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 A hint of blackened stone intrudes into one corner of a view, or most notably, the stained, dark, outdated monolith of Sheffield Midland Station stretches across a view of soaring housing, parkland and efficient new traffic gyratories.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.