The Park Hill flats sit atop Park Hill, the slope to the east of Sheffield Station. I’ve always thought of them as Sheffield’s Byker estate: iconic brutalish architecture; utopian housing that aimed to lift ordinary people into the sky though living there ground people down; visible from afar so that people like me, just passing through with curious eyes wide open, can gaze on them and admire and wonder without getting close.
Sheffield artist Mandy Payne has made some beautiful paintings of the Park Hill flats, poetically painting with aerosol on concrete she presents them in a way that highlights the astonishing beauty of this hard architecture, using hard materials to make gentle portraits. It’s as if she’s reminding us not to misplace blame and responsibility for failed social experiments onto bold buildings, but in the hands of the bureaucrats and architects who failed to understand the communities they were re-engineering. Visually, the Park Hill flats remind me a bit of the Barbican, where I went to school, which has notably not failed. I also note that it incorporates a mix of social and private housing, an art centre, a music school, a private girls school, access to a national museum, and is protectively designed around precious historic remains of the City of London. Hmm.
In the glorious hard winter sunshine and crisp February air not untypical of Sheffield, the blunt, hard lines, juxtaposed planes and unforgiving materials of the Park Hill apartment buildings have a kind of lean beauty. I thought of Vivien Leigh’s cheekbones and was entranced by the glamour of the sight of the buildings surrounded in winter by naked trees.
And then I noticed that the walls of the stairwells, painted a gentle, subtle blushing pink by Mandy Payne in her studies, are actually just brick painted orange. My heart fell, the romance spoiled, and the spell of the glamour broken. I slumped, disappointed and confused, and had to turn away to refocus on the view over Sheffield towards the snow-covered hills of the Peak District. I felt I’d been lied to, and strangely I felt let down. It’s not Mandy’s fault, though: I had used the paintings to feed my belief in the cause of finding beauty in what is marginalised and derided; I had co-opted them to support my own political ideology.
What I see now, at home and gazing on postcard reproductions of the paintings is that they are truthful after all. They truthfully convey the real beauty of these buildings, and the hopes of those who designed them, and those first lived in them, and those who still do. They faithfully depict the beauty of this now unfashionable architecture from far away, but painted as if you could see this beauty close up. They are paintings of hope.
You can see two of Mandy Payne’s paintings in the ‘Picturing Sheffield’ exhibition at the Millennium Galleries until 12 April.