The Day Brutalism turned Dayglo
While planning semi-imminent opus Jarvis Cocker is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (am hoping at least one Brel fan spots the reference), it struck me that I really ought to actually go to bloody Sheffield, particularly as most of the piece would centre around the notion of 'Sheffield: Sex City'- the mimetising of carnal desire in the ferroconcrete form of the postwar city; and not least to make a pilgrimage to Park Hill, Yorkshire's answer to Karl-Marx-Hof and early adaptation of Alison and Peter Smithson's streets in the sky idea. I have, mind you, been a couple of times to Robin Hood Gardens- the nearest London equivalent and a rather ambiguous place (and unlike Park Hill, not likely to be up for a Grade 2* listing any time soon). So I was intrigued to find via Kosmograd and BrandAvenue that the place has been bought up by the grotesquely named Urban Splash, gentrifiers by appointment to New Labour councils everywhere, for a PPP backdoor privatisation initiative to sink the hearts of unrepentant Modernists. I must admit to being much less sanguine about this than the aforementioned: the recent turning of the Brunswick Centre (round the corner from where I'm writing this) into a smugger, more middlebrow (if architecturally rather more distinguished) micro-Bluewater makes this all seem an extremely bad idea. Kosmograd writes:
It will no longer be the domain of sink social housing for the dispossessed, the rootless and the shiftless, low-income families, teenage mothers and other benefit dependants. Such as monoculture was always a recipe for disaster.
The regenerated Park Hill, like previous Urban Splash projects, will undoutedly see an influx of yuppies, trendies, middle income families, and the chattering, Guardian reading middle-classes. But, as the renaissance of the Barbican proves, and the recent renovation of the Brunswick Centre, people love a bit of brutalism, as long as they can get a cappuccino nearby. Brutalism doesn't really need to be 'softened up', all it needs is a Starbucks and a Waitrose. It certainly doesn't need to dressed up with electric pink parasitic appendages or white metallic rose covered multi-storey car park facades. Actually, the facade proposals from Hawkins Brown, featuring bleached wooden decking and some pot plants in a kind of everytown Homebase-does-Scandi style are worse. Going too far down this route runs the risk of losing the essence, the frisson of the strange, Brutalism's dark promise, that makes Park Hill intriguing in the first place.
Exactly, the frisson of the strange. Leaving for the moment the curious idea that the poor shouldn't be entitled to decent architecture, as they'll automatically turn it into a 'social disaster', this is on the mark. Aside from the obvious question of whether you're even allowed to paint listed buildings day-glo- (a concept I'm not entirely against, and when the Palace of Westminister is Jamie Reid pink we can talk) it all misses a fundamental point, i.e of truth to materials: Park Hill was actually already multicoloured, but this was the colour of the concrete itself, and of the gradated brick infill: to then paste lime green all over it is mere garishness. There's a whole other argument on the slapping of colour in modern architecture, and something like the siedlugen of Bruno Taut did this very prettily in the 1920s, for one, but this seems a very curious place to do it. So it's very interesting to find that the whole Urban Splash proposal seems to be based on the alignment of Park Hill with Pop: the (usually brilliant) makers of record sleeves the Designers Republic are involved, The Human League are quoted, and of course Pulp themselves are cited...pop being used in its traditional role to brighten up a place, make it less strange, while the real point of that music- whether Pulp's Intro, Cabaret Voltaire, Dare even- is precisely to, (in the modernist manner of Shklovsky or Brecht) make strange.