The Granelli’s ice cream van drifts into Park Hill Flats in the afternoon sunshine. A heavy diesel locomotive leaves the station below, makes the air vibrate and pushes a plume of oily exhaust smoke up out of the cutting. A couple of young boys spin their bikes around and head for ice cream.
For all the world, I’ve travelled back to 1965. Yet the S1 Artspace gallery at the former Scottish Queen pub is bang up-to-date. Not only does it have the clean, gunmetal lines we’ve come to expect from our galleries, but it’s currently hosting an exhibition about playgrounds, and there are children clambering all over it.
When I look at Park Hill, I hear a heated argument between one of the Brave New World architects who built it, and the disillusioned mother who spent the 80s trying to bring up her kids there. They’re both saying the same thing: “You just don’t get it, do you?”
Social engineering was never going to work out if its engineers were disconnected from the social structures they designed. Some people regard the re-imagining of Park Hill as a beacon for the contemporary Sheffield of city living and cultural industries as a kind of surrender, a loss of its socialist values. I think those people are missing the point. Park Hill is a place of grand experiment. The original experiment failed, so now it’s time for a new one.
S1 Artspace are a big player in this new experiment, because they’re planning to convert the derelict southern wing of Park Hill into a huge new complex of exhibition spaces, workshops and live work units for artists. What better way to preface this bold step than to host a touring exhibition about the relationship between Brutalist architecture and the many children who grew up in its rough embrace?
The Brutalist Playground is a collaboration between London-based architectural practice Assemble and artist Simon Terrill. They’ve created full-size replicas of some of the play installations built in housing projects like the Churchill Estate in Pimlico, London, and Park Hill. The originals fell out of favour, because concrete playthings can hurt, quite a lot, as it turns out.
The replicas are detailed in soft, colourful foam. Visitors to the exhibition abandon their shoes at the door and step into a world of cushioned shapes, in perverse contrast to the amusingly obvious dangers of the originals. Kids throw themselves up a large, raked disc, reminiscent of one of those James Bond baddie’s contraptions that Austin Powers parodied as a “slow, easily-escapable death”.
Geometric foam boulders are constantly re-arranged as mini assault courses, even though moving a concrete equivalent would require several children’s strength, and end in trapped toes and grazed fingers. The children here enjoy every minute of jumping, climbing, rolling, falling. This is the most popular exhibition that has run here, as the kids come in droves, and bring their grown-ups. It’s on throughout the school holiday and it’s busy every day. And it’s a wonderful evidence of the ‘do not touch’ atmosphere that often suffocates potential new art lovers.
I clamber about a bit myself. It’s fun, but I’m trying to imagine the concrete. I remember my architecture tutor’s phrase: ‘Vomit & Urine Spaces’, the pointless corners where an underspent youth runs its course on cheap cider. Nowadays, those spaces would be re-colonised by the lean urban athletes of parkour, who see sport where I see a flight of steps, and put cuts and bruises down to experience.
I’ve grown up with the idea of Brutalism as failure, but this exhibition opens a door to a playful time, when architects set aside the normal rules of how housing was arranged, got the Lego out and came up with fantastic new forms, working out on the fly how people would use them. It was as optimistic as it was naïve, as wonderful as it was flawed. Park Hill is brilliant because it makes such great use of the landscape, opening out of the steep hillside like a giant set of teeth. That may make it a better place for art, and for play, than for social housing.
The Brutalist Playground runs at S1 Artspace, Park Hill, until 11 September. It’s open Wed-Sun, 12-5pm, and free to enter.
Words: Andrew Wood
Image 1: Arch Press Archive / RIBA
Image 2: Tristan Fewings / Getty Images
Image 3: Arch press Archive / RIBA