Basil Spence

Basil Spence

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.


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 practsing 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 would continue to teach at ECA until 1939.

Early career

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 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 near Biggar, and Quothquhan in Lanarkshire, were executed in traditional Scottish styles at the client's request. The third, however, 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

In 1939, Spence was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant into the Camouflage Training and Development Unit of the British Army. He was initially based at Farnham in Surrey, but 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

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. From 1958 to 1960 Spence was the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Coventry Cathedral

During the war, Coventry’s Anglican Cathedral had been almost completely destroyed during enemy bombing. 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, but Spence's radical design was ultimately chosen. Work began in 1956 and the structure was completed in 1962. Spence was knighted in 1960 for his work at Coventry, and also served as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (1958-1960).

Later work

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. However, 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. 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). Spence 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, including universities and offices. His last work was for an unexecuted cultural centre for Bahrain, which he worked on during illness in 1976. Spence died in November 1976 at his home at Yaxley, Suffolk and was buried at nearby Thornham Parva.


Lord St John of Fawsley remarked that "Basil Spence's barracks in Hyde Park ruined that park; in fact, he has the distinction of having ruined two parks, because of his Home Office building (50 Queen Anne's Gate), which towers above St James's Park."fact|date=January 2008

Spence has been compared to Robert Adam Fact|date=February 2007 for his attention to detail, particularly in incorporating bespoke furniture and other elements into interior spaces.

He has recently been the subject of a BBC documentary, "Rebuilding Basil Spence", which revises his place in 20th Century British architecture and asks why he has been long overlooked. And 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; ironically the same year as it was demolished.

List of projects

*Broughton Place (a private house in the style of a 17th century Scottish tower house in Broughton, Scottish Borders with decorative reliefs by architectural sculptor Hew Lorimer) (1938)
*Gribloch (a house near Kippen, Stirling) (1938-39)
*Kilsyth Academy, Kilsyth (opened 1954, designed 1930)
*Sea and Ships Pavilions for Festival of Britain (1951)
*Duncanrig High School, East Kilbride (1953)
*St Paul's Church, Wordsworth Avenue, Sheffield
*Thorn EMI House, 5 Upper St. Martin's Lane, London (1959) (Spence's original exterior was demolished in the 1990s; reborn as Orion House with a full-height floor plate addition and re-skinned elevations. A 60-foot-tall metal sculpture by Geoffrey Clarke for the original façade (incorporating allusions to electric lamp filaments) has been remounted onto the added lift and service riser.)
*Erasmus Building, Friars Court, Queen's College, Cambridge (1959-1960)
*Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre (originally 'Swimming Baths'), London (1962-4)
*Spence House, near Beaulieu, Hampshire (designed 1961, for Spence's own use and listed Grade II)
*Coventry Cathedral, completed 1962
*The initial campus design at the University of Sussex (1960s) including Falmer House (1962, now a Grade I listed building)
*Hutchesontown C flats, Gorbals, Glasgow (1962 – demolished in 1993)
*Physics Building, Streatham Campus, University of Exeter.
*Nuffield Theatre, Highfield Campus, University of Southampton (1964)
*The "Beehive", the executive wing of the New Zealand Parliament Buildings Wellington, New Zealand (1964)
*St Aidan's College, University of Durham
*Library Edinburgh University
*Glasgow Airport (1966) (Spence's original façade was covered over in 1989 when an extension was built to house new check-in desks. The original structure can now only be seen from the departure gates and runway.)
*Hyde Park Barracks, London (1970)
*British Embassy, Rome (1971)
*50 Queen Anne's Gate (the former Home Office building), London (1976)
*Civic Centre, Sunderland (1970)
*Thurso High School Thurso, Scotland (1957)
*The Chadwick Physics Laboratory (1957–9) and The Sydney Jones Library (1976) at the University of Liverpool


*Long, Philip and Thomas, Jane, (eds.) "Basil Spence: Architect", National Galleries of Scotland/RCAHMS, 2007

ee also


External links

* Homepage for the archive of nearly 40,000 items held by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS).
* Architect biography.
* Exhibition held from 1 January 2008 at the Royal Scottish Academy, looking at careers of the architects who worked in the studio of Sir Basil Spence.
* Extract from the Sir Basil Spence archive, featuring 57 images of his work.

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