A sixties visit to Park Hill

Photograph by Live Projects

In 1964, the Belfast Telegraph reported on a proposed new housing development at Cullingtree Road in the Northern Ireland city. The multi-storey flats were going to be based on Park Hill in Sheffield, a radical ‘streets in the sky’ development, completed in 1961.

The newspaper sent a reporter to Sheffield and was invited to look inside several flats. His observations make fascinating reading now, presenting a time when people were adjusting to dwellings far removed from the slum housing they’d left behind.

What soon became clear, was that people living at Park Hill were living a simple existence.

“Free from the ‘lure’ of consumer goods, the older people in these flats seem to have disposed of most of their surplus possessions before moving in; the younger ones have not yet started seriously collecting them.

“There were few books or magazines in the living rooms, and I can’t remember seeing a single piece of hi-fi equipment.”

However, the reporter had an eye on the future and forecast that younger residents would soon fill up the flats.

“They will soon need record players, tape recorders, cine cameras, sports equipment, and their own books, records, musical instruments, typewriters and transistor radios.”

And the reporter lamented a lack of storage space.

“Half a century ago, cleaning was done with a dust-pan and brush. Today, 76 per cent of all households uses a vacuum cleaner, and this needs special storage.”

The arrangement of the living areas struck a curious mind.

“Who, fifty years ago, would have forecast that by 1964 practically every household in the country would have a television set? It alters the arrangement of most living rooms – competing with the fireplace as the focus of interest.

“It might be reasonable to suppose that by 1984 the traditional type of house or flat with box-like rooms will be completely inadequate to the needs of the average household.

“By then, it is likely that many flats will be built as shells containing the floors and staircases with traditional internal walls around the bathroom and WC only. The remaining area, which will be used for the kitchen, sitting and living areas and bedrooms, will be left clear to be divided by the occupier.”

Finally, the reporter noted rows of parked cars outside.

“When the flats were designed and built nobody imagined a time when people who lived in them would own one, or even two cars. Consequently, no garages were built.”

In the end, financial concerns meant the proposed model in Belfast didn’t proceed with only a fraction being built.

Constructed in the mid-sixties, the Divis Complex, consisted of Divis Tower and 12 eight-storey terraces and flats, all named after the nearby Divis Mountain.

The photograph is by Live Projects, a pioneering educational initiative introduced by the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield, which in 1999 restored a flat on Gilbert Row, at Park Hill, installing retro fittings and furniture.