Basil Spence

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Sir Basil Urwin Spence
Basil Spence.jpg
Born (1907-08-13)13 August 1907
Bombay, India
Died 19 November 1976(1976-11-19) (aged 69)
Yaxley, Suffolk
Nationality United Kingdom
Practice Basil Spence & Partners
Buildings Coventry Cathedral
Hyde Park Barracks
New Zealand parliament extension

Sir Basil Urwin Spence, OM, OBE, RA (13 August 1907 – 19 November 1976) was a Scottish architect, most notably associated with Coventry Cathedral in England and the Beehive in New Zealand, but also responsible for numerous other buildings in the Modernist/Brutalist style.

Training[edit]

Spence was born in Bombay, India, the son of Urwin Archibald Spence, an assayer with the Royal Mint. He was educated at the John Connon School, operated by the Bombay Scottish Education Society, and was then sent back to Scotland to attend George Watson's College in Edinburgh from 1919–1925. He enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) in 1925, studying architecture, where he secured a maintenance scholarship on the strength of the "unusual brilliance" of his work. He won several prizes at the college, and meanwhile carried out paid work drawing architectural perspectives for practising architects including Leslie Grahame-Thomson and Reginald Fairlie.

In 1929–1930 he spent a year as an assistant, along with William Kininmonth, in the London office of Sir Edwin Lutyens, whose work was to have a profound influence on Spence's style, where he worked on designs for the Viceroy's House in New Delhi, India. While in London he attended evening classes at the Bartlett School of Architecture under A. E. Richardson. Returning to ECA in 1930 for his final year of studies, he was appointed a junior lecturer, despite the fact that he was still a student. He continued to teach at ECA until 1939.

Early career[edit]

Southside Garage in the art deco style

After graduating in 1931, Kininmonth and Spence set up in practice together, based in a room within the office of Rowand Anderson & Paul, in Rutland Square, Edinburgh. The practice was founded on two residential commissions which Kininmonth had obtained that year. In 1933, Spence designed the Southside Garage, on Causewayside, Edinburgh, in an Art Deco style.

In 1934 Spence married, and the Kininmonth & Spence practice merged with Rowand Anderson & Paul. Arthur Balfour Paul died in 1938, leaving Kininmonth and Spence in charge of the renamed Rowand Anderson & Paul & Partners. Spence's work was now concentrated on exhibition design, including three pavilions for the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, and country houses. The first two of these, Broughton Place with Broughton Gallery at Broughton near Biggar, and Quothquhan in Lanarkshire, were executed in traditional Scottish styles at the client's request. The third was entirely modern. Gribloch was designed for John Colville, grandson of the founder of Colville's Iron Works, and his American wife. It was designed in a modernist Regency style, with assistance from Perry Duncan, an American architect hired by the Colvilles when Spence was too busy with exhibition work to progress the project.

Army service[edit]

In 1939, Spence was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant into the Camouflage Training and Development Unit of the British Army.[1] He was initially based at Farnham in Surrey, and took part in the D-Day landings in 1944. He was demobilised in September 1945, having reached the rank of major and been mentioned in despatches twice.

Post-war career[edit]

Spence returned to Rowand Anderson & Paul & Partners briefly, before setting up his own practice, Basil Spence & Partners, with Bruce Robertson. He was awarded an OBE in 1948 for his work in exhibition design, work which he continued with the Sea and Ships Pavilion for the 1951 Festival of Britain. That year he opened a London office, moving there permanently from 1953. A second office was opened in 1956 at Canonbury, which became the creative hub of the practice. Spence was External Professor of Architecture at the University of Leeds from 1955 to 1957 and from 1958 to 1960 he was the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Coventry Cathedral[edit]

Coventry Cathedral (1956–1962)

On 14 November 1940, Coventry's Anglican Cathedral was extensively damaged during bombing a year into World War II.

In 1944, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott submitted a design proposal to rebuild the cathedral but this was rejected by the Royal Fine Arts Commission. In 1950, a competition was launched to find the most suitable design from a Commonwealth of Nations architect. Over 200 entries were received, and Spence's radical design was chosen. Work began in 1956 and the structure was completed in 1962. Spence was knighted in 1960 for his work at Coventry, while the cathedral was still being built.

On 23 February 2012 the Royal Mail released a stamp featuring Coventry Cathedral as part its "Britons of Distinction" series.[2]

Later work[edit]

The New Zealand Parliament's executive wing, the Beehive

In 1959 Spence secured two important commissions, for the British Embassy in Rome (completed 1971), and for the Hyde Park Cavalry Barracks in London (completed 1970). He was also responsible for designing the high-rise Hutchesontown C housing in Glasgow. These were intended to replace the notorious slum tenements in the Gorbals area of the city. A combination of social deprivation and exclusion in the relevant areas, coupled to poor execution of his designs meant that the developments created as many problems as they solved, and led to their demolition in 1993. He was also responsible for modernist buildings on The Canongate in Edinburgh, opposite the new Scottish Parliament and in view of Holyrood Palace. This area is named Brown's Close and was listed in 2008. These buildings are privately owned and are currently undergoing repairs to the roofs and spallings (Nov 2010) to preserve this early example of his work. Other work in the 1960s included the executive wing of the New Zealand Parliament Buildings in Wellington, nicknamed "The Beehive", Edinburgh University Library, and Abbotsinch Airport (now Glasgow Airport). In 1960, Spence designed Mortonhall Crematorium in Edinburgh's Braid Hills area (based on the same angled fin concept as found at Coventry Cathedral). He also designed Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, which was unveiled in Snowdonia, north Wales, in 1964.

The Spence practice was rearranged in 1964, with the Canonbury office being renamed Sir Basil Spence OM RA, and the second London office Spence Bonnington & Collins. The Edinburgh office was also renamed for its partners, Spence Glover & Ferguson. From 1961 to 1968, Spence was Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy. Through the 1970s, Spence continued to work on public and private commissions, universities and offices including Aston University Library and Management Centre. His last work was for an unexecuted cultural centre for Bahrain, which he worked on during illness in 1976. Some of his final commissions were built after his death; for example, his design for the new Glasgow Royal Infirmary was completed in 1981.

Spence died in November 1976 at his home at Yaxley, Suffolk and was buried at nearby Thornham Parva. His practice – Spence, Ferguson and Glover continued until 1992 before being disbanded.

Assessment[edit]

The British Embassy in Rome

In 2006 he was the subject of a BBC Scotland documentary, Rebuilding Basil Spence,[3] which revised his place in 20th century British architecture and asked why he had been for so long overlooked. In 1993 Spence's Hutchesontown C complex was listed by the international conservation organisation DoCoMoMo as one of Scotland's sixty key monuments of the post-war years, in the same year as it was demolished.

In August 2010 English Heritage recommended that the Spence-designed Sydenham School be given Grade II listed status: the building was due to be demolished to make way for a new building.

List of projects[edit]

50 Queen Anne's Gate, completed 1976
Falmer House (grade 1 listed), part of the University of Sussex campus, 1962

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Edinburgh, Ravelston Dykes Road, Ravelston House, Garden". A set of oblique aerial photographs of Ravelston House garden with military vehicles, Edinburgh taken as a camouflage test. Sir Basil Spence Archive. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. 14 March 1944. pp. Canmore ID 273364. Retrieved 2 August 2012. 
  2. ^ "Coventry Cathedral architect in Royal Mail stamp set". BBC. 23 February 2012. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  3. ^ http://www.stuartbrown.info/#ArtworksScotland_Spence
  4. ^ http://www.pmsa.org.uk/pmsa-database/9567/
  5. ^ "Ex. 4". Expo 67 press kit. Citynoise. Retrieved 13 December 2009. 
  6. ^ http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/286495/details/tyne+and+wear+newcastle+upon+tyne+city+library/
  7. ^ Twentieth Century Society: Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall
  8. ^ Canmore database: Kensington and Chelsea civic centre

External links[edit]