Star Interview: 'It's a major asset for the city': S1 Artspace's Stephen Escritt on turning a derelict wing of Park Hill flats into a landmark cultural centre as exhibition opens

Stephen Escritt in front of the Duke Street wing at Park Hill. Picture: Dean Atkins
Stephen Escritt in front of the Duke Street wing at Park Hill. Picture: Dean Atkins
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Art is making its presence felt at Park Hill. An empty garage block at the Grade II* listed, modernist estate in Sheffield has been repurposed as a gallery that opens today with a photography exhibition before an even bigger development gets under way - the transformation of an entire disused flank of the flats into a multi-million-pound cultural centre.

"It's really a major asset for the city, that's for sure," says Stephen Escritt, strategic development director of S1 Artspace which stages shows, provides studios for creative individuals and will be occupying the new landmark facility.

An artist's impression of the new art gallery. Picture: Carmody Groarke

An artist's impression of the new art gallery. Picture: Carmody Groarke

S1 was founded by a group of Sheffield artists in 1995 to offer affordable workspaces; it originally operated from rooms above the Corporation nightclub in Trafalgar Street, then took larger premises next door. When the lease on that site expired, the organisation decamped to The Scottish Queen, a once-notorious former pub at Park Hill - now the garage, a low-slung building that sits in the middle of the estate, is to be its temporary home for the next five years.

The interim base, which will eventually be knocked down, is next to the 7,200 sq m Duke Street wing that is earmarked to become the Park Hill Art Space - a 600 sq m gallery in a new extension, along with studios for at least 50 people, an education area and accommodation for visiting artists.

Through a 'joint delivery' arrangement which will speed things up, regeneration firm Urban Splash is providing residential apartments on the upper floors, a continuation of its work on the rest of the flats complex, famed for its 'streets in the sky' and built in 1961 as a bold social housing experiment before crime and neglect took its toll. This heritage will be recognised by the National Trust, which is going to restore one flat in the wing to its original state as a curio.

For now, S1 is perfectly happy in the garage, Stephen says. A Cambridge graduate and Royal College of Art alumnus who has written books on architecture, design and society, he moved to Sheffield two-and-a-half years ago having worked at the British Museum and the Whitechapel Gallery in London, where he helped to mastermind its £13.5 million expansion a decade ago.

How the new arts centre will look inside. Picture: Carmody Groarke

How the new arts centre will look inside. Picture: Carmody Groarke

"This is the next chapter, really," he says. "One of the big challenges with artists' studio space is there's always this pressure of development. We needed somewhere we could be sure of for the next few years."

Half of the old garage is studios, and the other is a 150 sq m gallery, which until September 15 hosts Love Among The Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future, an exhibition of pictures taken by the late Roger Mayne at Park Hill in the early 1960s, and by Bill Stephenson, who documented the last residents at the neighbouring Hyde Park flats in 1988 before they were mostly demolished.

READ MORE: Love among the ruins: Exhibition to reopen gallery

Meanwhile, the venue of the future is being designed by architects Carmody Groake and is much more in keeping with Park Hill's Brutalist aesthetic, Stephen says. It will jut out from the Duke Street wing, joining on to a foyer in what was The Link pub.

Roller skating paper girls Anita and Emma. Hyde Park Flats, Sheffield, 1988, by Bill Stephenson

Roller skating paper girls Anita and Emma. Hyde Park Flats, Sheffield, 1988, by Bill Stephenson

"It's very difficult to put gallery space within Park Hill because the ceilings are quite low, and it's a defined concrete structure. You'd be fighting the building."

There will be 'four or five good-sized gallery rooms', he says. "It will be only one level. And that will sit in the landscape. It will be like a gallery in a park. There was always a proposal, right at the beginning, to have some kind of cultural amenity here in the very first masterplan done before S1 was involved. We're implementing that, in a way."

Stephen gives an idea of the type of proposition Sheffield can expect. "It's not going to be on the same scale as Baltic in Gateshead, say, but from a gallery point of view it will be a bit like Nottingham Contemporary."

Completion is anticipated in 2023/24, a timeline governed by important funding rounds set by Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, who will potentially be meeting much of the cost, which was previously put at £21m but is likely to be less. "We're working to bring that down. Now we're doing the partnership approach on the residential, that means we'll be able to deliver the studios more cheaply."

Donna Hargreaves and Carmen Bello sit on an unguarded fourth storey concrete parapet. Hyde Park Flats, Sheffield, 1988, by Bill Stephenson

Donna Hargreaves and Carmen Bello sit on an unguarded fourth storey concrete parapet. Hyde Park Flats, Sheffield, 1988, by Bill Stephenson

A joint planning application with Urban Splash is to be submitted by the end of the year, preceded by an exhibition of the blueprints in September.

S1 has always appeared confident about the scheme - that it is a matter of when, not if. Stephen smiles. "It feels like there's a momentum behind it."

Over the Pennines, Manchester is getting The Factory, a £110m arts and theatre centre backed with £78m of Government funding. Does Stephen think it is Sheffield's turn?

"We were planning this before Factory was announced. Look at what's happened over the last 10-15 years - you've got Nottingham Contemporary, The Hepworth in Wakefield, Baltic, Tate Liverpool. Everywhere has seen the value of investing in art as a catalyst. We are doing the same here."

But an imbalance does exist, he thinks. "The main core cities of the north - Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle - all get a lot more money per year, per head from the Arts Council going into their National Portfolio Organisations than Sheffield. We get something like £6 a head, and most of the others get between £20 and £30 a head. And that's because we've got some great organisations here, but compared to some of these other big cities we haven't got that same mass and therefore I think we're trying to address that."

S1 will not achieve this on its own, he emphasises - other bodies, not just arts and culture groups, need to play a part. "We know we're in a competitive environment, and people have got to go for it. And it's about trying to bring more resource into the city. Everywhere else is getting more so we're trying to grow the cake."

A scene from a Park Hill landing by Roger Mayne from 1961.

A scene from a Park Hill landing by Roger Mayne from 1961.

Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England, toured Park Hill earlier this year. What was his view on the Art Space proposal?

"I think he was very taken with it. He's always going to be encouraging of ambition. And I think the fact it's in what everyone recognises as a 20th century design icon is a massive plus - there's a lot of reasons for people to come here."

Stephen, 46, grew up in York, and after spending 20 years in London relocated to Sheffield with his family. The move came shortly after he met artist Keith Wilson, a board member of S1, by chance in the capital. "He said 'We think we could use some help', and that's how I got involved. I didn't move here for it but it all fell into place."

He has a son and daughter and two step-children, and lives in Broomhill with his wife, who works in the NHS. "We came up here before we moved and just had such a great weekend," he says. "We went to a gig at the Crucible, got chatting to people having a drink, saw this house and thought it was a great place. I know I'm not a Sheffielder, but it makes me all the more passionate about it, having come here and seen what the possibilities are. It's really trying to better itself on all sorts of fronts."

Stephen has witnessed the revivifying effect artists can bring, citing East London districts like Shoreditch as an example.

"Sheffield is a very creative place and you've got an art school producing graduates, a big community of artists and all the existing studio complexes have long waiting lists. Having artists in a city brings a certain force that is incredibly valuable."

'To end up here feels like the completion of the circle'

Stephen Escritt says it is 'a dream come true' to work at Park Hill, where Warp Films and creative agency Über are among S1's neighbours.

"Every day you're in the heart of this thing you know is internationally recognised. When I was studying 20th century design I got really interested in Park Hill, Quarry Hill - some flats in Leeds that were demolished not long ago - and Hyde Park, which is partly gone now. To end up here feels like the completion of the circle."

Love Among The Ruins - the first exhibition at S1's interim gallery - focuses on the 'human stories' of the Park Hill and Hyde Park estates rather than the buildings themselves, however.

"It's bringing the humanity of these places out, as well as the architecture. You can get very focused on the design, but it's important not to forget it's all about people."

It is billed as a 30th anniversary 're-interpretation' of Streets In The Sky, an exhibition by Roger Mayne and Bill Stephenson curated by Matthew Conduit in 1988 at what is now Sheffield's Site Gallery. Rare documents and unseen works will be shown alongside The Fortress, a film about Park Hill produced by the BBC in 1965 as part of its Landmarks TV series.

A programme of events will support the show, which takes its full title from a novel by Evelyn Waugh that warned of the dangers of an overbearing welfare state. On Wednesday a selection of archive films will be screened at The Showroom under the title Our Municipal Dreams, and tours of Park Hill are happening in August and September courtesy of Urban Splash, the Twentieth Century Society, RIBA and Historic England. Themed talks are taking place in September.

One day at Park Hill there will be exhibitions both inside and outside, in a sculpture park. Concrete plinths by Keith Wilson have already been installed and are a work in themselves, but things will be displayed on and around them in due course.

"We'll certainly see significant contemporary sculptors doing things here," says Stephen. "There's no civic space for sculpture in Sheffield that I'm aware of."

Visit www.s1artspace.org for details.

Boys playing football at Park Hill in a picture by Roger Mayne from 1961.

Boys playing football at Park Hill in a picture by Roger Mayne from 1961.