The beauty of concrete

I leave the gym. My muscles are sore but I feel accomplished. Perhaps it’s the fatigue and the soreness that trigger a sense of contemplative wistfulness. That, and the decision to move house. In any case, I find myself being taken by direction, rather than master of it.

I take the car past the little flat in Meersbrook where I first lived in Sheffield. The cobbles are still visible through the dilapidated street, and the endless line of terraces still seems a theatrical backdrop for an early 1900s street scene. Can this be real?

I continue driving, to an altogether very different landscape. I rise up out of the terraced valley onto the Gleadless Road, before dropping down past newly-clad tower blocks into the ‘happy valley’. The road winds down and then up again, through undulating green spaces and large trees kept from the original South Yorkshire Forest (Robin Hood Country used to reach from Leicester to Doncaster). 

It’s easy to miss the hilly beauty of the estate, whose lights now begin to twinkle – signals of the terraced landscape even in darkness. This is because I’ve not mentioned the homes: Gleadless is peppered with brick houses, low rise brick-concrete flats, and mid- to high-rise blocks. Not to mention the three stone cottages at the centre: a wistful memory of a pre-war farming community.

Yet it wouldn’t pay to be too wistful. For the glittering lights of the sprawling estate, its buildings rising and falling over the several small hills, centred around a concrete church, have a kind of beauty. Perhaps the concrete itself isn’t beautiful at all. But the solid and heavy idea it embodies is honourable: The idea that, after the horrors of World War Two, every citizen should have a home and a green space – a quality of life – in which to live. Further, the idea that mixed-build housing could create areas in which all of humanity could cohabit: the young and old in the tower blocks a stone’s throw from the median-age families in the small brick-concrete houses and low-rise maisonettes.

I turn at the roundabout and come back through the valley, this time seeing another of Sheffield’s major post-war projects on the horizon: This time concrete mixed with glass rather than brick. Many think it’s ugly to look at. I don’t. In the sunshine it stands as an uncompromising brutalist landmark, insisting itself upon the otherwise verdant horizon. Refracting the rays of the sun back down across the city and suburbs below from its floor-to-ceiling glass windows.

So, in theory if not in practice, these concrete spaces have a kind of beauty. Perhaps it’s a modern wistfulness after all. Not for cottage farmhouses for the few, but for homes for all. In that context, Yorkshire concrete ‘ain’t reyt bad at all.

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