Walking up to S1 Artspace’s newest gallery space in the former garage block of the Park Hill estate, the panorama of the estate meets the eye. In the distance, beckoning from the brow of the hill, Park Hill’s sister estate, the lesser known Hyde Park, stands on the horizon line. Arriving at the gallery itself, we once again come face to face with the two estates, this time through being taken back in time in the exhibition Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future, in which the work of two social documentary photographers, Roger Mayne and Bill Stephenson, charts the very beginnings of Park Hill in 1961-65, and the final remaining days in 1988 of the now partially demolished Hyde Park.
An interest in post-war architecture and sites of social housing has become a trend within projects and exhibitions of contemporary art, and Park Hill has itself hosted a number of these in recent years, including The Brutalist Playground (S1 Artspace, 2016); Art Sheffield 2016 (S1 Artspace and the Link pub); and British Modern Remade (Arts Council Collection, 2012). As with these earlier exhibitions, Love Among the Ruins also offers an interrogation of the utopian ideals and failures of Park Hill and Hyde Park.
To do this it establishes a sense of conflicting temporalities: oscillating between the present of both Mayne and Stephenson’s time, in addition to that of the exhibition’s own present within the heart of the estate, the viewer is invited to contemplate the changing social and historical context. As the two bodies of work are presented interspersed in small clusters, we continuously move between Mayne’s grainy monochrome scenes of group life at Park Hill, to Stephenson’s colour portraits of individuals or pairs at Hyde Park – Anita and Emma the roller skating paper delivery girls, ‘Tony the Ton’, Sue the owner of ‘Sue’s shop’ and other such named protagonists are introduced.
What is significant about these scenes is their very populated nature: in contrast to the earlier exhibitions, the focus here is on the lives of the estates’ residents themselves, in addition to social and architectural vision. Whilst Mayne does pay homage to the high angle and vertiginous architectural views that characterised many of the proponents of early modernist photography, in which people either appear absent or as tiny unidentifiable figures, the majority of his series focuses on the very activity taking place within the architecture, rather than the structure itself.
Similarly, in a recent interview for the Guardian, Stephenson recalls that “it would have been easy... to have just done ‘alienation’ photography: someone standing in this brutal concrete environment with the building towering over them”. Instead he shot portraits where the viewer encounters architecture through the protagonist’s view of it.