Skip to main content Skip to navigation

PART 2 (tape 2 - side A)

The firm was run by Basil Spence, Hardie Glover and Peter Ferguson, but it was just Spence and Glover when Rock had started, Ferguson being promoted to partner three years later. Glover and Ferguson looked after the Edinburgh office while Basil was down in England.

While Rock was in the army, the office started getting very crowded with increasing numbers of new employees. He started in the army in September 1953, but left Spence’s by the end of July. This gap happened, as Rock said he was living in Sunderland when forms for his medical examination had been sent to London. Rock sent these back saying that he had now moved up to Sunderland, so they arranged a medical examination in Newcastle three weeks later. By this time, however, Rock said he had moved back down to London, so got another two weeks to wait for the examination (and finish the Soane drawings!).

He was an officer in the Royal Engineers in Germany in his last year in the army, running a drawing office of ten architects with another lieutenant. He had to fight for this position, as he was going to be sent from officer training to manage transport training in England. He went to see the Major in charge of the training course and said ‘I’m an architect and worked for a nationally-known architect’ which worked, and he got to run the drawing office. The office consisted of these ten corporals, one of whom was from Rock’s Year in college, plus three German technicians. Thus he spent a year doing sketch schemes for projects which were then handed over to German architects to detail and get onto site. What Rock finds fascinating is that he was only 24 at the time and was red-pencilling the drawings of experienced middle-aged German architects.

He had had an interview with Andrew Renton on one of his leaves as he wanted to go back to Spence’s. Renton offered to give him £850 p.a., which was far less than the £1000 Rock had been offered by the chief architect in Edinburgh of the Edinburgh Health Board. He decided, however, that he didn’t want to work with hospitals for the rest of his life. As a result, he came back to Spence’s office and was immediately given a scheme for the 'Vange 7' area of Basildon New Town, which was a huge area comprising 650 homes. At that stage, roads were already being constructed according to the first stage of the construction process, but the powers that be had said that three tower-blocks in the scheme weren’t going to be given permission. As a result, Rock was given the job of fitting all the housing units from the tower blocks into a plan within already established road networks. He did this mainly by cutting off roads and turning them into cul-de-sacs, freeing up space for 3-storey blocks. In the project, 22 house types had to be designed, but only 14 had been designed by the time Rock took over. “Andrew called me into his office on the first day and said ‘I want you to take over this scheme of housing, there’s a very nice person running it but I wouldn’t like him to know you have taken it over, can you take it over but not tell him?’ Ridiculous really.” Rock then took the man to lunch and told him that he had been asked not to tell him, but that he was taking it over. It turned out that this man was not even qualified as an architect, having done only two years at university, so was thankful that he had been relieved of his position. The man was Michael (later Sir) Hopkins, now one of the best architects in the country. (Hopkins was later Rock’s first assistant when, in 1959, Rock started the London office of BDP.)

In November 1955 Rock was given the job of the University of Liverpool’s Chadwick Building. “Quite often a job was dropped onto me, and I was still in, sort of had a hand on what was happening on the job I just left.” Spence had done 32 feet to the inch drawings over a long weekend, presented them to the client, then came back and said they had approved the scheme apart from one end where Spence had designed 3-storey buildings. Rock was asked to re-design that end of the building and did an 11 storey tower-block with a little courtyard. Basil took this plan back to the clients but they weren’t sure, so he asked Rock to demonstrate how the tower-block fitted into the area. He then did sketch perspectives to show how his tower-block looked from various angles. The rest of the building was very long and all on one storey, which was completed by his planted courtyard design at the end. Rock’s part of the building was an interpretation of Mies van der Rohe’s work, but in concrete rather than steel.

“I would work a scheme up into 16 feet to the inch scale and then get in an assistant from the Queen Anne Street office (when I was at Canonbury), or from upstairs . . . I was still in the Queen Anne Street office when I started this, but we moved while this building was being designed. So I remember, Peter Howard I think it was, came to help and took it back to somebody called Noble, I’ve forgotten his name, Tony Noble I think, and Geoffrey Collens especially (who became head of Lovejoy’s the landscape architects)... so Peter worked with me especially. And we worked up the scheme and then they took it back into Queen Anne Street, and then I or Jack became a consultant to that team. And the arrangement worked very well. We thought it was awful at the time, because this was a time when design architects were supposed to, in our mind, take the work all the way through onto site. But it was a terribly, very American system. I’m sure Basil wasn’t aware of that, but it was simply because there was so much design work coming in, and that became a very efficient process.”

During a recent visit, Rock considered that the building was badly maintained internally but externally looked to be in good condition. By closing off the end of the street, Rock helped the University win a little piazza. He had designed for two separate sets of columns, as the tower-block and one-storey building would settle at different speeds, but engineer Paul Ahm of Arups the engineers said it would be better to join the columns together. What is interesting now is that these joined columns have cracked because of the different loads on them. Models were made in-house; where someone had a job to make the models. “It would be an architect who might be working on the job; there wasn’t a model maker then.”

Rock spent quite a lot of time on the project, frequently travelling up and down to Liverpool. “Basil didn’t like us working on details; he wanted us doing design stuff, so I remember several of us at Canonbury . . . who had jobs which had moved back to Queen Anne Street, we’d be doing some of the working drawings because we wanted to show how it was, but Basil used to come round in the evening and put little notes on tracing paper on things, so we’d actually hide the drawings in the cabinet or underneath the drawing board, the working drawings we had been working on, and put a design drawing on it. I remember several times he would gently complain that we weren’t getting on very quickly with these design drawings! We hadn’t been working on them!”

Another project Rock worked on at the same time as Liverpool was the Agricultural Sciences Building in Nottingham. There were frequent gaps when you submitted drawings to clients and they would take six weeks or more to get back to you. The building was at the back of a collection of new buildings and had a fairly low budget. To clean up the area he did a long simple building. Spence had nothing to do with this building, leaving Andrew Renton in charge of it. Experience gained in the army helped improve Rock’s ability to lecture and to manage, so he went up with Andrew to personally present this scheme to the Vice Chancellor and Senate. Denis Speller was left to take the project over, so Rock only went on site a couple of times to comment on proceedings.

Around June and September 1956, Rock worked on the interior decoration of Spence’s home and the studio at Canonbury. Ken Morrice had been responsible for the building work, but Spence had asked Rock to do all the decoration. He decided on the colour and decoration for the whole building, including designing the yellow and white striped wallpaper in the entrance hall and staircase.

The Queen Anne Street office was desperately in need of more space. On the ground floor there was a room where four of them had worked when he left for the army, but had about 15 people in it by the time he came back two years later. The room then had several rows of three drawing boards, no laying out space, and very little room to move around. On the ground floor there was a secretary’s office, the room where Rock worked, and a little corridor which went to Andrew Renton’s room in the small courtyard. If you were on the phone by the window in Rock’s room, Renton could hear everything you said, which he only discovered after Rock had “slagged him off” one day and was in Renton’s room when he discovered this. On the first floor there were two big rooms, front and back, and another little room. On the third floor and attic was Basil’s flat. The basement had a print room in it, but the room was also used for a space to have coffee and talk as a group.

Canonbury Place had a hall with a black and white marble floor, which led to a few flights of stairs. At the top of the first flight was Spence’s downstairs office. To the right of the hall there was a large room which was used as the studio in which six people worked. Further up the stairs was an office for Gill Spence and living room area. Above this were two more floors of accommodation. In the basement there was a print room and an office at front, which was the Duke of Northampton’s estate office, who owned the whole area. Basil had got the house for only a peppercorn rent in order to have a ‘name’ in the estate to attract people to the area as most of the houses were empty at that time.