Concrete mural and free-standing sculpture designed by William Mitchell in 1965. The sculpture was created for the former Lee Valley Water Company office building of the same date by Edmund Percy of Scherrer and Hicks, which is not of special interest.
Reason for Listing
The concrete mural and free-standing sculpture designed by William Mitchell in 1965 are listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Aesthetic quality: the mural is a dynamic piece of abstract sculpture on a huge scale, characterised by Aztec motifs and organic, fossilised forms. Its intricately patterned composition and textural variety demonstrate a masterly handling of concrete. The small free-standing sculpture, which was produced as a test piece for the mural, is also of special interest for its aesthetic quality and the role it played in the creation of the final artwork.
* Artistic interest: Mitchell is a highly regarded artist and sculptor whose vibrant, enigmatic creations adorn many buildings and public spaces. He ranks the mural highly in his oeuvre, regarding it as ‘one of the best examples of my work in concrete at the time’. Mitchell specialises in casting concrete relief sculpture and the methods he used to create the mural, described in the Architects’ Journal, were innovative.
The Lee Valley Water Company Offices were designed in 1961 by Edmund Percey of Scherrer and Hicks and built in 1963-1965. They were the subject of an article in Architects’ Journal (20 April 1966). The sculptor William Mitchell was commissioned to create two murals for the new public utility headquarters. A trial panel, cast to show the client what it would be like, now stands as an outdoor sculpture near the entrance. The method used for creating the large concrete mural is explained in the article in Architects’ Journal:
‘The large one is mesh reinforced in-situ concrete, the pattern being obtained by erecting the shuttering full height and lining this with 10in polystyrene which was then carved by hot tools following a ½in scale model. The concrete was poured in 2ft lifts against the polystyrene in a continuous operation which took some sixteen hours, back shuttering being added in lifts to allow the previous pour to be vibrated without damaging the polystyrene. The mural was completed and the shuttering struck before the roof could be built over it.’
The article mentions a second, smaller mural in mosaic which depicts various events in the history of water distribution in the country, but this is no longer in the building. It is not clear when it was removed or where it is currently located.
In Mitchell’s own words, ‘the methods [used to create the concrete mural] were innovative at the time – and the overall scheme was unique in its day in that the sculpture, the fountain, and the environment are all integrated. […] Consequently, the plumbing for the pool at the base of the mural is concealed within the sculpted wall itself – water cascades down over the decorative relief into the pool below and then is channelled outside into a small lake surrounding an island – a mini eco-system.’ He explains that ‘aesthetically, my aim was to produce an abstract composition highlighting the plasticity of the material. I also wanted to reduce the physical impact of this large concrete mass on the viewer, and by splitting the decorative elements into a large number of component parts, I endeavoured to produce an effect of lightness, so that the viewer was more conscious of the intricate patterns, than the brutishness of the concrete’ (account by William Mitchell, 2012). The article in Architects’ Journal notes that there was no channel along the pool at the foot of the mural as it had already overflowed when the continuous flowing outlet was unexpectedly blocked. It is not known if, or when, this was fixed, but for some time the shallow water channel has been covered over.
William Mitchell was born in London in 1925. He was apprenticed to a firm of decorators, and after serving in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, he painted scenes in NAAFI canteens all over the world. Back in England he studied at the Royal College of Art, winning several prestigious awards, before joining the London County Council Architects’ Department where he worked with Basil Spence, Frederick Gibberd and others, producing decorative works for the LCC’s housing estates, schools and hospitals. Although Mitchell’s specialisation is in casting concrete relief sculpture, he has created sculptures, relief murals and mosaics in various media for both municipal schemes and private developments. Mitchell has nine entries on the List, including works that contribute to the special interest of listed buildings, such as the symbolic relief in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool, 1962-7 (Grade II*); the Egyptian escalator at Harrods, Knightsbridge, 1997 (Grade II*); and the fibre glass screen and murals in the Curzon Cinema in Mayfair, 1957 (Grade II). Other notable listed works include a series of relief heads at Harlow Civic Centre Water Gardens, 1960-63 (Grade II*); a free-standing sculpture 'Corn King and Spring Queen' in Wexham Springs, South Buckinghamshire, 1964 (Grade II); and three totem sculptures at Salford University Campus, 1966 (Grade II).
MATERIALS: Mesh reinforced in-situ concrete.
PLAN: The office building has a large square plan with an open internal courtyard. The mural is located in the west range against the north wall of the former entrance hall. The free-standing sculpture is located on the west side of the entrance drive.
EXTERIOR: The concrete mural dominates the former entrance hall. It is structural, with three concrete columns keyed in to the rear, supporting the ceiling (although the left column does not extend to the ceiling). The mural is approximately 5m high, 5.5m wide and 0.5m deep. It gives the overall impression of a series of vertical panels with a strong sense of water streaming downwards, interspersed with abstract organic, almost fossilised forms. It has a dynamic, tactile, richly textural form in which sunburst, floral motifs burst out of the surface; pitted, dimpled areas appear as raindrops on water; and an Aztec-inspired totemic section filled with snake-like forms towers upwards. One of the key design elements is the triangular section on the right hand side representing a downward rush of water. Originally, a cascade of water had flowed over this feature, supplied by pipes concealed in the oval motif above the triangle. The water would have flowed into the wide, shallow channel at the base of the feature which is cut into the marble floor and extends the length of the entrance hall. The channel has since been boarded over.
Neither the channel nor the office building is included in the listing.
SCULPTURE: The small, free-standing sculpture situated on the west side of the entrance drive is approximately 1.5m high, 0.5m wide and 0.25m deep. It is similar in form and texture to the large mural, and is characterised by abstract sunburst and fossilised forms.
Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.