If you wander down a road off Victoria, you might spot a rather fine concrete frieze running along a 1960s building. This is a council-owned block of flats that was erected in the mid-1960s on the site of a warehouse used by the Army and Navy department store on Victoria Street.
It’s taken a while to find out who the sculptor was, but it turned out to be William Mitchell, who is rather overlooked these days, but as with most good concrete designs, making a bit of a come back at long last.
According to an email to a friend of his, “This was the first integral piece of concrete art ever produced. It’s a ‘ring beam’ which linked all the columns and on which the remainder of the structure depended. I designed it, made the moulds and the builder poured the concrete.”
Being a rather controversial design for the time, there were arguments with the architects and engineers, with the Arts Council, and in the press, but when finished, was widely appreciated.
When built, it had offices on the ground floor as well, so there weren’t the somewhat garish retail signs along the front which while necessary for retail, really don’t enhance the decorative frieze above.
It’s of a style of the time which either repels or attracts in equal measure. I can’t say it’s something I would want, but I appreciate it enough to be glad there are people who would want it. Sadly, about a third of the frieze is missing. In 2005, planning permission was granted to demolish the northern third of the building, which is mainly offices, and replace it with the current modern structure.
That’s not as heinous as it sounds, as this was a development of the 1960s, so the back of the demolished section was a car park, with a petrol station under the neighbouring flats. Sadly, the tall vertical fins for the staircase were also lost. It’s just a pity that the frontage wasn’t retained to help preserve the long brutal frontage as it was originally designed.
The council obviously disagreed, calling the long monolithic frontage “unexceptional“, for they are fools of the highest order.