Skip to main content Accessibility help

Governmentality on the Park Hill estate: the rationality of public housing


This article evaluates the inherent ambiguity of the landmark Park Hill housing estate in Sheffield, England. Incorporating Foucault's theories on governmentality and biopolitics, this article explores how techniques of power and control radically affected the way this building was both used and viewed. It shows how conflicting discourses about human needs and desires influenced the way that subjects were housed, managed and regulated in Sheffield during the supposedly homogeneous welfare-state years.

Hide All

1 I. Soutar, ‘Park Hill in the limelight’, Sheffield Telegraph, 15 Feb. 2008, 5.

2 Note that Hyde Park, which was designed to complement the Park Hill project, was constructed between 1960 and 1965 on an adjoining site and provided a further 1,322 dwellings. See Sheffield Local Studies Collection (SLS), Housing and Local Government Files (HLG) MP 4107M, Sheffield Housing Corporation: Report of a Visit by Treasury Officers (Feb. 1968).

3 Glendinning, M. and Muthesius, S., Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (Yale, 1994), 127.

4 Smithson, A., Urban Structuring: Studies of Alison & Peter Smithson (New York, 1967); Smithson, A., Team 10 Primer (London, 1968). Lynn and Smith actually worked with the Smithsons on the ‘deck access’ system during their time at the Architectural Association in London.

5 See for example, Bacon, C., Park Hill in its Social Context (Sheffield, 1985); R. Banham, ‘Park Hill housing, Sheffield’, Architectural Review (Dec. 1961), 403–10; Abbott, D. and Pollit, K., Hill Housing: A Comparative Study (London, 1980); Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block, 125–31.

6 See Bacon, Park Hill, 47–61.

7 Quoted in C. Windle, ‘Retreat up the hill’, The Times: Bricks and Mortar (6 Jul. 2007), 7. See also SLS/HLG 711.595F, Sheffield City Council, Park Hill Development Brief (Sheffield, 2004).

8 In December 1998 the estate became a Grade II listed building.

9 Note that (at time of print) renovation work is now currently underway on the site.

10 Bonta, J.P., Architecture and its Interpretations: A Study of Expressive Systems in Architecture (London, 1979), discusses many of the issues that arise when trying to ‘read’ buildings.

11 Ravetz, A., Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment (London, 2001), 157.

12 A point that is also made in Whyte, W., ‘How do buildings mean? Some issues of interpretation in the history of architecture’, History and Theory, 45 (May 2006), 171–4.

13 Cole, I. and Furbey, R., The Eclipse of Council Housing (London, 1994); Swenarton, M., Homes Fit for Heroes: The Politics and Architecture of Early State Housing in Britain (London, 1981); Malpass, P. and Murie, A., Housing Policy and Practice, 5th edn (London, 1999).

14 Dunleavy, P., The Politics of Mass Housing in Britain 1945–1975: A Study of Corporate Power and Professional Influence in the Welfare State (Oxford, 1981); B. Finnimore, ‘The industrialisation of housing: building systems and social housing in postwar Britain, 1942–1975’ (University of London Ph.D. thesis, 1986).

15 Power, A., Property before People: The Management of Twentieth-Century Council Housing (London, 1987); Towers, G., Shelter Is Not Enough: Transforming Multi-Storey Housing (Bristol, 2000).

16 Donald, J., Imagining the Modern City (London, 1999); Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture, 193–228; Fyfe, N. R. (ed.), Images of the Street: Planning, Identity and Control in Public Space (London, 1998); Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block.

17 Foucault, M., ‘Governmentality’, in Faubion, J. D. (ed.), Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984, vol. III: Power (London, 2002), 219–20.

18 Foucault, M., ‘Questions of method’, in Burchell, G., Gordon, C. and Miller, P. (eds.), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (London, 1991), 74.

19 M. Foucault, ‘Politics and the study of discourse’, in Burchell, Gordon and Miller (eds.), The Foucault Effect, 61. The best example of this is probably in Foucault, M., Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Sheridan, A. (London, 1977).

20 C. Gordon, ‘Governmental rationality’, in Burchell, Gordon and Miller (eds.), The Foucault Effect, 14.

21 Foucault, M., ‘The ethics of the concern for self as a practice of freedom’, in Rabinow, P. (ed.), Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (New York, 1997), 300.

22 T. Crosby, ‘Multi-storey housing for Sheffield’, Architectural Design (Jun. 1955), 192.

23 This is perhaps most evident in Foucault, M., The History of Sexuality, vol. I, trans. Hurley, Robert (London, 1981).

24 Foucault, M., ‘The birth of biopolitics’, in Rabinow, P. (ed.), Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984, vol. I: Ethics (London, 2000), 73.

25 Burns, W., New Towns for Old: The Technique of Urban Renewal (London, 1963), 99.

26 SirSillitoe, P., Cloak without Dagger (London, 1955), 45; Foster, H., ‘Some aspects of the Sheffield development plan’, in Linton, D. L. (ed.), Sheffield and its Region: A Scientific and Historical Survey (Sheffield, 1956), 243.

27 Foucault, M., ‘Right of death and power over life’, in Rabinow, P. (ed.), The Foucault Reader (New York, 1984), 261.

28 Donald, Imagining the Modern City, 31.

29 Central Housing Advisory Committee (CHAC), Design of Dwellings: Dudley Report (London, 1944); CHAC, Councils and their Houses (London, 1959); Ministry of Housing and Local Government (MHLG), Homes for Today and Tomorrow: Parker Morris Report (London, 1961).

30 MHLG, The Density of Residential Areas (London, 1952).

31 Womersley's letter is reprinted in Bacon, Park Hill, 9.

32 Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block, 66–8.

33 M. Foucault, ‘Panopticism’, in Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader, 208.

34 Berman, M., All that Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, 2nd edn (London, 1988), 16.

35 M. Foucault, ‘Space, knowledge, and power’, in Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader, 245.

36 Fishman, R., Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier (Cambridge, 1982), 182–8.

37 Scott, J.C., Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale, 1998), 104.

38 Foster, ‘Some aspects of the Sheffield development plan’, 243.

39 Scott, Seeing like a State, 115.

40 Foucault, ‘Panopticism’, 207.

41 Young, M.D., Family and Kinship in East London (London, 1957); Group, Midland (ed.), Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green, 1949–1952 (Nottingham, 1978); Smithson, Team 10 Primer.

42 SLS/Local Pamphlets, vol. 205, no. 1 04256, City of Sheffield Housing Committee (CSHC), Multi-Storey Housing in Some European Countries: Report on Findings and Provisional Plan (Sheffield, 1955), 52–3.

43 SLS/Local Pamphlets, vol. 30, 04256, City of Sheffield Architects’ Department, Park Hill Redevelopment: Part II (Sheffield, 1958), 2.

44 SLS/Local Pamphlets, vol. 30, 04256, 49.

45 The ‘birth’ of the social subject is brilliantly traced in Rabinow, P., French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment (London, 1989).

46 Rose, N., Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought (Cambridge, 1999), 79.

47 Ericksen, E.G., Urban Behavior (New York, 1954), 5.

48 Mitchell, C.D., Lupton, T., Hodges, M.W. and Smith, C.S., Neighbourhood and Community (Liverpool, 1954), 147–8.

49 Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block, 2.

50 Rabinow, French Modern, 67.

51 See Rose, N., Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self (London, 1989), 229–39.

52 DrHalmos, P., Solitude and Privacy: A Study of Social Isolation, its Causes and Therapy (London, 1952), 141.

53 Slayton, W.L. and Dewey, R., ‘Urban redevelopment and the urbanite’, in Woodbury, C. (ed.), The Future of Cities and Urban Development (Chicago, 1953), 297.

54 A. Smithson, ‘Decisions’, Architectural Design (Jun. 1956), 230.

55 Liepmann, K., The Journey to Work: Its Significance for Industrial and Community Life (London, 1944), 74.

56 CHAC, Moving from the Slums (London, 1956), 6. This facet of the plan is also explored in SLS/HLG 331.8335G, Garnsey, S., The Community in the Sky: Life on the Park Hill Flats (Sheffield, 1980), 5.

57 SLS/HLG MP 4871M, ‘Appraisal of Park Hill redevelopment, Sheffield’ (Jul. 1963), 282.

59 SLS/HLG 331.8335G, CSHC, Park Hill Survey (1962), 9.

60 SLS/HLG MP 4871M, ‘Appraisal of Park Hill’, 283.

61 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 170.

62 SLS/HLG 331.8335F, CSHC, Park Hill Redevelopment (1960), 1.

63 Rose, Powers of Freedom, 149. See also Morris, R.N. and Mogey, J., The Sociology of Housing (London, 1965), 165.

64 Ling, A., ‘Satisfying human needs at the core’, in Tyrwhitt, J., Sert, J.L. and Rogers, E.N. (ed.), The Heart of the City: Towards the Humanisation of Urban Life (London, 1952), 94.

65 Foucault, ‘Questions of method’, 79.

66 Burns, New Towns for Old, 94.

67 Empson, M., ‘The housing manager's contribution to estate planning’, in Rowles, R.J. (ed.), Housing Management (London, 1959), 54.

68 Ericksen, Urban Behavior, 422–3.

69 Dahir, J., Communities for Better Living: Citizen Achievement in Organisation, Design and Development (New York, 1950), 40.

70 R. Banham, ‘Park Hill revisited: English public housing that broke the rules (but works anyway)’, Architecture Plus (May, 1974), 114.

71 ‘Housing: Park Hill and Hyde Park’, Architects’ Journal (21 Jul. 1965), 160.

73 SLS/HLG 331.8335G, Park Hill Survey, 1.

74 Department of the Environment (DoE), The Estate outside the Dwelling: Reactions of Residents to Aspects of Housing Layout (London, 1972), 4.

75 Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture, 158.

76 DoE, The Estate outside the Dwelling, 27.

77 SLS/HLG MP 4871M, ‘Appraisal of Park Hill redevelopment’, 283.

78 DoE, The Estate outside the Dwelling, 31.

79 Ibid., 61–2.

80 Gordon, ‘Governmental rationality’, 3.

81 Harvey, D., The Condition of Post-Modernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Social Change (Oxford, 1989), 35.

82 C. Jameson, ‘British architecture: thirty years wasted’, Sunday Times (6 Feb. 1977), 14; S. Bayley (ed.), ‘Housing in Britain, 1952–77’, Architectural Review (Jan. 1977), 421. A. Coleman's Utopia on Trial: Vision and Reality in Planned Housing (London, 1985) is perhaps the most comprehensive and vociferous example of this backlash against ‘planned’ estates.

83 Foucault, ‘Space, knowledge and power’, 248.

84 SLS/HLG 331.8335G, Park Hill Survey, i.

85 Joyce, P., The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (London, 2003), 4.

86 Taken from a lecture entitled ‘The meshes of power’ (1976), quoted in S. Eden and J.W. Crampton (ed.), Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography (London, 2007), 6.

87 SLS/HLG MP 4871M, ‘Appraisal of Park Hill redevelopment’, 281; Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block, 260.

88 G. Burchell, ‘Peculiar interests: civil society and governing “the system of natural liberty”’, in Burchell, Gordon and Miller (eds.), The Foucault Effect, 121.

89 From a lecture that Foucault gave at Collége de France, 5 Apr. 1978, quoted in Gordon, ‘Governmental rationality’, 20; Rose, Powers of Freedom, 87.

90 Foucault, ‘Space, knowledge and power’, 247.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Urban History
  • ISSN: 0963-9268
  • EISSN: 1469-8706
  • URL: /core/journals/urban-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed