Sir William Whitfield obituary | Art and design


The architectural career of William Whitfield, who has died aged 98, ranged from the concrete assertiveness of new brutalism to a new Palladian mansion that won plaudits from traditionalists. The office he founded in 1952 and led as principal for more than six decades developed a design approach that brought together different ideas and styles, not as compromise, but synthesis.

His extension to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in the City of London (1970) squeezed a tall concrete tower into a tight site and managed the joins to the baroque of John Belcher’s 1892 original building with great finesse and wit. The hammered concrete and elegant modernist facades alongside older work won round many to the gutsy beauty of brutalism.

Later came three schemes at cathedrals: a new chapter house for St Albans (1981), its beautiful structural brickwork giving more than a nod to Edwin Lutyens; an international study centre in the cathedral close at Canterbury, now Canterbury Cathedral Lodge (2000), setting knapped flint alongside stone and concrete; and new buildings for the Mappa Mundi and chained library at Hereford (1996). Whitfield’s sensitivity to context served him well at a time when, to the relief of many, it had become a prized architectural skill.

Nevertheless, every kind of lay and ecclesiastical obstacle was encountered – from medieval burials unexpectedly discovered to outright opposition to anything newly built next to ancient cathedrals. Whitfield and his always small office overcame them, to widespread acclaim and admiration once the buildings were finished. He was the architect for the restoration of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church Spitalfields for three decades from the early 1970s, surveyor of the fabric at St Paul’s Cathedral (1985-90) and a trustee of the British Museum. In 1993 he was knighted.

New offices for the Department of Health (1987) were built between New Scotland Yard (then being repurposed as offices for MPs), the Regency Richmond Terrace, which had lain empty for years while governments dithered about demolishing it, and a narrow frontage to Whitehall directly overlooking the Cenotaph. On this fearsomely awkward and sensitive site a design of skill and complexity was achieved. Richmond Terrace was refurbished by others, while Whitfield built against its rear substantial office accommodation that was layered and staggered so that every office had natural light.

Fine cast concrete staircases and ceilings gave it gravitas internally and beautiful detailing and leadwork outside did the same. The stair towers were clad in red brick with stone dressings to pick up the “streaky bacon” facades of New Scotland Yard. Facing the Cenotaph, Whitfield designed a recessed entrance in stone and yellow brick with a composition of bay windows and turrets that evokes, but at no point directly copies, Tudor precedent. It is a building of great sophistication but the department left it in 2017, and a parliamentary committee is now considering demolishing it, to erect a temporary debating chamber.

Skill and patience with clients, planners and public opinion served the Whitfield office well at the redevelopment of Paternoster Square (2003), immediately north of St Paul’s. It was one of the great planning showdowns between traditionalists and modernists but was finally built to Whitfield’s master plan. Some of the buildings were to his own design, while others were awarded to selected practitioners, so that it reads as a piece of urban fabric rather than a through-designed development. Paternoster Square has proved more popular with the public than with architectural opinion formers, and is wearing remarkably well.

A proud Northumbrian (and therefore, he once said, “barely English”), Whitfield was born in Newcastle upon Tyne and brought up in a household of formidable women of three generations from a coal wholesaling family whose business was taken over by the National Coal Board in 1946. Taking his mother’s family name when his father disappeared very early in his life, the young William cycled huge distances around Northumberland and the Borders, drawing prolifically and beautifully. The resulting love of castles and towers never left him.

William Whitfield acquired a love of castles and towers from his early years in Northumberland and the Borders

William Whitfield acquired a love of castles and towers from his early years in Northumberland and the Borders

He was admitted to Newcastle School of Architecture (then part of the University of Durham) in 1935 at the age of 15 by special dispensation, on the basis of a portfolio of drawings, supported by a remarkable breadth of architectural knowledge. Whitfield had a facility for vividly visualising plan-forms in three dimensions. He later recalled that his “rough sketch” stage was an entirely cerebral process. Only after thinking through configurations would he start to draw. He was qualified when the second world war call-up came, so exempt, and returned to take a planning degree under Tom Sharp immediately after the war.

He first came to notice as the junior of a team of three who in 1954 published plans for a “New Barbican” in bombed areas of the City of London. Though unbuilt, these proposals, with towers of then record-breaking height, galvanised the City into a plan of its own, designed by others. It is not fanciful to see the New Barbican megastructures – with ambitious scale, high density, and a new sense of urban form – grinning through today’s Barbican.

Another unbuilt scheme came in 1960, when Whitfield won the competition for new government offices and a conference centre in Broad Sanctuary, directly opposite Westminster Abbey. Slender towers for lifts and stairs clustered around blocks of accommodation, the towers breaking up the bulk of the building by their vertical emphasis. Whitfield’s facades had rectangular modules based on those found in both Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster, a deft piece of contextualism before such a thing was commonplace. The fact that it was not realised was down to indecision and the proposals announced in 1965 to bulldoze much of Whitehall.

Of three structures for the newly independent Newcastle University, just one survives, the Hadrian Building (formerly the King’s Road Centre, 1964). With it Whitfield ran a very long facade of beautifully detailed copper windows and daring cantilevers (apparently unsupported sections) against the quaint neo-Jacobean 1920s student union building. His final building there (recently transformed beyond recognition) was the University Theatre (1970), a flexible performance space for teaching and experimental productions. It included two bars within the auditorium itself and a third cafe-bar, open during the day in an attempt to bridge the town-gown gap.

At Glasgow University’s new library (1968), on the expanding Hillhead campus, Whitfield created a cluster of thin towers at one of the highest points in the city. The library has been miserably modified by recent alteration, but at the adjacent slightly later Hunterian Art Gallery his hammered concrete survives. It also had a display space for fittings from Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s former residence (which the university had controversially demolished). The Mackintosh “house” in concrete did not attempt a full replica externally, but is powerful as a ghostly evocation in white-stained concrete: memory made real.

Andrew Lockwood was a partner in the practice from 1991; from 2003 they operated as Whitfield Lockwood Architects, and Whitfield’s last work with the firm was the classical mansion for Wafic Saïd at Tusmore, Oxfordshire (2004). Set in an existing mature landscape park, the house takes advantage of a fall in the land to have a two-storey frontage backing on to a three-storey one, to outstanding effect in the central circular hall. The garden front might owe something to the English classicist Sir Robert Taylor in the way that it hints at the disposition of spaces within, and the entrance front refers to Palladio. But Tusmore acknowledges precedents without being enslaved to them and was hailed in Country Life as the “finest postwar classical house in Britain”. Whitfield’s accretive synthesis of form across boundaries of style and period lies at its heart. As he once said in an interview: “Style is not an issue. It is a matter of what is appropriate.”

Whitfield died at St Helen Hall, St Helen Auckland, Co Durham, the lofty 18th-century hunting lodge that he had purchased when it was at imminent risk of demolition and patiently restored.

Lockwood, who became his civil partner, survives him.

William Whitfield, architect, born 21 October 1920; died 17 March 2019

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