Retaining Wall with Sculptural Relief by William Mitchell, Kidderminster

Overview

Heritage Category:
Listed Building
Grade:
II
List Entry Number:
1471502
Date first listed:
15-Dec-2020
Location Description:
Sculptural retaining wall to highway, approximately 320m long, running north to south along the east side of the A451 between Comberton Hill and the Worcester Road junction (SO 83513 76382 to SO 83488 76041).

Map

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Location

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
Sculptural retaining wall to highway, approximately 320m long, running north to south along the east side of the A451 between Comberton Hill and the Worcester Road junction (SO 83513 76382 to SO 83488 76041).
County:
Worcestershire
District:
Wyre Forest (District Authority)
Parish:
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
SO8351676089

Summary

A 320m long sculptural concrete retaining wall, built between 1972 and 1973, designed by J G Stewart in collaboration with Douglas H Smith, with decorative surface relief designed by William Mitchell.

Reasons for Designation

The retaining wall with sculptural relief by William Mitchell at Kidderminster Ring Road is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Architectural Interest:

* For the interest of its dual function as a retaining wall and piece of public art serving pedestrian and motorist; * As an example of infrastructure architecture incorporating public art of a remarkable scale; * As a bold response to a considerable engineering challenge, using sculpture devised to make a positive impact on the urban landscape; * As a work on a monumental scale by renowned sculptural artist William Mitchell, considered by the artist himself to be significant in the development of his ideas; * As a piece of public sculpture of considerable inventiveness and aesthetic interest, which responds well to its environment.

Historic Interest:

* For the innovative use of materials, techniques and sculpture in the design of an otherwise functional structure; * For its place in the post-war history of Kidderminster which speaks to the civic and urban ambitions of the town at that time.

History

By the late 1960s Kidderminster was a forward-looking industrial town with a flourishing carpet industry. Befitting upgrades were planned to the existing road system in order to create a gateway to the town and steer traffic away from the congested town centre. Construction of Phase One began in August 1965 and concluded with the opening of Phase Four in April 1983. The route of the new ring road required a retaining structure to be erected to support a section of the hillside above Hoo Road. A substantial, 320m-long concrete retaining wall was designed by J G Stewart, the engineer and surveyor for Kidderminster Borough Council, in collaboration with Consultant Landscape Architect, Douglas H Smith.

The west facing elevation of the retaining wall presented a substantial cliff-like aspect and provided an opportunity to create a substantial work of public art. It was decided at an early stage that the wall should incorporate a decorative finish that would help to break up the significant mass of the structure and allow it to soften into its surroundings. George Law and Co of Kidderminster were appointed to undertake the specialist concrete work and following a seminar organised by the Cement and Concrete Association which featured a decorative retaining wall created by William Mitchell Design Consultants for a similar project in Gateshead, William Mitchell was engaged to design the sculpted appearance of the wall at Kidderminster.

William Mitchell (1925-2020) was a prolific and innovative architectural sculptor who worked in various materials but most notably concrete. He began his career in the 1950s as a Design Consultant for London County Council and set up his own company in the 1960s. He worked with many highly respected architects and engineers of the time, including Ove Arup and Sir Frederick Gibberd, and his work appeared in many public settings such as schools, subways and public housing developments.

Mitchell gave much consideration to the social role of the built environment and of humanising the materials used. He gained an international reputation for his highly textured, abstract reliefs and murals, often referred to as Aztec or pagan in style, though Mitchell denied there being any conscious influence. A number of his independent works, such as Minute Men at Salford University, listed Grade II, as well as his contributions to larger architectural commissions such as the Stations of the Cross murals and entrance doors for Clifton Cathedral, listed Grade II*, are included on the National Heritage List for England.

The sculptural retaining wall at Kidderminster was built between 1972 and 1973 during the third phase of the construction of the ring road. It was assembled using air entrained concrete poured in situ into full-height formworks designed by C Parry of London. These were lined with decorative moulds designed and supplied by William Mitchell Design Consultants with Mitchell’s expertise in the practical aspects of working with concrete earning him the esteem of site personnel.

This construction method produced a low maintenance finish that could be left as struck. Reusable fibreglass liners were used for the decoration of the majority of the wall, randomly arranged in vertical sections to avoid any obvious pattern repeat. Mitchell also created polystyrene liners for ten individually designed full-height panels that were arranged along the length of the wall to further reduce any sense of repetition. Concrete was an evolving technology and its use artistically was experimental, involving considerable financial outlay for sand, cement, storage, mixers and labour.

A waterfall feature panel was built towards the north end of the wall, close to the Comberton Hill roundabout where it could readily be seen by pedestrians. Water was pumped from a pond at the foot of the panel so that it cascaded over the textured surface of the wall creating an element of sound and changing light. The pump is thought to have been switched off during a period of summer drought and the water feature was never reinstated. A landscaped border was created alongside the wall which incorporated paved seating areas, shrubs and trees.

Mitchell noted in his autobiography that there was gratification in these features which allowed the scheme to integrate with the surrounding environment rather than ‘being merely imposed on either the landscape or the local people’. He felt that his work on the flyover at Gateshead established new possibilities for the introduction of decoration to utilitarian features such as road junctions and overpasses but felt that his ideas ‘really took root’ while working on the retaining wall at Kidderminster.

Details

A 320m long sculptural concrete retaining wall, built between 1972 and 1973, designed by J G Stewart in collaboration with Douglas H Smith, with decorative surface relief designed by William Mitchell.

MATERIALS: the wall is constructed of air entrained concrete cast in situ using full-height shuttering lined with decorative moulds.

PLAN: the wall is approximately 320m long and is situated on the east side of the A451 running north to south alongside Hoo Road, between Comberton Hill and the Worcester Road junction.

DESCRIPTION: the wall has an average height of eight metres, reaching approximately eleven metres at its highest point and gradually falling to around two metres at either end.

The wall is composed of multiple concrete panels featuring sculptural relief designs. The majority of the panels incorporate a deeply profiled surface finish, simulating the appearance of a natural rock face, composed from vertically arranged moulded sections about one meter wide.

These have been interspersed with ten individually designed panels inserted at regular intervals along the length of the wall. These display a variety of textured relief designs, combining naturalistic forms with abstract and geometric detailing.

The wall is separated from the pavement by a landscaped border incorporating paved seating areas with benches, trees and shrubs. Vegetation has grown across parts of the wall, particularly at its northern end. This has concealed the former waterfall panel, though it is still believed to be present.

Sources

Books and journals
William, Mitchell, Self Portrait: The Eyes Within, (2013), 106-115
Other
‘Kidderminster Inner Ring Road – stage III’ Unpublished report, (c.1972) Kidderminster Borough Council.
‘Sculptured retaining wall’, Concrete, March 1973, p43.
‘The Great Wall of Kidderminster’, Unpublished (c.2020), Kidderminster Civic Society.
Atkinson, I, ‘Largest Retaining wall given striking appearance by ‘as struck’ method’, Unpublished report (c.1972), George Law and Company.
Peirera, D, ‘Kidderminster Ring Road (1973) – William Mitchell’, Unpublished (c.2020).

Legal

This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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