Wander through the gift shops of Sheffield these days, lockdown permitting, and you could be forgiven for thinking that colossal cliffs of concrete were always among the city’s most beloved landmarks. From place mats displaying the uncompromising façade of Park Hill flats to fridge magnets featuring the chilly face of Moore Street electricity substation, it’s as though Sheffield’s makers and manufacturers, once so adept at fashioning the finest knives and forks, have transformed their mastery of steel into an ability to alchemise concrete into gold. Or pound coins, at any rate.
It seems that some of the most belligerent buildings of the 1960s and 1970s, the snarling edifices that squared up to the future as they promised to deliver on post-war utopian dreams, now have a real hold on the city’s imagination. In a place like Sheffield, which is short on civic splendours from earlier eras but which went big on building expansive concrete schemes during the flared trouser years, images of once-derided social housing schemes now represent the city’s idealised self-image as effectively as its Victorian Town Hall once did.
I focus on Sheffield simply because it’s the city in which I grew up, and where, when I was a kid, the notion of decorating your home with brutalist bric-a-brac would have seemed distinctly puddled. By the time I was a teen, and was learning which concrete corners of Sheffield’s brave new world I should avoid, the city’s titanic housing schemes had slumped into a cycle of social and environmental degradation, and they looked to me like problems that could only be solved with dynamite and wrecking balls. This was indeed the fate of some of them, but the fact that the snaking concrete decks of Park Hill survived – now fêted rather than frowned upon – is a source of fascination and delight, and not a little relief. And Sheffield is not alone.
Park Hill is perhaps just the most high-profile manifestation of a shift in taste that has crept up on towns and cities right across the North.
From the concrete mushroom that sprouts from Lancaster Services on the M6 to the ribbed pleasures of Preston’s famous bus station, and from Liverpool’s worshipful Metropolitan Cathedral to the pipes and walkways of the Roger Stevens Building at Leeds University, the star turns of post-war construction are now available as tea towels, as coasters, as pictures for your wall. They are listed buildings, so the biggest threat to these brutal beauties now comes from being worn away by loving caresses as modernist walking tours pass by.
But while brutalism’s chosen few enjoy their celebrity status along with the protection bestowed by Historic England, what of the rest of their concrete kin? As already noted, the outsized Sheffield mega-schemes that were built around the same time as Park Hill (such as Hyde Park and Kelvin flats) succumbed to their problems and were detonated during the mid-1990s, probably the point at which brutalism seemed most inexplicable to those who lived in its shadow. Hyde Park and Kelvin had defined the skyline of the Sheffield I grew up in, but when they hit the deck barely 25 years after they’d been built, I don’t recall many people mourning.
And although there are spectacular examples of the style which is now cherished and cared for, it remains the case that many other fine buildings of the era are still tainted by brutalism’s once-shot reputation. As recently noted in The Guardian by the photographer Simon Phipps, whose book Brutal North documents brutalist structures across Northern England, lack of maintenance and an unjustifiable rush to demolish rather than renovate is threatening some extraordinary buildings. If the likes of Dunelm House in Durham or Manchester’s Renold Building are to be vaporised, which is possible, we will lose not just great buildings, but physical manifestations of a future-facing dream, and each time an edifice falls it sets a precedent for the case that comes next.
I know not every building can be kept, and it’s true that brutalism’s big hitters often lurk in locations where previously loved buildings were swept away, in which case, it can seem to some like a deserved case of concrete’s comeuppance. But look at Sheffield and its brutalist love-in, and have a heart. Park Hill was once seen as one of the biggest problems on the city’s horizon, yet now it’s a pin-up.
I think it’s about time we brought all of our brutal beauties in from the cold.
Words and images by Damon Fairclough
Main image: Park Hill flats, Sheffield, (c) Damon Fairclough 1987