It’s a quiet afternoon, the sun is shining, and a dozen people are gazing up at Park Hill flats, being given a brief introduction to the finer points of Brutalist architecture.
“It’s often compared to a medieval walled city or castle, and its position gives it a majestic feel overlooking the city,” says Rebecca Liebermann, a Sheffield University student who’s stepped up to the task of helping to lead the visit.
She squints into the light and muses: “It’s a very grand presence, you can see it from almost anywhere in Sheffield.”
We’re gathered outside the former Scottish Queen pub, once known for attracting a somewhat hardened clientele. Now it’s an art gallery, suggested as the site of a possible future bar or cafe, a sign of the huge change under way at the development just outside the city centre.
A further indicator of the shift in the way modernist buildings such as Park Hill are treated is the fact our visit is organised by the National Trust, which has just completed a 10-day project called Brutal Utopias, which featured special tours of the best of Britain’s Brutalist buildings.
As well as being driven by fashion – clean lines of concrete complement a mid-century coffee table, after all – the trust is aware that these properties could well form part of its portfolio in the future.
Completed in 1960, Park Hill was celebrated as an exemplar of brutalism, a movement pioneered in continental Europe by architect Le Corbusier. He used the term ‘béton brut’, meaning ‘raw concrete’ – which spread to the UK in the 60s and 70s.
At its peak the estate housed some 3,000 people, replacing slums and attempting to realise an ambitious vision of ‘streets in the sky’.
However, it later fell into steep decline and was only saved from demolition by being Grade II listed in 1998.
The debate over Park Hill’s future has long been settled, though, and developer Urban Splash is, slowly but steadily, continuing to create smart new flats and space for businesses.
The trust’s Sheffield tours sold out completely within days, and similar viewings of the Southbank Centre in London and the University of East Anglia campus in Norwich also proved popular.
Couple Richard Mills and Verity Kemp, from Millhouses, were among the people whose interest was piqued by the brutalism campaign.
“We moved to Sheffield five months ago and love it,” says Verity.
“It’s a great combination of the city and the countryside. And we love architecture. I’m from Birmingham where there are just tower blocks, nothing iconic like this.”
Taking in the scale of the estate, Richard declares: “It’s vast. If this was in a smart part of London it would be worth a fortune. It’s hard on Sheffield, having it as a national monument and having to sort the whole thing out.”
Meanwhile, Kate Jackson has travelled from further afield – Bury St Edmunds, in fact – to attend, but says she couldn’t have missed the opportunity.
Formerly the singer with indie band The Long Blondes, who formed in Sheffield, she’s now an artist back home in Suffolk, and draws inspiration from modernist architecture.
“I really wanted to come up here. I think it’s good that the National Trust has decided to take an interest in Brutalist architecture as something worthy of being respected, as well as a style of art. It will get people interested in it,” says Kate, flicking through the photos on her mobile phone to find a picture of her own painting of Park Hill.
“There’s lots of art being made about brutalism. I think Park Hill is a work of art in itself.”
Andrea Hughes, a community ambassador for the National Trust, joined Rebecca in leading the tour, diverted from her usual duties at Hardwick Hall near Chesterfield.
“It shows the trust isn’t just old heritage and cream teas,” she said, questioning why the organisation wouldn’t take an interest in a listed building.
“It will be around a lot longer than the people saying it should have been demolished.”
One of the biggest eye-openers of the tour was the chance to see inside an unrenovated flat. After briefly coming unstuck trying to find the right door – ‘I’m getting confused, it’s a bit of maze!’ – Andrea lets us in.
The property is tiny and dank, with a kitchen and living room downstairs, and only a little more space upstairs. It’s a big contrast to the redeveloped flat we get to see later on which, although still small, feels more airy and makes better use of the available space. Carefully-chosen ornaments and a Noma recipe book on the shelf give an idea of the residents in mind. “Most of the flats are south-facing,” Rebecca says cheerily as we file out before departing.
Originally from Devon, Rebecca is in her third year of studying architecture, and says being in Sheffield has made her think positively about modernist architecture.
“A lot of people think this style of architecture is ugly and not humane, really, and should be demolished. But now attitudes are starting to change, and the National Trust is starting to support the retention of these buildings. It’s similar to the way Victorian architecture was once considered harsh and horrible.
“But there’s much more to it when you understand the concept behind it and its significance in Sheffield’s history.”