The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

27 March 2012

A Third Sounding: Museums and the Ruins of Utopia

"The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long..."

Inspired by this quote from Blade Runner, our own Ceri Jones presents to us a vision of the modernist ideals which lay behind the post-war redevelopment of Sheffield, a city significantly damaged by poverty, industrialisation and war. Behind the modernist hope for a clean, bright new future, lay new transport systems and shopping precincts, new buildings, new educational institutions, and a huge emphasis on public housing.

In 1967, Sheffield suffered from serious poor housing, and much effort went into changing and developing this. Here, as in many other cities, high rise flats were built to replace the slums, but poor management, the degradation of such concrete buildings which inevitably occurs in the 'English Rain' led to a huge material and social deterioration. By the 1980s and 1990s, these social housing areas were places for the desperate.

It has been argued that such cities have had, in fact, an inhuman impact upon social life. The large scale of these Brutalist complexes have been seen, not as the icons which they were, but as dominant, problematic and frightening. It is interesting to note how important the built environment has historically been seen to be in the remaking of place - as a hugely active agent in the creation of utopias, and, indeed, dystopias. Brutalism, of course, had many underlying ideals and in more recent times, these have begun to be reassessed; evidence, perhaps, of a nostalgia for that drive, those previously vilified ideals, which have, through the progression of history, been re-legitimated.

Sheffield, Ceri's focus, presents these issues in microcosm. There was a huge vision for the city, with a bright future, redeveloped centre and bright future. Particularly popular in the Sheffield imagination is the 'Hole in the Road'.

Park Hill is one of the most famous examples of modernist architecture in Sheffield. It was a total complex, built on a hill above the train station, and dominating the local area. It included shops, pubs, and even a central incinerator - quite forward thinking in some ways! It replaced 'Little Chicago' - a slum area named for it's poverty and crime. It is interesting, however, that in the case of Park Hill, the residents from that slum, and even the street names were kept - the sense of community was strong, and for the first thirty years the ideals seemed to be working well.

But architecture, of course, changes, and in my opinion it's success cannot be removed from the actions of its inhabitants. People change, and communities are lost. People, indeed, have a responsibility to make their own utopia, and they change themselves, and their communities. By the 1980s, Park Hill had degenerated and was broadly denigrated. Today, it remains isolated, but was registered by English Heritage in 1997 and is now displayed in the Western Park Museum.

How is it displayed here? In the voices of the people, a different voice to that of the planners and the architects. A number of Park Hill's inhabitants present not just the negative elements which might be expected, but the excitement and wonder of people who moved from the slums, into those flats, those 'little palaces', for the first time. Unfortunately, this display rather isolates Park Hill from its wider environment, in the city's context - both past and present - rather limits its radical elements, and places a patina of nostalgia on it.

Reality, Ceri shows, can water down ideals. It seems that we can already isolate a thread which will run through this conference; the conflict between imagined utopias and their material realisation. We can also see already how multifarious the generation of utopia is, how it is built from not just abstract concepts, but from buildings, from objects, and, indeed, from people - the individuals and institutional groupings who manage, operate and change those elements, but who, indeed, are also changed by them.

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