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Building at the sky’s edge – Park Hill the musical !

Great article in BDC magazine

It’s not every day a developer works on a project that becomes the subject of a successful musical. But that’s exactly what’s happened to David Campbell, MD of award-winning purpose-built student accommodation specialists Alumno.

Going to see a musical is not usually top of the list when it comes to choosing Alumno team outings. Well, that was until recently, when we visited London’s National Theatre to see Standing at The Sky’s Edge. So why did we do it? Written by Chris Bush and featuring songs by successful singer-songwriter and former Pulp member Richard Hawley, the award-winning production tells the story of three generations of people living on Sheffield’s famous Park Hill Estate. It’s one of the UK’s most iconic developments, while culturally and physically being an intrinsic part of the city.

Yes, at Alumno we all love the stark, striking, sublime, yet much maligned, 1950s housing estate designed by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, providing almost 1,000 homes in 400 acres of high-rise blocks poetically named the ‘streets in the sky’. But the reason for our trip to the National Theatre on a chilly March evening goes far deeper than that. Park Hill is particularly close to our hearts, just like it is for the Sheffield-born duo behind the musical.

The green light
At Alumno, we’re passionate about creating unique purpose-built student accommodation that reflects the history and culture of its surroundings, while making a positive contribution to the local environment and community. Always looking for new exciting and original projects, during the mid-2010s we were approached by our friends at Urban Splash to become involved in the regeneration of Park Hill following its slow deterioration during the 1990s and 2000s. We always believed that the city centre location made it ideal for student housing, so we were delighted to be asked to present our vision for phase 3 of the project, Béton House.

After several months of planning work led by Sheffield-based Whittam Cox Architects, we convinced the local authority that our conservation-led approach to the design, preserving the historic character of the building, was the right move, and celebrated gaining planning permission in July 2018. Our proposal remained true to the original design, including restoring the numerous mosaic panels across the block that have inspired the wonderful colour scheme, yet implemented all the safety and environmental features required in a modern building.

Shaping society
While we were hard at it preparing the plans for Béton House, another creative team were also working on a Park Hill project. In contrast to our preservation of the visual design, architecture and structure of the estate, they were marking and celebrating the social impact of the building on the city and its citizens. Residential developments only become homes once they are occupied. It’s the residents that bring buildings to life. Together they shape society and culture. Standing on the Sky’s Edge is the vibrant and compelling story of how Park Hill and its dwellers have changed across generations, reflecting the fluctuating face and personality of Sheffield.

Around the time our construction partners Kier began work on Béton House, Standing on the Sky’s Edge was opening at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre to rave reviews. However, plans to tour the production across the UK were cut short as the pandemic struck. By the time the musical re-emerged in December 2022, Béton House was open, flourishing with vibrant student life. Another stage was complete in the revitalisation of a Sheffield landmark and social hub. Meanwhile, the buzz around Standing on the Sky’s Edge was growing again, with the show soon to move to London’s famous National Theatre. Which of course was when the Alumno team went along to experience the much celebrated show for ourselves.

More stories to tell
The production, which scooped Best New Musical at the 2023 Olivier Awards, gave us a rare insight into the social impact of one of our projects, and we were delighted to be mentioned in the show’s programme. It was great to revisit the themes and feelings that made Park Hill such an important project for us – one that successfully “retains and celebrates all the key elements of the original scheme, while respectfully adding new layers of identity and design thinking to create three-storey townhouses for student residents, using the famous ‘streets in the sky’,” as local lad Nick Riley, Board Director at Whittam Cox, so eloquently puts it.

Our restoration of Park Hill will ensure the iconic estate has more stories for playwrights and songsmiths to tell about the people who live there for generations to come – and we are proud to say we have played our part.