At our Whit's end
Having finally finished the Paternoster Square scheme after years of debate and constant change, Sir William Whitfield is to celebrate with a well-deserved retirement
'Creating places is as important - probably more important - to me than creating individual buildings, ' says Sir William Whitfield, the masterplanner of the newly completed Paternoster Square development. Finally succeeding where many others (a large cast, including Arup Associates, Richard Rogers, John Simpson and Terry Farrell) have failed is a considerable achievement and Whitfield feels that, with the realisation of the project after so many years of debate, the time has come to retire. He has just celebrated his 83rd birthday and Whitfield Partners, the practice he founded 40 years ago, has recently been wound up.
Whitfield realises that not everyone will see the point of what he has achieved at the heart of the City. 'I set out to do something that was fundable, buildable and lettable, ' he says. 'Of course it's a compromise in some respects, but if it weren't, nothing would have been built at all.' Whitfield's involvement with the area began in 1987. As surveyor to St Paul's Cathedral (and a Royal Fine Art commissioner) he was drafted on to the jury for the Paternoster Square architectural competition, run by Stuart Lipton, that resulted in Arup Associates' redevelopment scheme being selected.As we sip coffee in the crypt of St Paul's, Whitfield recalls the exhibition of the Arup scheme alongside the rival proposals developed by John Simpson with the encouragement of the Prince of Wales. 'The public crowded around Simpson's elaborate model, ' he recalls. 'Arup's presentation was schematic and aimed at other architects. The public couldn't understand it and everyone went for Simpson - there's a lesson for the profession there.'
The role of the Prince in the matter is something on which Whitfield will not comment. He knows Charles well, respects his views on architecture (while sometimes disagreeing with them), but 'one does not discuss personal conversations with royals'.
Whitfield is still surprised that he was chosen to oversee the development of the most prominent (and most contentious) site in the City. 'I don't think I'm seen as a commercial architect, ' he says. 'I suppose I'm viewed as an aesthete, working mostly with old buildings.'
But late in 1996 he was approached by site owner Mitsubishi Estates Corporation to develop a new strategy to replace the approved Farrell/Simpson masterplan that had supplanted that by Arup. He is critical of many aspects of the Farrell/Simpson scheme, but the basic problem, he insists, is that it was not commercially viable.
Whitfield is a North Easterner by upbringing. His family were coal-owners and it was hoped that he would enter the family firm.
Whitfield, however, had a precocious interest in buildings - so much so that, with special permission from the vice-chancellor, he entered the Newcastle architecture school (then part of Durham University) at the age of 15 and when called up for military service in the Second World War was already qualified.
'The key move in my career was going back to Newcastle after the war to finish my planning course, ' says Whitfield. He studied under Thomas Sharp, 'a difficult man but a great one', and was attracted to teaching - 'but there would always have been the itch to build'. He made his mark in the '60s with work at Durham, Newcastle and Glasgow universities, then in London. His reconstruction and extension of the Chartered Accountants' Hall in the City managed to be both radical and equally respectful to the existing building by Belcher. Pevsner praised it as a model for the interaction of bold new design with a historic context.
Whitfield's work subsequently moved in a more historicist direction (though he loathes that label - 'I'm simply an architect, doing things in my own way, ' he says). Richmond House, Whitehall, was a very large development of government offices initially designed to be completely anonymous from the street. Helped by the intervention of Michael Heseltine, who wanted the scheme to have a public presence ('his mention of Brasilia rather worried me'), Whitfield produced an elevation to Whitehall that was a free paraphrase of the style of Henry VII's Chapel. The new chapter house at St Albans was built of brick, used as a load-bearing material, because reused Roman brick is used so prominently in the adjoining cathedral. 'Style is not an issue, ' says Whitfield. 'It is a matter of what is appropriate.' The language of St Albans was further developed in the cathedral library at Hereford, designed to house the Mappa Mundi.
Looking at St Paul's, Whitfield sees 'so much of Hawksmoor - Wren could not have built it without him'. He is proud to have been closely involved in rescuing Hawksmoor's magnificent Christ Church, Spitalfields, from near-ruin. 'I was determined that there shouldn't be even a whiff of Whitfield in the building, ' he says. 'It should be an act of homage to Hawksmoor.' (Whitfield's former associate Red Mason is completing the project, having joined Purcell Miller Tritton & Partners. ) Whitfield's last project is one of his most extraordinary. He has designed one of the largest country houses of modern times ('the portico is as big as that of St Martin-inthe-Fields') for a site in Oxfordshire. Neither client nor site can be named. 'It's entirely Palladian and hugely grand. I thought hard about whether to take it on, but thought:
why not? I can do it as well as anyone.'
Many years ago, Whitfield bought a country house of his own, Helen Auckland Hall in County Durham. It was half derelict, its setting ruined by new development, and faced demolition - 'shortly after I'd acquired it, the roof over the staircase collapsed', Whitfield recalls. 'Everyone thought I was mad.' The house has been immaculately restored, but further works are in hand - for example to accommodate the 10,000 books that Whitfield is moving from London.
Looking back, Whitfield admits that taking on the house was risky - 'but someone had to do it'. The comment could be applied to much of his long and eventful career.