William Mitchell: the Winstanley Estate

‘Concrete too is beautiful’: William Mitchell and the Construction of the Winstanley Estate.

In the article ‘Concrete too is beautiful’, featured in the journal Concrete, in 1973, regular contributor Paul Marsh stated that people were too willing ‘to hurl at concrete all the abuse’ that at times it richly deserved, but too few, took the time to ‘appreciate its enormous assets’ (fig.1). With the growing exploration of concrete as a visual material, however, he could see new and exciting possibilities developing and presented British artist, William Mitchell (b.1925), as an ‘international authority on sculptured concrete’, whose murals and sculptures were found in urban landscapes throughout Britain.

Today, a revived interest in post war modernist architecture, brutalism and its associated materials, textures and construction, has meant that Mitchell has again come to the fore with the large-scale concrete artworks he created during the 1960s and 70s, found in the diverse environments of schools, hospitals, civic buildings and gardens, social housing, shopping precincts, underpasses (fig.2), and cathedrals.

Receiving the award of the Henry Moore Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellowship in 2017 with the support of the University of East London acting as host, has enabled me to begin the process of researching and producing a monograph evaluating William Mitchell’s life as a post-war British artist. My project considers Mitchell’s development of themes, response to individual locations, use of experimental materials and techniques, the reaction of the public and critics, and his relationship with architects, developers and industry.

For Mitchell it was important that he created a form of public art that physically, aesthetically and culturally engaged with the redevelopment of Britain, serving a social function to humanise the environment, and make it accessible to the public. This process began in the late 1950s, when Mitchell was employed as a Design Consultant at the London County Council’s (LCC’s) housing division, collaborating directly with architects and construction teams to produce artworks for public housing. It was hoped that art could play a role in reinstating a sense of community in the working-class neighbourhoods of the city. 

A British Pathé newsreel (1960) Cement murals, features William Mitchell and assistants in his Forest Hill, London workshop and showcases the sculptor’s quirky mural created for the LCC Dickens Estate, Bermondsey in 1959. In the film, the artist demonstrates his unique process; producing 19-inch square concrete slabs cast in moulds containing negative designs in wet clay, then enhanced with coloured resins (figs.3&4). Although the newsreel promoted a mocking attitude towards concrete itself, stating: ‘anything tough enough to endure the rigours of our climate, such as auntie’s rock cake mixture, perhaps, might be substituted’, it was perceptive in noting the link forged between artist and architect ‘augured well for the rapidly changing face of England’.

Increasingly during the 1960s, mixed development housing was thought to suggest the idea of home to the occupants, with a focal point, such as a tree shaded paved area or a piece of sculpture, helping to provide identity, a place to meet or chat. The artist’s job was to evolve work naturally out of the plans of the architect and landscape designer, so the art would become an intimate day-to-day experience for each resident. In the early 1960s, Mitchell had established his own company William Mitchell & Associates and alongside his LCC role began to work privately on prestigious projects with the foremost architects of the time, while also creating artworks for local councils in more everyday circumstances.

The Winstanley area in south London was the second largest of Battersea Borough Council’s public housing projects, predominantly replacing Victorian sub-standard dwellings. The construction was drawn out between 1956-72, but the stage Mitchell collaborated on was designed by architects George, Trew and Dunn and built between 1963-66. The partner in charge, William Norman [Bruce] George, had studied at the University of Liverpool from 1933 and after the war had worked with Donald Gibson, his former university mentor on the redevelopment of Coventry. In 1947, he rejoined his old firm Pite Son and Fairweather, and although this architectural practice was known for specialising in hospitals, they had worked on earlier parts of the Winstanley area redevelopment, and in 1958 were reconstituted as George Trew and Dunn.

The area of the estate within the triangle of Winstanley Road, Plough Road and Grant Road consisted of 530 dwellings, comprising of one 22-storey internal corridor slab block, three 11-storey point blocks (fig.5), and four and five storey linked balcony access slab blocks; the buildings were positioned inward due to the proximity of light industry and the nearby railway.

Clarke Lawrence Court, an 11-storey block known as Block D providing two and four-person flats, was the first part of the estate to be completed in phase one, and here orthodox building methods were employed, using mainly in situ concrete with some concrete cladding precast on site. Clarke Lawrence housed one of Mitchell’s deeply carved reliefs in its entrance hall (fig.6), followed by a further two differently themed murals created for the foyers of Shaw Court and Sendall Court (figs.7&8). 

In March 1965, the headline ‘Planning Battersea of the 21st Century’, featured on the front-page of local newspaper the South Western Star. It discussed the unveiling of the block by London’s housing chief, Robert Mellish, with a photo of Mitchell’s ‘imposing’ cast concrete wall described as ‘inspired by the Incas.’ Socialist Councillor, Sidney Sporle, the newly appointed Wandsworth Borough Housing chairman (it had just changed from municipal Battersea) was the impetus behind this phase of construction. He had already been Battersea’s youngest mayor (1954-55) and had been brought up in Battersea’s slums. He now envisaged these new dwellings would create an ‘individual community of special character’ that retained some of the ‘intimacy of the old Victorian terraces’.

Following the Government’s Parker Morris Report of 1961, which examined housing space standards, there was an understanding that internal design could not be considered, without taking full account of the inter-relationship of the house or flat with the layout of the site. Play areas and landscaping now received fresh attention, with an acknowledgement that pedestrians also needed to be separated from the dangers of cars.

At Winstanley, residents were provided with good facilities; the layout was relatively safe with one through road receiving little traffic and the remaining road area consisting of cul-de-sacs. In the most formal Court Huitt Square, Polish artist, A. K. Bobrowski, contributed a sculpture and in the Courts not reserved for parking, landscapist, Michael Brown, designed planting schemes, adding over 300 young and semi-mature trees. Four shops and 16 workrooms were also included, with an additional children’s library and eight play areas.

Block A, named Sporle Court after Sidney Sporle was 22 storeys high and consisted of four-five-person maisonettes. The plan to create a tenth storey play deck within was first discussed in the South Western Star article ‘New Battersea Will Be Paradise for Children’, written in March 1962. The play area was feted as part of the most advanced scheme in the country and an answer to critics, who said tall blocks of flats were unsuitable places to bring up young children. The ambitious original plans from August 1962 show the design for the play deck originally had a sandpit and on the roof area an infant play space with pool!

In the Parker Morris Report, it was felt there was a requirement to provide play areas on high density estates as an integral part of the design, particularly for households with families that did not live near ground level. With ‘new ways’ found to meet the need for outdoor space, such as ‘covered space in the open air at the level of the home’; thought to provide ‘some of the virtues of the backyard and the pedestrian street’.

The architect’s plans from September 1963 show the design element evolving further with Sporle Court containing a dance floor, tenants’ workshops, recreation space and deck on the roof level. On the tenth floor, plans were devised for balconies with windows containing concrete planting boxes to form a greenhouse. Also, the first mention of a ‘mould by specialist contractor’ to be used for casting sculptural walls in the tenants’ recreation areas appeared.

In the final version of the plans, the majority of the tenth storey had evolved into a play deck and this provided Mitchell with an unprecedented commission (fig.9). By the mid-1950s, play had been considered a serious requirement for children’s advancement. It was widely accepted that children had a ‘deep and urgent need for play’, as it was believed to be one of the principal ways in which a child learnt how to adapt to adult society.

At Winstanley, the play opportunities were comprehensive, as plans were in place for an area for ball games, some conventional static equipment, two areas with climbing apparatus (wood, metal, concrete) and one with a concrete Wendy House and shops. Three were also equipped with play sculptures devised by associate in charge A J Artur. The multitude of provision for children caused Sidney Sporle to remark that when he first received the architect’s report he was so thrilled that he ‘read it over six times’. 

With advances in technology, an emphasis was also being placed on attractive concrete surface finishes, and now it was possible to work to a size, density and speed which would have been impossible a few years before. It was recognised that this form of architectural sculpture combining art, form and function, could emphasise the mass or lightness of walls, accentuate surfaces, angles or curves, catch the light to create movement or even make inert materials vibrate. The resulting Sporle play area was perceived as cutting-edge enough for it to be featured in the journals The Builder and the Architectural Review in May 1965 (fig.10), with a description of how Mitchell created the sculpted concrete walls and columns.

In March 1963, whilst the planning of Phase Two was underway, Battersea Council and the architects agreed with Wates Ltd, the builder, to construct the lower blocks of Block E, using industrialised building techniques, meaning the whole of this part of the scheme needed to be redetailed. The system was devised by Wates through their subsidiary Modular Concrete Ltd, with help from Ove Arup and Partners. The South Western Star article from 1965 revealed these plans in greater depth. Noting how housing chief, Robert Mellish was impressed with this use of industrialised building methods and recommended that representatives from other London boroughs should visit and plan their own projects along similar lines, describing it as a ‘housing revolution’.

Developments in modular precast concrete cladding had begun with the mechanical site revolution of the 1950s, prompted by the post 1945 shortage of craft labour. Improvement in the quality of concrete surfaces, plus the introduction of tower cranes and related equipment, enabled the size of concrete cladding units to be exploited. At Winstanley, the site was equipped with travelling and tower cranes, with Wates commissioning a ‘Little David’ portal crane to be built to their own specification. Positioned on a rail track, it travelled the length of the production line performing all the functions of concreting, such as casting, striking out, also lifting and placing.

The Parker Morris Report had stated that ‘Good layout and landscaping, together with the use of good and well-chosen external materials and colours throughout an estate, go nine-tenths of the way towards creating beauty instead of ugliness.’ Plans from 1964 show that cast concrete murals were scheduled to be incorporated into the ground floor level of Block E and G, the six and seven-person maisonettes and one and two-person flats in four and five-storey linked deck access blocks. Yet, there were many challenges to overcome as part of a collaborative process, with Wates Construction acknowledging in an interview with Mitchell in BUILD, their trade magazine, in 1961, that an artist in this type of environment had to bring together art and architecture at the design stage, with the building site becoming part of their normal environment.

Mitchell revealed how his working-class background ‘provided the armoury of good humour’ that could turn scepticism and ribbing of builders into ‘interest and practical helpfulness’. He knew he needed a good relationship with contractors to ensure the quality of the concrete, but also because he had to create a studio for himself in their yard. Mitchell felt an artist on a building site needed to demonstrate that he could use the tools of the builders’ trades and work effectively with them. He regarded the site as ‘the most exciting place for an artist – and one where he can fight to regain the artist’s old integrated position in society.’

With the on-site factory beside St Peter’s Church opening in July 1964 at Winstanley allowing total pre-casting for the upper portions, this reduced the construction period from 24 to 14 months. This possibly put Mitchell under additional pressure, as he stated in a recent interview that due to the vastness of the project and the constraints of completing within the terms of the building contract, he ‘entrusted some of the work to his assistants, whilst also taking on board design ideas from the Council and residents’.

Mitchell’s secret weapon in this construction process was expanded polystyrene, a relatively new material, first used as an insulation and flotation agent, then for creating scenery in commercial television; versatile because it could easily be carved into any shape. Mitchell first saw its potential as a liner for formwork in his role at the LCC, using an electric poker to draw into it, against which concrete could then be poured, creating a relief decoration. In his 1973 Concrete article, Paul Marsh described how an artist’s character and temperament were exposed in these modern techniques: ‘When controlling the nozzle of a grit-blasting machine, there is no time for indecision; equally you cannot rub out a thoughtless stroke of the soldering iron on the polystyrene, just as you can’t replace the marble statue’s nose when you have thoughtlessly chiselled it off!’

Mitchell continually refined his techniques, but the general method was to work back to front, with big designs carved horizontally then attached up on a platform to assess, and smaller designs created vertically. The plywood formwork was laid by the contractor then the polystyrene was placed on it and fixed with hammer and nails onto small pieces of timber. Mitchell did not like additives and always used a 1 to 4 mix for his concrete, making decisions then on the sand type and aggregate grading. The cast concrete was left to cure for three to four days, and with some difficulty the polystyrene was removed with a hot wire machine and a sandblaster to reveal the finished design.

Inspecting this series of murals, some certainly seem to be by a different hand, and with the first two by Carmichael Close it is most apparent (fig.11). Although on questioning Mitchell, he thought these looked dissimilar as they may have been cast against polyurethane rather than polystyrene. The flexible nature of this material making some under-cutting possible in the negative design and its density and closed cell structure good for fine detail.

At Winstanley Estate, Mitchell’s vision was to ‘expose the constituent parts of the concrete walls – sand, cement, and stones’; the reverse cast designs revealing to the residents what they would find if they ‘peeled back the layers of the walls where they lived’. Looking further down the series into Fowler Close it is amazing to still find traces of the polystyrene stuck in the corners of the decorative reliefs fifty years on. Also apparent, is the imprinted pattern of the open cell structure of the material and the nail marks that held it onto the formwork (fig.12).

Phase Three of the estate consisted of the shops, tenant rooms, playgrounds and a library. Most of the planning had been decided in 1960, but ‘south London’s only purpose-built children’s library’ was not agreed on until 1963 and completed in 1966. It was described as ‘an Aladdin’s Cave’ by local Wombles’ author Elisabeth Beresford, when she conducted the opening ceremony and would go on to provide a focus of activities for hundreds of children living in the high-rise flats. Not mentioned in the plans were the two mosaic murals, still to be found on the library end walls, one design thought to depict King Arthur, possibly in reference to the job architect on the project Andrew Artur. The other is more abstract (fig.13), but on close inspection, does look as though it could be a three-headed mythical beast? It is unknown whether these were created by Mitchell, but they do bear a passing resemblance to his mixed media murals in the Hyde Park Corner/Park Lane subways (1962) and the two murals (one now listed) at Islington Green School (1965). 

Although the mosaic subject matter was aimed at children, in 1979, co-incidentally the ‘International Year of the Child’, the library was threatened with closure and services were planned to be merged with the nearby adult library in York Road. Children, parents and teachers campaigned against the closure, one teenager commenting ‘All the children come here. It’s our place’, but two years later it was converted into a doctor’s surgery and subsequently into flats.

Reflecting on the estate in 1966, the Architects Journal judged Winstanley as a conventional arrangement ‘transformed by sympathetic materials and landscaping’. It was reported that the character forms and spaces created by the layout were a joy to the children and particularly noted the special facilities for them and the visual interest at ground floor, with a total of ‘sixteen pieces of abstract pattern wall decoration by William Mitchell and Associates throughout’. The scheme was thought to be unique in the extent of its artwork and wall decoration.

The children, however, were not often able to use the sculptural play surfaces at Sporle Court, the safe roof play deck and tenth storey play deck and workrooms were frequently locked by 1966 because of a lack of supervisory staff. The Architects Journal noted the ‘tremendous waste of an unusual amenity because of administrative difficulties.’ In fact, there were three caretakers, who were the housing managers on the site, ominously called ‘the keepers’ by the children, but apparently they were not sufficient for the facilities to be kept open and ‘properly used’.

The Parker Morris Report had already foreseen housing management as an issue because it was felt that all play space needed ‘some degree of supervision, even if only to ensure the safe working of the equipment and the general tidiness of the estate. These functions a good caretaker will normally take in his stride. Supervision of play, however is different.’ It deemed that the problem stemmed from the difficulties arising as a result of the children often having been ‘deprived of adequate facilities for play’. Unfortunately, this required a caretaker who was prepared to go beyond their ‘normal duties’ and ‘take a personal interest.’

In 1967, Winstanley Estate received a Civic Trust Award, and a MOHLG medal for Good Design in Housing. Although built using industrialised methods, the coherency of design and high standard of landscaping were noted, with the acknowledgement that ‘each space had its own individuality, assisted by the use of simple sculptures, preventing even a casual visitor from a feeling of confusion as to which part of the estate is being visited.’

In the book, Planning for Play of 1969, the author, Lady Allen of Hurtwood, also singled out the landscaping of the Winstanley Estate. She emphasised that the whole scheme ‘had been conceived in terms of children’s play activities and all the outside spaces and pedestrian ways have been considered as a potential play-space and part of the total environment.’

Problems, however, would follow. In 1971 Sidney Sporle was convicted of corruption for taking bribes from contractors, although initially given a six-year sentence this was reduced to four, with local people raising a petition asking for clemency; moves were made to change the name of Sporle Court, but these were unheeded. With faulty lifts, major damp issues, vandalism and particularly nuisance on the unsupervised play area at Sporle Court, after much dispute the deck was permanently closed in 1969, it had not been able to ‘replicate the backyard’ the Parker Morris Report had envisaged, and it was replaced by six one and two- person flats in 1972 at a cost of £34,078. 

By 1976, conditions had deteriorated further at Sporle Court, and tenants decided to work together to get their homes repaired and improved. They also fought to have families with young children on the upper floors transferred to more suitable living conditions, particularly now that there were no play provision nearby. Their campaign was discussed in The Sporle Report: Put the Axe Through High-Rise Living (1978), which outlined ideas for the creation of a new national policy on high-rise accommodation (fig.14). Looking at the unkempt conditions on his release from prison, Sidney Sporle admitted: ‘If I had to do it all over again I would not go over five storeys… There is a new generation now, and those at the top of the tower blocks – they don’t seem nearer to God, but further away’.

In spite of the many issues of maintenance and eradicated provision, this part of Winstanley remains architecturally significant. In 1983 Nikolaus Pevsner singled it out as particularly memorable, the spine route of Livingstone Walk, in the heart of the triangle that led past ‘a nicely varied sequence of small open spaces enclosed on three sides by the lower blocks,’ which was he thought, ‘an interesting attempt at a new type of urban pattern’.

The planned £1 billion regeneration of Winstanley and York Garden neighbourhoods initiated in 2013, will retain much of this first phase, with the reintroduction of planting, seating and imaginative play areas and facilities. The visual identity of the whole redevelopment will be inspired by Mitchell’s murals that frame this pedestrian core. The regeneration team at Wandsworth Council interviewed Mitchell in December 2016 to raise awareness of his artworks on the estate and HTA Design LLP will soon lead an engagement process with tenants in the creation of designs for signs, public art, play areas and outside spaces. 

The Battersea Society has also recognised the significance of the artworks on Winstanley Estate and is seeking to achieve local listing to preserve these murals, together with another series located nearby at Badric Court and Totteridge House (fig.15), which Mitchell created between 1970-72. Mitchell wants his work ‘to remain alive, and for residents to continue to question what the estate is made of through art on the walls where they live’.

Currently, a range of regeneration projects are being undertaken with the local community and in 2017, I collaborated with the Wandsworth Heritage Service and Digital: Works, a charity focused on participation through creative media to create a film with Year 6 pupils from Falconbrook School, situated on the York Gardens part of the estate. Within the ‘Winstanley Stories’ project the children explored the estate’s origins, design, history, and the communities that have lived there and undertook the recording of oral histories, including an interview with me. The children were interested to learn more about Mitchell’s background and what inspired him; the resulting film can be viewed below:

Undertaking a ‘messy’ art workshop with the pupils, creating mural designs in clay and casting them in plaster of Paris, unleashed a blossoming interest in art and architecture. Mitchell wanted to showcase ‘the materials of the buildings through shapes, rather than through images of objects or people’ and this concept has given the murals longevity, with the children putting their own interpretation onto the designs, envisaging a multitude of shapes, creatures and everyday objects. 

The most exciting find for me was piecing together the story of Sporle Court and linking it to the intriguing picture of the play deck which I had found in the Architectural Review twenty years ago (fig.10). My current research has also coincided with the discovery of an archive collection held by the construction firm Wates, and I have been able to see photographic documentation of the construction process on many London estates, including images from Winstanley (fig.16). 

In 2016 Mitchell was described by Historic England as a widely influential ‘prolific and innovative architectural sculptor’ and although the Winstanley murals were a relatively low-key series of works within the artist’s career, they did influence more prestigious projects. Mitchell had strong ideas about what could be achieved by combining old traditions with new techniques to give his work substance, stating: ‘those Victorians knew a thing or two. Why not show the thickness of a wall?’ and this concept was essential to the success of the design for his deeply carved relief for the Three Tuns Public House, Coventry built in 1966 and listed Grade II in 2009 (fig.17). Mitchell cast the structural concrete inside and out in one operation, even including the window apertures; this method evolving from the process of constructing the door apertures in the lift halls at Winstanley Estate (fig.18). 

In the ‘Concrete too is beautiful’ article, Paul Marsh recalled that through history, man has exhibited the characteristics of a decorator, expressing his religion and social conventions; monumentalizing his heroes and gods… ‘an enrichment to his everyday life’. Mitchell believed that sculpture should be viewed from within, so its texture and spaces captured the imagination, transporting you from one environment to another, and his artwork is still proving to enrich people’s everyday lives today, as Marsh envisaged. The Winstanley Estate is only one of the many stories with which Mitchell was involved which remain to be rediscovered.

Main image: Mosaic mural created for side wall of Winstanley Children’s Library (photo: Dawn Pereira)

For further information about Mitchell’s role at the LCC, see Dawn Pereira, ‘William Mitchell and the London County Council; the evolution of a classless form of public art’, Sculpture Journal, 2012 and for his use of concrete, see Dawn Pereira, ‘The concrete legacy of William Mitchell’, Concrete, 2009.

Aurora Corio