DEVELOPERS ALUMNO TEAM UP WITH DESIGNERS GRAPHIC THOUGHT FACILITY, BRINKWORTH AND BEN KELLY TO COLLABORATE ON THEIR LATEST PROJECT, BETON HOUSE, LOCATED ON THE ICONIC PARK HILL ESTATE, SHEFFIELD
Eighteen months in the making, Béton House is the latest phase in the ongoing redevelopment of one of the UK’s most iconic post-war developments, the Grade II* listed Park Hill estate in Sheffield. Developers Alumno has collaborated with interior design firms Ben Kelly Design and Brinkworth with Graphic Thought Facility to create a 13,956 sq m student accommodation facility due for completion in September 2020. The addition of student housing to the site is a concept that has been designed by local practice Whittam Cox Architects. There are already over 700 people living and working in the completed phase of Park Hill. The addition of the student community will give a new lease of life and contribute to the rekindling of the original social intentions of Park Hill, as well as reinvigorating the student-housing sector for the 21st century.
A social conscience
“We first asked ourselves how we yield the original aspirations of Park Hill? What is a balanced community these days and who is in it?” asks David Campbell, managing director of Alumno, on the decision to transform part of the iconic Park Hill estate in Sheffield from flats into student housing. After the first phase of the redevelopment was completed in 2013, the team sat down and took stock of how to approach the second phase with more variety and social openness that would hark back to the original ambitions of Park Hill. Having worked on large social projects such as the redevelopment of Southwark Town Hall in London, Campbell quickly spotted its civic potential and struck upon the need for bespoke student housing in the city and its ability to provide a first, the student house within a managed block, which hasn’t been done before. “We’ve always believed that student housing can be a catalyst for change,” he continues. “I liked the idea that someone could enter into Park Hill as a student, graduate from university, get a job in Sheffield and then maybe move up into homeownership in Park Hill.”
With ready-made accommodation units upstairs and a vast (but derelict) volume on the ground floor – ideal for creating an open-plan space for students to congregate in to hang out, socialise, eat and study – the building lent itself to the transformation.
Alumno brought in Ben Kelly of BKD and Brinkworth to transform this 650 sq m of communal area, including a gym, cinema, private dining room, and study room. Tatham Studio worked on the accommodation on the floors above and Graphic Thought Facility’s Andrew Stevens to develop the signage. A Yorkshire native, Kelly first made his name designing the iconic Manchester nightclub, The Haçienda, in the early 1980s. Stevens was born in Sheffield and today teaches at Sheffield Hallam University. To work on such an essential architectural icon of the north of England was a privilege and a passion. “The whole development sits up there on the hill looking out over Sheffield and is quite an extraordinary thing,” says Kelly.
“I’ve known Park Hill estate since visits to Sheffield in the early 1990s and have sadly watched it deteriorate over time, so it was a real honour for me to be so involved with the resuscitation of this beautiful brute,” concurs Kevin Brennan, partner at Brinkworth. “Along with a stellar cast of architects, designers and, of course, working with David Campbell and his passion for modernism.”
Listed as the ‘northern capital of cool’ by The Times and the 7th most populous student city in Europe, Sheffield is a city built on learning. The ambition is that living in this icon will provide a more cultural side to student’s education. Says Ben Kelly: “If you look at it from a student’s point of view, they’re living in a very different building to the usual one. I like to think it might open their minds to society and to other ways of living - an extra part of their education”.
The architectural change of use
The change of use was not without its challenges. Designed in the 1950s by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith as a Brutalist development providing almost 1,000 homes in 400 acres of high-rise blocks, the ‘streets in the sky’ Park Hill ostensibly lent itself to creating student accommodation but was in a derelict state. The original buildings were raised on plinths, a typical Modernist gesture to give vast edifice a sense of lightness. This open under-croft was used for electrical plants and public toilets but had become particularly neglected. Using a light touch, the team has created an expansive communal space that students can populate and colonise however they choose.
Local design practice Whittam Cox Architects worked in close collaboration with Alumno, leading the student accommodation design and building shell restoration, immersing themselves in the history of the building and advocating an approach that saved as much of the original building fabric as possible. Their recognition of the importance of the modernist mosaics and use of colour in the original design led to a sympathetic re-imagining of Béton House, with an emphasis on bringing the whole building together as a piece of art that enriches the lives of its inhabitants and those in the surrounding area.
The starting point for the design was the primary ‘Polychromie’ colour palette used by Le Corbusier, which was also found in a mosaic on the walls of the former Parkway Tavern pub. The team used it to offer a historical context: burnt orange, bottle green, scarlet, and mustard.
These colours also help divide the open-plan spaces into zones (reception, lounges, seating booths, and study areas), bringing in a bit of Ben Kelly’s trademark palette while allowing the original concrete to sing. “To respect the integrity of the building, our approach was to tread very lightly to retain the building’s original features. Despite the difficult acoustics and thermal conditions in the common areas, we have developed a concept that pays tribute to the original vision to become a modern, functional environment”, says Brennan at Brinkworth.
This colour palette extends into the accommodation upstairs. Each room has a unique colour combination to provide a sense of individuality. Tatham Studio oversaw the design process of this element and designed specially commissioned, bespoke furniture and sourced some original Scandinavian pieces. Graphic Thought Facility was responsible for the wayfinding of the building. The project was renamed Béton House (in respect of Béton brut, the French term for ‘raw concrete’ used in Modernism) and identified by new signs cast in ribbed and polished aggregate concretes.
The typeface used throughout is Founders Grotesk. A contemporary interpretation of early twentieth century ‘grotesque’ typefaces of the kind popularised and distributed by the Sheffield-based firm, Stephenson Blake, whose type foundry was located across the city centre from the Park Hill site. “We chose this route as we wanted a typographic mood that reflected the optimism of this mid-century build, bringing together a physical robustness with beautifully crafted humanist detailing, an attitude that pervades the whole project,” says Andrew Stevens, principal, and creative director at Graphic Thought Facility.
Park Hill also has its own typeface (in two styles, Regular and Hardcore), designed by Founded and commissioned by Alumno. Inspired by the iconic Brutalist architecture of Park Hill, the typeface is a celebration of the history of the site’s past, present and future. The Park Hill typeface began as an observation of the accidental typographic forms created by the footplate of the buildings that form the housing development. From above, a well-defined S shape can be seen surrounded by what might be described as other fractured letterforms. At street level, the footbridges that connect the large blocks also have a typographic character.