We’re all wearily familiar with the cliches of the property developer’s mock-up, the “sweeping perspectives and endless summers so beloved of architectural photographers,” in critic Owen Hatherley’s words. The completion of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate in 1961, and the photographs commissioned from Roger Mayne for the building’s official brochure, marked one possible alternative. Like the architecture itself, Mayne’s photographic language signalled a radical break with the past. Fittingly, these photographs, along with those of Bill Stephenson, are the subject of a new exhibition at S1 Artspace’s new Park Hill gallery, running until 15 September.

Instead of downplaying Park Hill’s love-it-or-loathe-it heft by glossing over its sharp edges with soft filters and friendly angles, Mayne’s black-and-white shots accentuate the uncompromising modernity of the 1960s. He doesn’t draw false parallels with older buildings – these photos celebrate the geometric, almost abstract shapes that make no reference to any previous architectural idiom, such as in the vertiginous shot ‘Flats and Bridges’.

Nobody had ever photographed a new building like a film star before. Now, in design porn magazines like Dezeen and Wallpaper*, it’s common practice. Mayne, who died in 2014, had a rare ability to render these new forms even more alien through the lens than they were in person.

Where people do appear in his photos, they’re always nameless and often cocooned in concrete, such as in a photo of young men playing football, boxed in by the towering cliff face of the estate. Mayne’s work deftly navigates the often fractious juncture between photography and architecture, but it also foreshadows, perhaps unwittingly, the criticism Park Hill and other estates like it would field decades later for their coldness and alleged inhumanity.

30 years later, in 1988, amid the backlash against post-war planning, amateur photographer Bill Stephenson takes his camera to Park Hill’s equally enormous neighbour Hyde Park months before the demolition of its towering B block. The building, doomed either to demolition or to an unsympathetic refurb for the 1991 Student Games, recedes into the background. Instead of the societal decay usually ascribed to these estates by Utopia on Trial author Alice Coleman and other detractors in the press, Stephenson finds a community in full bloom, a riot of wildflowers on a patch of scrubland. This is despite, or perhaps because of, the poor maintenance, the high unemployment and the myriad other factors that stacked the odds against this community.

Stephenson’s record of the dying days of the old Hyde Park community exudes an obvious empathy with his subjects, who he spent several months with, sometimes without taking a photo for days. Nearly all the people are named, including the children, and other insights into estate life are often included. For instance, we know that the eponymous owner of Sue’s Shop offered ‘strap’, a short-term loan to customers who couldn’t pay immediately. We meet Tony The Ton, a muscular, topless black man whose arms-folded pose is copied faithfully by his eight-year-old son Martin, whose presence at the exhibition’s opening night, recreating the pose, saw a gaggle of people crowd round to take photos.

Many of the residents depicted are members of minority communities, a factor which is often blamed for the initial failure of Park Hill, Hyde Park, and Kelvin Flats in Upperthorpe, rather than the estates’ chronic underfunding. The entirely white crowd of adolescent dancers shown in Mayne’s shot ‘Teenage Night’ is transformed 30 years later into a community of people from many backgrounds and in many situations.

In Stephenson’s world, multiculturalism exists not as a tokenistic buzzword but as unremarkable reality. We meet two young friends, Richard Hylton and Michael Cunningham, one white and the other black, playing pool in the ‘unemployed club’ at the local youth centre. There’s Donna Hargreaves and Carmen Bello, both 14, balancing precariously on a fourth-storey concrete parapet. Most affectingly, Stephenson captures Faisal and Paula, a young couple of around 13, gazing at each other outside a service lift, their humanity not contrasted but mirrored in their surroundings.

Love Among the Ruins runs until 15 September at S1 Artspace, Park Hill, Weds to Sat, 12-5pm.

Image: Bill Stephenson, ‘Tony the Ton’ and Martin

Sam Gregory