Paper written by Andrew Merrylees.
Presentation notes provided by Andrew Merrylees.
This is a purely personal view which, I hope, will give a flavour of how the Spence Edinburgh office conditioned my approach to architecture and, by example, contributed to the development of many architects who passed through its portals. I will try to highlight some characteristics and identify a number of lessons learned along the way.
It is 1951 and I am a first year student at Glasgow School of Architecture. The time of the Festival of Britain – a brave new world – and Basil has won the Coventry cathedral competition.
I think –
it would be nice to have a change from Glasgow and to work for him in Edinburgh during my summer break in 1952.
I get on the train, go to Moray Place, am interviewed by Hardie Glover and am offered a job.
I didn’t know then that this was the start of a thirty two year involvement with, and lifelong association with the practice.
My first impressions as a young eighteen year old during that first summer have stayed with me all through my career.
Lesson no.1 – discipline, organisation and time management.
Discipline and organisation were evident everywhere. My very first task was to learn how to fold prints so that the finished article had the title block on top and fitted a standard envelope. This was achieved using a special rod with coloured marks, fold 1, fold 2, and so on. A small matter but indicative of how the practice was run. Every operation was planned down to the last detail. The RIBA Plan of Work was followed fastidiously - presentations were immaculate and deadlines were never missed - all production information was complete before tendering and work starting on site – this included everything even ironmongery schedules
A great lesson in time management.
The room in Moray Place I initially worked in housed eight architects, with drawing boards, etc. – not a lot of space – one had to work tidily. There was little noise. If one needed to talk with someone then one had to go to the person and stand by his drawing board [I don’t remember any female architects]
Lesson no 2 – commitment and enthusiasm
There was an enjoyable rhythm of work in the office punctuated by a coffee break in mid morning and tea in the afternoon both in the back courtyard and lunch in a nearby pub. Valuable exchanges of information and heated debate at these times enhanced the shared enjoyment of our architectural efforts and must have saved valuable time.
Permeating all of this was a great sense of commitment to individual projects and enthusiasm for architecture generally. It truly was a happy office.
In the ‘fifties and ‘sixties Basil was “the flavour of the month” and students and young architects came from all over the world, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, Scandanavia, Ireland and a strong contingent from Wales. Everyone wanted to have his name on their c.v. This added another dimension to the culture of the practice.
With such a working environment I soon realised that Architecture is not a job, it is a way of life – and it is there to be enjoyed.
Lesson no 3 – continuous learning and research
Life long learning and personal development were always encouraged and supported. We now call it CPD. A valuable investment in staff and by staff.
I was certainly nursed through my formative years, being involved in the detailing of some interesting buildings –
Mortonhall Crematorium – pews and spiral stair
Edinburgh University Staff Club – various interiors
Scottish Widows, St Andrew Square – the board room designed around an Ann Redpath tapestry, the entrance hall with circular lift, spiral stair and suspended limestone ceiling [yes! suspended limestone ceiling]
Setting up perspectives for Basil’s beautiful pastel drawings was another job with which I was entrusted.
Later I was sent annually to courses at the Institute of Advanced Architectural Education at York University. There were frequent visits to the London office to be “indoctrinated” and to vist projects designed there.
Research was considered to be the life blood of any project. For instance, before the Edinburgh University library I spent a fortnight drtiving all over Denmark visiting libraries. Later when designing the interiors of the exhibition areas, the Librarian, the Buildings Officer, Hardie Glover and I did a ten day study tour of galleries in Holland and Germany – ending with a week end in Garmisch Partenkirchen, the Bavarian ski resort. – team bonding !
Lesson no 4 – praise and encouragement
I was treated from day one with respect as an Architect, not as an office boy. I was integrated into the team and made to feel my efforts were valued.
Later, as I progressed I realised how important it is to give credit for contributions and to foster a feeling of ownership in a project. Basil would often send me little hand written notes saying how he liked something I had done. Ten minutes with him at my drawing board would keep me fired up for months.
Lesson no 5 – team work
I also learned about team work. Hardie Glover, who was my mentor, was captain of the Edinburgh team. He was brilliant at delegation while still retaining an ability to make valuable contributions. He seldom drew anything himself but was at the centre of all projects – like a conductor teasing out the best in all the performers, making sure they played in tune and on time.
He recognised the valuable contributions to be made by Users, Consultants Builders and other specialists. We were encouraged to listen a lot, and all the time, to the experts in the relevant disciplines.
We were therefore instructed always to use the word ‘WE’ and not ’I’ when making a presentation; which complimented Basil’s phrase “we specialise in not specialising”
Ultimately, however, after all the collaboration the Architect has to take responsibility and have the final say – even if only to say “We did it that way because I like it that way”.
Lesson no 6 – detailing
After graduation in 1956 and a post-grad in TP in 1957 I was employed full time. At this time Basil still did all the conceptual design for all major projects and the staff therefore poured all their energies and creative skills into the detailing. For us – God really WAS in the detail – but – a wonderful foundation for any career
I was, however given a few small projects to design.
The layout of the Royal Highland Show – the Judges Box, the Entrances, the Chunki Chicks stand
On the exhibition theme there was also the Lithgow Group stand at the Glasgow exhibition.
The Animal Breeding Research Organisation Building for Ed Univ was another of my designs
The SIXTIES, SEVENTIES and early EIGHTIES
In the early ‘sixties I was appointed job architect on my first major project, the Edinburgh University Library. With Hardie’s guidance, I submitted a design to the RSA summer exhibition. Basil liked it and from then on I was given a free reign, particularly after I became an Associate in 1968.
While constructing the Edinburgh library we won an International design competition for the Library at University College, Dublin. That coincided with metrication – it was designed in imperial and built in metric. It is interesting to note that we still really DESIGN in imperial as it is much more ergonomic. That was followed by other wins at Liverpool Univ and the Univ of Aston in Birmingham.
Other libraries followed, eg H-Watt and the Erskine Medical Library, culiminating in the NLS in Causewayside.
It is interesting to note the Ed Univ Library has recently been A-listed by Historic Scotland.
We used design competitions as CPD. We had a fair measure of success and a large proportion of our work was gained by this method.
By the time of my partnership in 1976 there were three distinct strands to the practice. Hardie Glover was approaching retirement and had three younger partners. Jim Beveridge dealt with all the hospitals like the Glasgow Royal Infirmary and other medical facilities, John Legge was responsible for airport and commercial work such as Scottish Widows and John Lewis and I concentrated mainly on Universities and Public Buildings.
My other projects at this stage included the AA HQ at Erskine and the PO Building at Brunswick Road.
Sadly some designs were never built, eg the BBC HQ at Nottingham Place, a Leisure Complex in St Andrews and the National Library of Iran. But even they left us with a rich source of knowledge and ideas.
The EIGHTIES and NINETIES
In 1985 I resigned and set up my own practice carrying on the ethos of the Spence practice.
The NLS was designed in the Spence era and built by my new practice.
We set up Quadrant in 1988. A studio of four design practices, operating independently but sharing facilities and exchanging ideas.
We carried on successfully with design competitions with wins, for example at H-Watt Main Entrance and Conference Centre, the British Golf Museum at St. Andrews, housing in Oban, the John Logie Baird Vision Centre opposite Glasgow Cathedral, Motherwell Heritage Centre and Dundee Science Centre.
We came second in the competition for a Signature office building at the Gyle.
I kept contact with Hardie Glover until he died. We met regularly for lunch when I was able to discuss many issues and continued to benefit from the wisdom of his comment and advice.
Lesson no 7 – art and architecture
Sir Herbert Reid wrote – quote -
“For in one sphere, in Architecture and to some extent in industrial arts it is already in social action. There we find the essential link between the abstract movement in modern painting and the most advanced movement in modern Architecture. But You cannot build a new society – and you must build such a society with bricks and mortar, steel and glass – you cannot build such a society without artists.”
Following in Basil’s footsteps we have always engaged with other artists when at all possible. I spent five years with painters, sculptors and the like at Glasgow School of Art and continue that association through the Royal Scottish Academy.
All our designs identify opportunities for the incorporation of works of art and there have been many successful outcomes
Liverpool Univ Library – Philip King- sculpture – ‘Red Between’ sister of Yellow Between at Sydney Opera House
Post Office Sorting Office – Debbie Gliori – mural sculpture – scrap collected from PO yards
H-Watt main ent. Shona McInnes – stained glass – paid for by Riccarton design teams and SDA.
Motherwell Heritage Centre – Jake Harvey - sculpture – homage to Patrick Geddes
H Watt – Frank Pottinger – wood sculpture - lectern
NLS – John Houston, Eliz Blackadder, Barbara Rae, Mike Docherty, Francis Walker, Glen Onwin, George Donald, Ian McKenzie Smith, Gordon Bryce, William Crosbie, Charles Pulsford – painted windows.
NLS – Ralph Beyer – carved lettering – he also did the carved panels at Coventry Cath
Dalserf Kirk – Douglas Hogg – stained glass.
Dundee Science Centre – Alexander Hamilton – sculpture - glass prism.
We have been given the Saltire Society Art in Architecture Award on a number of occasions
I have always drawn and painted myself and exhibit regularly at the RSA and with the SSAA and have contributed to other shows in Scotland, London, Paris, Villefranche and Warsaw. My favourite medium is pastel, another passion I inherited from Basil. I am currently studying etching at the Printmakers Workshop and preparing illustrations for a book.
In 2001 my practice merged with Hypostyle Architects in Glasgow and I took a back seat but continue as a Consultant, with research and with design competitions. We have had success with three in the past year –
Post Grad. Building at H-Watt Univ
Research Facility for Strathclyde Univ.at Inchinnan.
Visitor Centre at Whitelees Wind Farm
So the Spence tradition lives on. Not just with my practice but with scores of outfits all over the world. There are Basil’s Bairns in their own practices in Ottawa, Hong Kong, Copenhagen, Antigua, Dublin, even London as well as all over Edinburgh and other places in Scotland.
It is they who have to tackle the current complexities of making fine buildings – hopefully with the benefit of their Spence background.
You are now about to hear from three who learned the basics of good practice and developed their roots with Spence – one from each of the three strands of the Edinburgh office – Bengt Ericson was with John Legge, Robin Watson was with Jim Beveridge and Alan Robertson was, and still is with Andrew Merrylees…