In the late 1950s, Basil Spence gave David Rock some tiny sketches to work from which had been agreed to by the University of Nottingham. “He used to go up on his own, and with a design to 32nd scale, and get approval. And then he would usually hand them on to me, or Jack Bonnington.” Increasingly Basil gave them to Rock because he wasn’t getting on very well with Jack Bonnington, who was “very much his own man”. Rock would then develop the tiny scale into a larger scale to be approved. He would put in additions such as ducts and staircases to expand on Spence’s more simplified drawings. “In fee terms it was amazing because he used to, after 5 or 6 days work, he’d (then) go up to present the scheme to the client body; . . . he would do RIBA stage C, which is an 8th of the fee, in 5 days. So he’d actually get 15% of the total fee for 5 days work, and then he would pass the scheme on to someone like myself. Having got approval, and depending on the job I would then start going up with Basil, or sometimes on a smaller job I’d go up on my own and I would take the job up to one 16th scale (to the inch) and detailed approval, and then it would be dragged away from me to go to Queen Anne Street to detail by Andrew Renton’s Mob.”
Before the drawings were taken away, however, Queen Anne Street staff would often come to Canonbury and work under Rock towards the end of the design stage. There was a lot of space in the studio for this kind of work, with usually only four or five member of staff in a big room. If the architect was keen, as Rock was, they could go over to Queen Anne Street once the scheme was moved there to detail, and give comments on the drawings, almost as a consultant would do, and sometimes bring them back to Canonbury to work on further. “Basil would occasionally go across there, he’d bring them back and say, you know, ‘can you clean this up’, one of his favourite phrases.”
The next major job Rock was involved in was the department of Biology at Nottingham University. Rock describes it as a rather squat building which contained horizontal banding. Spence would bring Rock the sketch scheme so that he could do the elevations that hadn’t already been done, work the drawings up and do perspectives. Spence would then come back to the office, take the drawing up to Nottingham to get approval from the client and then hand them back over to Rock to complete. Rock would then make the building function as a whole by designing the other elevations, drawing up plans for the staircases and putting in ducts and other services. Depending on the job and how long he got before another job was given to him, Rock would work on the project for as long he could. He did this by hiding drawings under his drawing board whenever Spence was in the room until he had to hand it over to Queen Anne Street. Sometimes the jobs were taken up to Edinburgh and he never heard of them again, or until he saw them in magazines.
Between February and May 1957, Rock worked on new council offices for Slough. The offices were to be constructed as an extension around an existing 1930s Rowland Pierce building. This was the biggest scheme which Rock had designed by himself at this stage, and had just been handed over to him to work on. “He had a very good relationship with Building magazine, who often published his work first, and Basil would always give credit, so you know, it would say something here ‘these are by David Rock’ and so on.” The building was designed so that you came through a colonnade into a courtyard of pools and fountains which linked to the existing 1930s Rowland Pierce building, all the various departments and led into the main hall. This is something which Rock describes as “very Mies”. “We were very much into Mies, Jack Bonnington and I, and as Basil was in a funny way.”
The night before Rock was to take the perspective for Slough into framing in 1957, he had put on two hearts, with an arrow through them, on a tree, and thinking of random names in the office he put G.S for Gillian and A.B for Anthony. When he came into the office in the morning to collect it for framing, this was scraped off. Rock simply put them in again and took it for framing. He didn’t discover until much later, however, that Anthony and Gill had been terribly embarrassed by this. Although they hadn’t been together, they had been exchanging admiring glances at this point. Tony had scraped out the hearts because he was worried that everybody knew of the secret admiration. They later got married in 1959.
According to Rock it would take an afternoon or a day at the most to complete a drawing, but a model took much longer. After winning the contract to make the model for Slough, several of the staff spent night after night at somebody’s home in North London working on it. It was going to be shown to the council members in the Town Hall in Slough. A new form of glass case was used to house the big model, with a new form of fixing the glass together by three armed metal clips which came separately and were all screwed together. Although it seemed “a bit shaky”, five of them were carrying it into the Town Hall when the case split across the middle and a glass sheet went straight through the old Town Hall on the model. As a result there was glass everywhere and a damaged model an hour before Spence was expected to arrive for the presentation to the Council. While Rock broke up all the glass on the carpet so it could fit into the vacuum cleaner, Tony cut himself and almost fainted at the sight of his own blood, and the rest helped clean up. When Spence was presenting the model to the council, he didn’t notice anything wrong except a pile of blood-stained handkerchiefs in the corner. The project was later unfortunately cut due to a change in local government which meant that they did not have the power that they thought they would have. “Jack Bonnington and I were leading the Mies thing in the office, and sort of mixing it with Basil Spence romanticism, being a bit simplistic about it.”
The next project which Rock worked on was one for student residences at the University of Southampton. A lot of work was done at this university by the firm, most of it later on by Jack Bonnington. As the office was busy with multiple projects in 1957 there too much work for Spence to cope with alone, so Bonnington and Rock were some of the staff turned to designing buildings. “The tower blocks at the Gorbals in Glasgow, weren’t designed, I don’t think Basil put a pencil to them, it was actually . . . Michael Blee was the person actually doing that. . . Trawsfynydd, you know, the power station. I don’t think Basil did the drawings on that other than the perspective. That was mainly done by Derek Cobb.”
At the University of Southampton Rock did a scheme in 1957 for the student residences to be as cheap as possible as the university was short on funding. The flats were in four lots of four, with a couple of lifts for access. Spence was asked for an urgently required perspective, so Rock worked on it, adding in a common room at the bottom to break up the building. The scheme unfortunately did not go ahead.
The Scottish Widows Fund was the next project which Rock was involved in. Spence completed a 1/32nd sketch, which Rock brought up to 16th scale and designed the back elevations for. “If you look at it now, I mean it looks to me, it shouts, these are two different architects front and back.”
The University of Nottingham masterplan was a project for the whole university science area, and was laid out by Rock, Bonnington and a visiting Yugoslav Professor. Each building on the plan was commissioned and different architects in the firm took one up. Rock worked on the Biological Sciences Building (he had already designed the Agricultural Sciences Building some miles away), while other architects in the firm focused on the other proposed buildings. Andrew Renton worked on the Thorn Office Block in Charing Cross Road, having won the contract and designed the building by himself with a small team. He was upset when the client asked for Spence to come and open it, as he had had no involvement in the project. “Basil came along and talked as if it was his scheme.” That was the point that Andrew started saying to Rock that he, Renton, should get out from under Spence.
Rock had done the perspectives for Nottingham in conté crayon and pencil and they had come back from the printer mounted late. This meant that he had to colour them at the same time as the meeting with the university leaders was taking place, carrying another perspective into the meeting every half hour with the paint still wet.
All the buildings at the University of Nottingham, apart from Biological Sciences building which Rock was working on, went through to the Queen Anne Street Office under Andrew Renton. When Renton decided he was leaving in 1960, he left thinking that he had very little work scheduled apart from a building in the Docklands. The client at Nottingham, however, said that they wanted Andrew to keep on with the project despite his leaving Spence. As a result, instead of starting off his firm with nothing, he had 7 or 8 million pounds worth of building to work on. This allowed him to keep nearly all the staff in the office. The Queen Anne Street office then became Andrew Renton and Associates and then Andrew Renton and Partners, and then Renton, Howard Wood.