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The life and work of Sir Basil Spence 1907-76: architecture, tradition and modernity

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A research project funded by:

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This project examined the work of Sir Basil Spence and his offices in Scotland and England, drawing on the extensive archive of drawings, designs, office papers, press-cuttings and photographs which Spence’s family bequeathed to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland in Edinburgh in 2003.

In 2004 Professor Louise Campbell of the History of Art Department at the University of Warwick was awarded a major research grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a four-year investigation into the life and work of Sir Basil Spence. Her collaborators on the project were Professor Miles Glendinning of the Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies at Edinburgh College of Art and Jane Thomas of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. They recruited three other researchers: Dr Clive Fenton, based at the RCAHMS, Dr David Walker, based at the University of Warwick, and Sarah Walford, also based at Warwick, where she made a comparative study of the work of Sir Basil Spence and Sir Donald Gibson (Coventry’s first city architect) for her Ph.D., registered in the History of Art Department.

 
The research team documented the work of Spence as architect and designer from the early 1930s until his death in 1976, together with his personal and professional activities. The aim was to provide a wide-ranging and detailed picture of one of the most important and prolific architects active in Britain in the mid-twentieth century. We made a photographic survey of all Spence’s surviving buildings, and researched the context in which they were commissioned, designed and built. In order to round out the picture which we gleaned from scrutiny of the project files in the Spence archive at the RCAHMS and other archival sources we conducted a programme of interviews with Spence’s former associates, assistants and partners. We aimed to reconstruct the working practice of each of Spence’s offices in Edinburgh and in London, and to establish the particular roles and responsibilities of their various members. Our research project had three goals: to produce a major book on Sir Basil Spence, to provide research support for the exhibition which the Scottish National Galleries organizied to mark his centenary in 2007, and to organize conferences in 2008 to consider Spence in the broader context of twentieth-century architecture.

Our project paralleled a separate archive project at the RCAHMS dedicated to cataloguing and conserving the Spence collection funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund; it undertook a programme of educational workshops centred on Spence’s buildings in 2006-7, to which members of the AHRC Spence research project team contributed.