps in hand) we can track our sculptures through this very special urban landscape. Whether we set them against views across the city to the Peak District, test their scale against the sheer monumentality of the building itself, or see them through the prism of the conflicted history of Sheffield, Modernism and its legacy and the complexities of regeneration is still up for grabs.


[1] Brown, M. (2017) ‘Old Flo’ makes her way back to London from Yorkshire, The Guardian, London

[2] Correia, A (2013) ‘Draped Seated Woman 1957–8, cast c.1958–63 by Henry Moore OM, CH’, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, London, Tate https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-om-ch-draped-seated-woman-r1172099

[3] Conelli, MA. (1998) Boboli Gardens: fountains and propaganda in

sixteenth-century Florence, Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 18:4

[4] Ridley, G. Studley Royal: Landscape as Sculpture in Eyres, P and Russell, F (Eds.). (2006) Sculpture and the Garden, Abingdon, Routledge

[5] Hatherley, O. (2011) Regeneration? What’s happening in Sheffield’s Park Hill is class cleansing, The Guardian, London

[6] Haimes, H. (2026) In Limbo: Artists and Gentrification, Doggerland Journal, 2

[7] Mason, D.  The Birth of the Concrete Cows http://www.livingarchive.org.uk/content/local-history/topics/concrete-cows/the-birth-of-the-concrete-cows

[8] See for example Brutalist London Map, Blue Cow Media

[9] Stevens, Q. (2007) The Ludic City: Exploring the Potential of Public Spaces, Abingdon, Routledge

[10] See Historic England (2014) Why Has English Heritage Listed a Skatepark?, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/what-is-designation/heritage-highlights/why-has-english-heritage-listed-a-skatepark

[11] Tuchman, P. (2014), Yorkshire Sculpture Park: Not a Typical Experience, Sculpture, 33, 10, pp. 18-20  

[12] Cochran, RD. (2015) Inhotim: Art Off the Beaten Track, Sculpture, 34, 6, pp. 20-23

This post was originally written for S1 Artspace, to celebrate the launch of Sculpture Park Hill.