Sheffield's fortress flats stand the test of time

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The Independent Online
The idea was met with raucous laughter. "Park Hill flats, listed as an important part of England's heritage, it's got to be a joke," said Royce Dixon, whose butcher's shop looks out on to the grey concrete walls of the high-rise Sheffield estate built 40 years ago."The people who think up these ideas should try living here. Most people on the estate would rather see it pulled down than listed."

Today, Dr Martin Cherry, head of listing for English Heritage, is recommending that Park Hill is given Grade II* status, protecting it from demolition or unsympathetic redevelopment.

The first estate in the country to have pedestrian "streets in the sky", it is among 18 other public housing schemes, 18 private housing schemes and 30 private houses being recommended for listing as outstanding examples of modern architecture at an exhibition in London this week.

If Dr Cherry's recommendation is approved by Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, Park Hill - home to about 2,000 council tenants - will become Britain's largest modern listed building.

"Park Hill has been likened to a medieval fortress, a glittering cliff face of windows," said Dr Cherry. "The fact that it is only 40 years old and not 400 makes it no less important. It is a magnificent structure."

Mr Dixon laughed even louder. "It's a fortress all right. Kids are always throwing things from the battlements. Televisions, bits of concrete, you name it ... Quite a few of the flats are empty and the council doesn't seem in too much of a hurry to fill them. And the concrete is crumbling. Men abseil down the buildings, removing the loose concrete about twice a year."

When Park Hill was first built, it basked in the glory of being the first estate in England to include pubs, shops and other amenities such as a community centre. Architects came from all over the world to see it, and it still attracts international attention, said Dr Cherry. Today, many of the shops and a few of the flats are empty, or hidden behind heavy shutters to protect them against vandalism.

Christine Karma, 41, who has lived on the estate for 18 years, said: "The people who first lived here kept the estate in an immaculate condition, but they have grown old and moved away. Now the estate is troubled by vandals and it has become run down. But I like living here because there is still a strong sense of community. The people make this place special, not the buildings."

Among the other council housing schemes being put forward for listing this week at the exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects' Centre in Portland Place, is Lillington Gardens in Pimlico, hailed by many as Britain's first successful alternative to the tower block. None of the estate's complex arrangement of flats and maisonettes, set around a formal garden, are over nine storeys high, and it set a trend which spread throughout Britain in the 1960s. Parts of the Alton Estate in Roehampton, south-west London, the flagship project of London County Council's 1950s housing programme are also being put forward for listing, as is the Golden Lane Estate in the City of London.

Among the 18 private housing schemes being put forward are the flats in St James's Place, central London, the first development for the luxury market designed by Sir Denys Lasdun, and Langham House Close, Ham Common, south-west London, the first work by the Stirling Gowan partnership. The use of both brick and concrete to express the structure of Langham House influenced a whole generation of architects.

Among the post-war private houses is Farnley Hey, near Huddersfield. With its contrast of natural brick and stone with Formica, it is perhaps Britain's best-known example of the American "contemporary" style.