The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Basil Spence: Buildings and Projects

by Louise Campbell, Miles Glendinning and Jane Thomas (RIBA Publishing, £45)

Reviewed by Alan Powers

With our monograph series Twentieth Century Architects, we have been helping to develop the recording and interpretation of a subject area in which surprisingly little reliable information is available beyond a handful of individual figures. However, some of these are too big to be contained within our deliberately circumscribed format. It is, therefore, very satisfactory that the Basil Spence research project, directed by Louise Campbell and funded by the AHRC, has culminated in a book on a scale commensurate with his output from the mid 1930s until his death in 1976: one that coincidentally has been published by one of our monograph partners.

The project was triggered by the donation to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland of the very comprehensive Basil Spence archive by his son-in-law and partner, Anthony Blee; a resource whose richness was revealed in a 2008 exhibition and catalogue, accompanied by a series of conferences. Now there is a well-illustrated visual record of the work, with texts by the research team which are accessible to the general reader: an achievement to be celebrated in itself in a world where academic writing tends to become ever more obscure and impenetrable.

Spence’s story offers a good read. He was born in India in 1908 and grew up as a child of the Empire, before being whisked back to Edinburgh for his education and a much reduced lifestyle. He was a natural as a designer; a successful student who caught the first wave of modernism yet hankered after Scottish vernacular and designed country houses in a traditional style up to the war, in partnership with William Kininmonth, as well as a few modernist buildings, including contributions to the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow in 1938.

Spence’s career resumed in Edinburgh after the war, and he was selected for the Sea and Ships Pavilion on the South Bank in 1951. The brief allowed him to create a fascinating indoor/outdoor structure that – more than any other from the Festival of Britain – prefigures the High Tech of the 70s and 80s. In the same year, Spence won the competition for a new Coventry Cathedral, the commission made him the best known modern architect in the country for the remainder of his lifetime. Coventry’s story has been well described by Louise Campbell in earlier books and catalogues, as well as by Spence himself in the best-selling Phoenix at Coventry. No subsequent modern building has exceeded the popularity of Coventry at its opening 60 years ago, with its variety of visual effects, modern yet understandable works of art and craft, and the brilliant handling of the relationship between the new cathedral and the bombed ruins of the old.

Spence had an unlimited appetite for work, and in the 1950s and 60s ran three offices, one in Edinburgh, where he normally spent half his week, one in London and the third an atelier in his own house in Canonbury. Here his favoured assistants worked on the early stages of designs under his direction, which often consisted of after-hours visits to the drawing studio, with tracing paper overlays left for action in the morning. It was a model similar to Sir Edwin Lutyens who also liked to ‘live over the shop’, as Spence discovered when assisting him in the 1930s on the final stages of the design of New Delhi.

Although Spence did not replicate Lutyens’s work in any way, it is tempting to look for resemblances. Both were good at siting buildings in landscape and creating dramatic visual effects inside and out. With its sequence of Roman-scaled courtyards and individual pavilions, the main buildings of Sussex University, landscaped with reflecting pools and lawns and executed in warm red brick, are a contrast to the concrete and white tile of other early 1960s Universities.

Seeing the full range of Spence’s work in one book is remarkable because of the huge range of styles. He would have had a good time in the recent period of ‘iconic’ buildings and ‘starchitects’, and while he was criticised for displaying a touch of vulgarity at times, that must be a better way to err than lacking personality altogether. The book will provide material for exploration in the field.

Published May 2012