Skip to main content Skip to navigation

PART 5 (tape 3 - side B)

Rock describes how Spence was “terribly kind” and would “take blame at meetings.” “When I got into the Rome final (in 1957), with ten others, and we had to design a huge new building, which was actually the brief the Houses of Parliament, basically, on that site. And I was in a real panic and working in the office with getting people to help me. I was terribly worried about this because I didn’t know if Basil was around or not. And he came in and the others all shuffled my drawings under their drawing boards and I kept on with mine because I was by the door, I said obviously hassled, ‘I’ve got this, I’ve to get this in by 5 o’clock’ and I was still colouring it in, and ‘do you mind, I’ll obviously put the time in’, and he said ‘that’s all right David, that’s all right, you’ve got to get it in, what time is it?’ And then he went round the room quietly I could see him, just saying, he knew what was happening, telling people, you know ‘help David’, in fact he actually said to me ‘I’ve asked them to help you’. Well they were already helping me, I think he probably knew they were helping me so they all got their drawings out, I had five or six people in the room, you know working on the final drawings. And that was very typical of him.”

By the time they were working on Liverpool Antony had joined the office as Rock’s helper and had done a detail through the external wall of the tower. Spence and Rock took it up to Liverpool with pride to show that they were ahead of the game, as they were supposed to still be in the design stage of the project. Liverpool meetings were difficult, however, as an unpleasant Building Officer, a surveyor who was known for continually attempting to find fault with architects, said that he had talked to consultants about the detail drawing and they claimed that the building would not stand up! This resulted in a long silence of about 30 seconds to a minute. During this period Rock was worried that Spence did not know how to reply to this comment, so he quickly perked up, saying that the supporting structure of the brickwork did not show on this section and was actually further back. Cory Dickson, the surveyor who had started the argument was a bit shaken by this. “Going back on the train Basil said to me, now this was quite hard for him to criticise people, said ‘David, you shouldn’t have replied to that question, it was just impertinent, I wasn’t going to answer it.’ And that actually just shows a nice little, you know, side of him.”

Spence always used the same consultants as it was considered to be a good thing to keep the same team together. They always used Arup to start with, and worked with Paul Ahm, a partner of Arups, Reynolds and Young as quantity surveyors, and AF Myers as service consultants until Myers died.

“Basil had an excellent colour sense, and I think he warmed to me because I was pretty good at colour, and had an unusual colour sense, I say this because other people have told me this. And I think that he and I were, you know, as painters we’d know an awful lot more about contrast and rhythm and all that sort of thing. So he used to ask my advice about colours and just generally treat me much more, I felt, as a favoured son. Because I was on his wave length, if you like, in art terms, a contrast to Jack Bonnington who was very much, sort of, ‘get out of my way, I’m an architect’, so to speak.”

“And the other thing, not to do with colours really, but on design, Basil although he had this reputation of being, especially in the press, of being overbearing and whatever, he was really very insecure. And he’d often at Canonbury, he’d bring his drawings down, his perspectives, or sketch for perspectives or whatever, and said sort of, ‘what do you think boys, what do you think?’ And so we’d all cluster round, all of 25 of age, or whatever, and we’d criticise this like a school crit, it’s too high, or you know, the sky’s too dark, you really ought to do this and this. ‘Really? Really? Do you think so?’ he’d say.”

“And Joan was his real support mechanism; I just know that from lots and lots of occasions. Sometimes I used to go in on a Saturday at Canonbury, this happened, I can remember, three or four times, and he didn’t know I was working downstairs ‘cause I let myself in, and I’d hear them having rows, or semi-rows upstairs and Joan lecturing him on things, even in the outside hall until I coughed loudly, or dropped something on the floor, you know, and Basil, I’d hear him creeping downstairs, to see who, you know, was there, and I’d work on as if I hadn’t heard him. I just knew he was insecure, a tremendously insecure man really. In a sense he used me for mounting his pictures, for doing his interiors, even the interiors of his flat for goodness sake, you know, ok he might have been very busy.”

Early on in the firm’s history, when Spence was fully in charge and people were queuing up for Spence to take on contracts, part of his conditions were that they had to spend 3% of the budget on art. This proved to be difficult for the staff sometimes, as 3% could be a lot to spend. They would spend a lot of time trying to find places to put murals or sculptures just to reach this target. He gave a large amount of responsibility to artists to get this work done. “He always had a lot of people around him.”

Basil Spence worked on a “quick resolution”. He would go away on a Thursday. He would take a brief, get it into three or four units, and then come back on a Tuesday with a 1/32nd scale plan, elevations and a perspective. “The perspective would often be good enough, to go into the Royal Academy annual show, it was a finished perspective.” He would go away and take them to the client to get approval and then hand them over to Rock or Bonnington. In this one meeting Spence was capable of getting 15% of the fee. Spence did not charge the normal 6% fees that all the other firms were at the time. Instead he was charging around 10% to 15%, which meant that more could be done on each project. “On Liverpool Physics we did coloured elevation after coloured elevation of different colours of marble and brick and things just to see what they look like, full rendered elevations, you know, Tony Blee was doing those. We had time to do that.”

Spence would design and create plans and elevations for whole buildings. “He’d do the scheme, ok he didn’t do all the elevations, he left it to people like me and Jack to do the other elevations, and to make the plan work, cause as I say, there weren’t any ducts there on the plans, the staircases weren’t always on top of one another on the plans, but basically they were there and the client was sold on the scheme. It didn’t have any of the office address, scale, date, drawing number on the bottom was just ‘Basil Spence ‘53’ or something in his handwriting or whatever, a personal drawing, and that was what he would present. He really would go away to one of his cottages on a Thursday and come back on a Tuesday with a 1/32nd or something small scale, and, as I say, people like me would do quite a lot afterwards, but he would have got approval, usually, on the scheme.”

Rock claims that he had a lot of time for Spence and always stood up for him. “He was so kind, a real human being, terribly, terribly shy, but a different public persona at lectures, and you know, cause he could lecture marvellously and so on, and he was in charge at meetings, and very much sort of the grand old man really.”

The firm did not have many dealings with Robert Matthew, who was a lot more self confident than Spence, and generally communication between them was all done through the RIBA. At one job with BDP (where Rock was a partner), Robert Matthew showed how unpleasant he could be. It was a job abroad in the ‘60s on industrialised housing in Libya. Four or five architect firms were involved, but the client wanted the job to be done for only 1.5% fee. Appalled, all the architects got together and agreed that they would not do anything for less than 3% or 3.5%, which was already low for the time. They all decided that they would go back for second interviews and demand a minimum of 3.5%. On the agreed time to go out to the interview all the architects were waiting for the plane together when Robert Matthew walks over to them all. As it turned out, he had already been over and got the job at the original 1.5% fee, even though he had agreed to be part of the team’s approach for a higher fee. “That showed a nasty side which didn’t strike with the persona that one knew.” It was however, perhaps a blessing that they didn’t get the job through, as Robert Matthew had an awful time in Libya.

Peter Winchester came in from Regent Street Polytechnic and did the first sketches for the University of Sussex. His sketches included a series of concrete arches inspired by Le Corbusier’s latest building. Peter was a marvellous draftsman and perspectivist, using charcoal and ink to create fascinating drawings. Unfortunately, as all his arches used different diameters, the formwork would have been too expensive. To retain the style, but lower the cost, Spence simply reduced all the arches down to about two radii so that they could use the same formwork. Peter was a fiery youngster and was furious, saying that he was going to leave. He didn’t last very long in the office, but he was the first person who designed Sussex.

Basil Spence’s son John, who later changed his surname to Milton, was a very mixed up man, being the son of a famous person. He asked Rock to give him a job after he had left Spence’s office. He moved to an area only a few miles away from Rock in Norfolk and near to Spence too who had a country house a few miles away. Spence was very protective of him, but he was not good enough to be an heir to the firm as he was too wild and not very well organised. He was completely different from Gillian, who was always calm and collected.

Rock used to be picked up by Michael Blee every day as they both lived in different areas of Earls Court. They would go up to Canonbury together in an open roadster car, which actually belonged to Derek Cobb’s girl friend. They drove past a rag and bone man one day who was selling two large elephant tusks, and decided to attach them to the front of the car. The tusks stayed there for a few months, stretching out beyond the width of the car, until one day they were stopped by a policeman who said that they were dangerous and that they had to remove them. They were stored in Michael and Tony’s flat until one day they were stolen at a party.

“Mary Cope was the fierce secretary.” She was faithful to Andrew Renton, and looked after him when he was going through hard times, until he retired.

When Rock first came down to London, having given up his diploma in Town Planning at Newcastle, he signed up to finish it at University College London. His advisor for his thesis on ‘Colour in Architecture’ was Lord Holford. He had an amazing mind, and even back then he was a very important person. Rock used to be able to pop in to the university, knock on his door and Lord Holford would know him by name, saying ‘come in David’ and lend him his own books. At the end of 1955 David had left the army and was looking for a flat in London. He was looking at an empty mews house in Victoria and decided to put his card into the letter box saying that he was interested in taking over the empty house. He soon got a letter back from Lord Holford saying “it’s actually my flat” and asked him how he was getting on in the army. As it turned out, his chief assistant was actually moving into the mews from his flat in Earl’s Court and Lord Holford asked him to contact David to see if he could take the flat over when he moved out, which Rock did – his first flat after he got married. BACK TO BEGINNING