The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: John Winter

by Henrietta Billings

John Winter is best known for the steel-clad design of his house in Swains Lane (1967-69).  I met him at this house – his family home for over forty years – six months before he died.  He had a lifelong interest in conservation, but he also paid careful attention to the key aspects of building attractive small-scale modern houses, and his style became synonymous with the British tradition of modernist architecture.  His importance was highlighted at the AA School/ Docomomo annual lecture in December 2011, where an in-depth interview with architectural historian Adrian Forty featured a review of John’s significant projects, with images of him building his own first family house in Regal Lane, Primrose Hill in 1962-63.

As a student John Winter won a scholarship to Yale University, and while there he and his wife Val spent six months crossing the country from New Haven to San Francisco in a Studebaker Champion, knocking on the doors of modernist houses in 42 states and asking the owners for a look around. This trip was to prove hugely influential. He saw his first Frank Lloyd Wright house in Amherst, Massachusetts, a single storey flat-roofed dwelling of brick and cypress wood with glass facades (1940). Wright’s original client, the English professor Theodore Baird, was at home when Winter arrived unannounced, and welcomed him in. ‘He told me: “Mr Wright  and I had an agreement. I gave him $480, he gave me happiness for life.” I thought that was wonderful – I’d never heard anyone speak about their architect like that!’

He also visited Richard Neutra in California, and was struck by the way Neutra also invited him into his home. ‘He was a very busy architect, and I dropped in, just a wondering student. He put down everything he was doing and spent the rest of the day with me showing me his work.’

After graduation Winter went on to work for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) architects in San Francisco, where he developed an interest in simple steel-framed building methods. He felt that he was lucky to work with the firm when they were at the peak of their fame. ‘They were the best architects in the world and they knew it. I remember asking them if they ever took architecture magazines, and they said, “No, they all follow our work – we set the trends – why bother?” And they were quite right.’

In the UK Winter worked initially for Erno Goldfinger, an architect he greatly admired. ‘If you look at architectural fashions in the 30s and 40s, he didn’t follow any of the fashions. He did his own thing and I liked and respected that. He was a tough taskmaster, but I learnt a lot from him.’

Winter then went on to lecture at the AA from 1960-64, where his students included Michael Hopkins, Nick Grimshaw and Richard Rogers. It was during this time that he designed and built his first house for his family at 2 Regal Lane. ‘I was up every morning at 5.30am laying bricks’, he recalled. ‘It took two years to build – all DIY. All the Americans I knew built their own homes – it seemed the normal thing to do there – so it was the normal thing to do when I got back here.’ Built on the foundations of a former garage in a leafy lane next to Regents Park, the house was classed as a conversion rather than a new-build, and so got past the planners. When completed, it featured in national newspapers as a self-build home that cost £700. This modest house made maximum use of the site and sunlight by placing the bedrooms on the ground floor and the principal rooms on the upper floors with views over the park. The living room in particular has an almost entirely glazed south-facing elevation, and retains its central spiral timber staircase.

In 1968 Winter built 81 Swains Lane, overlooking Highgate Cemetery, his most famous building and now Grade II* listed. This was another house that almost did not make it past design stage: ‘The planners wanted an Arts & Crafts style house on the site. It went to the local Highgate Society conservation group, whose representative was Walter Bor.’  Bor (1916-99) was an architect and one of the original planners of Milton Keynes. ‘Walter Bor was wonderful. He said there was a tradition in Highgate of young architects building houses in the back gardens of other houses. And the fact he said it was a tradition got it through. We wouldn’t be sitting here today if it wasn’t for Walter Bor.’

Planning permission was not the only obstacle on the Swains Lane site. ‘Once the foundations were in I couldn’t find anyone to put the steel frame up. I had a client up the hill, a civil engineer who  worked at Balfour Beatty. He recommended using Cor-ten steel for the frame – a hard-wearing material that they used at the Ford factory in Dagenham. He also mentioned that all the workers there were on strike and the sub-contractors were looking for work. So I contacted them. The subcontractors had never done a house before, never done a building. But we just got on with it, and it worked.’ Typically modest, he argued that this was not a DIY project like Regal Lane: ‘I just did the boring jobs, like painting. I also did a bit of the welding [of the steel frame].’

The clever design of the steel-clad house makes the most of a tight site, the garden of the former superintendent’s house at Highgate Cemetery. As English Heritage’s listing description points out, it was seen as an important marker in the history of the steel house in Britain; a highly influential and unusual house in its structure, materials, plan and aesthetic: ‘It is still a model for minimal housing, as influential today as it was when it was built.’

Later in his career John Winter focused on the restoration of modernist houses, including High Cross House at Dartington in Devon by William Lescaze (1932, Grade II *) and High and Over in Amersham by Amyas Connell (1930, Grade II*). This interest in conservation reflected the careful attention he paid throughout his career to understanding modernist architecture as well as the importance of designing new buildings in context.

When I asked him about his reputation for designing simple, compact yet functional spaces, he replied: ‘I’ve always liked the car designer William Stout’s advice to his colleagues at Ford: “simplicate and add lightness”. I think that’s a theme that runs through my work.’  He is survived by his wife Val, their daughter Martha and two sons, Timothy and Henry.

John Winter, born May 16 1930, died November 12 2012.

Published February 2013