Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Streets in the air

I did this piece for the FT last weekend:

In the late 1950s, a massive new housing estate began to rise up on a hill near central Sheffield. The Park Hill flats, designed by the young architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, were finished in 1961. They were the first full-scale realisation of a concept invented by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson in 1952: “streets in the air”.

The Smithsons wanted to redesign the conventional tower block in order to recreate the neighbourliness of a traditional terraced street. At Park Hill, instead of the usual narrow balconies on tower blocks, there were 12ft-wide “street decks” on every third floor, wide enough to accommodate prams and milk floats and for residents to stop and chat.

From the beginning, however, there was confusion about whether the street decks were public or private space. They were used by milkmen and postmen, but the police deemed them private property and refused to patrol them.

By the early 1970s, as subsequent “streets in the air” such as Manchester’s Hulme Crescents and the Smithsons’ own Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar were completed, it was clear that deck-access developments had failed to recreate the sociability of ground-level streets. Made up of thousands of flats – rather than the hundreds in the conventional tower blocks – they enforced communal living on a grand scale, creating problems of vandalism, crime and lack of privacy.

And so “streets in the air” – now more commonly amended to the alliterative “streets in the sky” – has become a notorious phrase, synonymous with the supposedly misguided social engineering practised by postwar architects. The Labour politician Roy Hattersley, who as chair of the Sheffield City Council public works committee was involved in the building of Park Hill, argued in 1996 that street decks were obsolescent for modern Britons who wanted “to become a part of the new individualism, with custom-built bow-windows and curtains which can be identified from the road”.

But not everyone was prepared to condemn this model of a high-rise community to the dustbin of history. English Heritage conferred Grade II* listed status on Park Hill in 1998, and in 2007 the flats began to be refurbished by the property development company Urban Splash.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘A civil servant becomes entitled to a carpet (square) at about the £1,600 mark. A tremendous lot of significance hangs upon whether tea comes to an executive in a pot or merely in a cup. There are firms where elevated status apparently makes it impossible for executives, over a certain degree of grandeur, to pass water alongside of their less important fellows. They have much coveted keys and vanish, the envy of all beholders, into private privies.

‘There is something to be said for rough, raw ambition, and the urge, however crude, to rocket out of your early environment. But what a path of glory, leading to the grave, it is to spend a working lifetime progressing from the worst desk in the room to the second-best, with window but back towards the door to, joy of joys, the best – in a corner, with window but back to the wall! That is the non-rake’s progress, the kind of pathetic substitute for achievement so many of us are offered and which we ought to reject with withering scorn. If you are a donkey, do go after real carrots.’ - Gilbert Harding, Master of None (1958)


  1. As ever Joe, interesting stuff. Particularly as a) I went to school in a Smithson designed school - namely the Smithdon High School in Hunstanton, and b) we (my employer) are working on our very own refurbishment / re-invention of our only "streets in the air" estate :

    Daniel Weir x

  2. Thanks Daniel - and thanks for sending the link. Very interesting.


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