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James Thomas


Presentation recorded at the symposium Sir Basil Spence re-viewed: the architect and his office, held at the Old Blue Coat School, Coventry, 29 August 2008.


LC: Louise Campbell

JT: James Thomas

DR: David Rock

GL: Gerald Levin

EH: Elain Harwood

James Thomas BA (Arch), Dip TP, FRIBA, FRTPI.

LC: I am very pleased now to introduce James Thomas.

James worked for Basil Spence and Partners from August 1957 until January 1960, mainly on the Nottingham University Science Campus but also on the Gorbals flats and on Thorn House. He'd come straight from the Bartlett and left to go to Jørn Utzon in Denmark, where he worked on the Sydney Opera House. He was a Vice-President of RIBA, and its Honorary Librarian for three years. He worked in both private and public offices, Director of Planning and Transportation for the City of Westminster and ran his own firm Rothermel Thomas from 1987 to 2004. His connections with this city go right back to 1934; one of his schools was destroyed by enemy bombing in November 1940, and they moved away in 1941.


JT: Thank you.

Well, I hope for the historian's sakes who are here today, that it won't be as Saki wrote, 'The old have reminiscences of what never happened.' I think that what we've heard from the old has been pretty, pretty accurate so far.

University work was the dominant element at the time, all the time that I was there, from the summer of '57, through to January '60. I have, Louise, got for you a text which I'm going to hand in.

LC: Thank you.

JT: I'm not going to plod through that, but attached to it is an appendix of other work that was going on in the office and something which is difficult now to comprehend is the enormous amount of work that was being done in the Spence office, in the late '50s. I've also got a list of the people whose names I've remembered, just jotting them down as they occurred to me, and there were over sixty people. I know today I've left out some, but it will give you a clue as to people who were there. And of those sixty people eighteen were working either some of the time, like David [Rock], or all of the time and full-time, on the University of Nottingham. Eighteen people, so it… was a very considerable job. Southampton was similarly staffed.

I've been to the exhibition, three times now, the RIBA truncated version and the full version here, and it's a lovely exhibition, wonderful to see, especially the early drawings that Basil did, but it is very thin on university work. There's two or three drawings of Sussex, which I think might possibly be by Peter, they don't look Spencian drawings to me, but there's nothing about Nottingham and nothing about Southampton. There were reasons for that, that flow from the changes in the office structure.

I want to put a bit of a gloss on what David said about the Nottingham master plan. What's very difficult for people who weren't there at the time to realise, and it is quite back to front, and David Walker and I have been struggling with this the last few months and we've finally got there...and that is that the master plan came after commitment to designing two, or three, or four of the buildings.

Just to explain the setting of Nottingham. Up at the top of the hill were some very boring neoclassical buildings in white Portland stone. There's a sort of axial thing here, absolutely Beaux-Arts, pond, sort of grand gates. A building had been done by the University Buildings' Officer, Mr Odell, who was unqualified and completely out of his depth, when the University suddenly decided that they were going to go for the science buildings on this site here. Now here is a very main road and this is the top part of the campus and this is the bottom part, and I think a lot of the thought was that science buildings could be sort of out of the way, you didn't really want those up here. And at the same time various privately funded residential blocks were being done in neo-classical style by Farquharson, McMorran and Whitby. We all thought they were absolutely rubbish, and what Elain [Harwood] of course didn't mention this afternoon is that they are now listed, Grade II.

There's a nice story about this sort of Beaux-Arts thing, I've said there was a pond and sort of big statue here. And a chap came in January to be interviewed for a job, and he was told to report to this building, saw the tower at the top and he set off and the pond was frozen and he set off across and he fell in and had to be rescued.

So down here, south of all this lot, down here is Cut Through Lane, a funny little road, and also on the site were some huts, about here, some sort of, awful really, sheds. I think they were owned by the Ministry of Works or the Ministry of Defence. Great row of these huts and they had to stay there for a long time, I'm talking about 1957. You've also got to remember that the University hadn't got a clue about developing a whole complex of big buildings. They hadn't got a clue and they didn't want to do it. This Professor of Maths said to me, got on very well with him, and he said, 'You must realise Mr Thomas, that we begrudge every hour that we spend talking with you chaps about the development of these buildings. We just want a row of huts.' That was actually what he said, 'We would much prefer a row of huts.'

Now, David mentioned that he'd done, with Basil, the Agricultural Sciences building. Not on this campus, but some miles away...

DR: Fourteen or so.

JT: Yes, but the University, the Vice-Chancellor and the Building Committee were sort of feeling their way towards having Spence as their architect and Basil designed a building here, and a building here. What Basil was absolutely wonderful at, and I'm sure this has come through during the day, we had…an example in Edinburgh: if you gave him an inch, he would take a yard. Now Basil was appointed to do this and he was appointed to do that, and he was also appointed to do buildings replacing these huts, as they…fell vacant, they didn't all become vacant at the same time. So you get this very curious thing, the master plan dictated by some temporary wooden huts.

And in the summer of '57, things went wrong on the Nottingham University site. I was coming from the Bartlett, with my degree, my 1st Class Honours degree. I was arriving in the middle of August, Basil was on holiday and nobody knew what to do with me, and I went off to Queen Anne Street for a bit, and after three weeks Basil came back from holiday and he said, 'Where's Thomas, where's Thomas?' And they said 'Oh he's down at 48 Queen Anne Street.' And he said, 'Get him up here, get him up here. I want him to work on the master plan for Nottingham University.' So I was, you know, 23, and asked to do the master plan for a group of science buildings - yeah, sure, fine I'll do that, thanking God that I hadn't got to do the drains or something, or some practical thing that I would have been and was totally incapable of doing. And so I was started, in a rather gentle way, to do the master plan. But then the roof fell in, all hell broke loose.

In the summer, while Basil had been away, the client, egged on by Odell, insisted that this scheme should go in for planning. The planners had consulted with the local chapter of architects, they had said it must go to the RFAC. Basil said, 'Yes, of course go to the RFAC. I'm a member of the RFAC.' But, it went to the RFAC while he was on holiday and there was a cock-up in the office and some, what have always been called 'scruffy' drawings were sent and the RFAC were highly critical of the scheme. So, Basil came back, the only person working on the master plan is young Jim Thomas, he's only been there a fortnight, so as David quite rightly said the heavy mob, the ones who were getting twice as much money incidentally as me - a thousand pounds, I was on five-twenty, plus luncheon voucher - the heavy mob moved in on it and very rapidly a beautiful set of drawings was produced. It's very precious to me, but David I could possibly lend it to you, this is one, one of the drawings which I did with Jack Bonnington and with David Rock, who's spoken, and it shows the whole thing starting to build up, with Maths and Physics here, and interestingly, on this it says Library - Science Library - in that location, with lecture theatres sticking out the back. The library was always sort of being moved about, it was at one stage going to be up here, and it was at one stage going to be there.

DR: [inaudible]

JT: Yes, yes. In fact what happened was that Maths and Physics took over all of this and were linked to terraces along there. And this is, I think, I mean others might know better than me, but I think this is when the great long section came in. This was first year teaching of Applied Science, that side of Cut Through. This is Pure Science, Chemistry here and Maths and Physics.

Basil had a really lovely, romantic idea about Nottingham, much of his work, I mean romantic is a good word. Everybody thought that university students went on bicycles, go about in gowns and sports jackets and grey flannel trousers, and all come from very respectable middle class backgrounds, so Nottingham was going to be like Cambridge or like Oxford. So you've got courtyards in here, and this was going to be a big courtyard, this would be another courtyard. Basil wanted to close this courtyard, he chanced his arm a bit and said, 'Well, why don't we have a tower, go for a tower.' And then Jack Bonnington, bless him, started to sort of add on sort of fantasy buildings, sort of here and all along here, and then two more, two more there. So we'd got a master plan for the whole of the campus and that's actually quite a good example of …a Spence job, give him an inch and he'd take a yard, he built it up.

At that time, we saw a slide of this earlier [model of the whole campus], there were some Polish people, a gang of them, six of them, who were working for the LCC and they worked out that by calling in sick quite often, and pooling all their holiday and leave and special days and things, they could run full-time model making activities from somewhere in west London.

DR: I'd forgotten about that.

JT: I used to go down there and take the drawings, sometimes they got it right and sometimes they got it wrong.

?? Were they Poles?

JT: Yes, Polish.

?? Yes, they were in Earls Court [inaudible] They used to promise it overnight. We'll bring it tomorrow, four weeks later [inaudible] They were lovely.

JT: They were like Polish fighter pilots in the war, they were always talking and jabbering away.

DR: [inaudible]

JT: Now, I wanted to, for the historians, help you on the authorship.

LC: Yes

JT: Basil Spence was the designer of Nottingham University; the designer of the master plan, the designer of the buildings, and each time he was helped by one of these bright young Turks. David, Canonbury the Cathedral team were there all the time, they had a room upstairs, and Basil was very close and he'd pop in every day. So that was a Basil Spence job, run in Canonbury by full-time people. There was a core of designers who worked at Canonbury all the time: David Rock, Jack Bonnington, surprisingly not Anthony Blee.

DR: He came later.

JT: He came later, right, but there were not many of you who were permanent, three, four?

??: Derek Cole

DR: Derek Cole came for a time and Charlie Robertson came from Edinburgh for a time.

JT: He came down from Edinburgh, yes.

DR: He came over a scheme

??: The Gorbals.

DR: The Gorbals, yes.

DR: John Kennett was for a time.

JT: But apart from this small core of permanent people, what the pattern for most of us was, that we would go to Canonbury for quite a few weeks probably, certainly not longer than three months I don't think, and you would work with Basil, who you would see very often. I mean he was in the office, in the drawing office, the big drawing office downstairs, virtually every, every day I would think he'd pop in. Sometimes you didn't see him, you might have a little note in the morning, 'not this, but this'. So, on Nottingham, John Kennett worked at Canonbury, with Basil, on the Chemistry building. Peter Howard worked on First Year Teaching and L1, well in fact all the laboratories; the first two were L1 and L2, then later L3, L4.

DR: I took over Biological Sciences, as I said, from Basil, and then gradually Peter.

JT: Right, right, yes you said that.

EH: Is that the one that's going along the front?

DR: No, no, that one there, because this actually links in to the building which is there. That's actually a link in. I couldn't remember when it was. Certainly that was designed at a different time, as you said, and I'd forgotten, it must have been done before the master plan.

JT: Yes, right. So we've got John Kennett, Peter Howard taking over from David, and there's the link building here which is a wedge-shaped building between one and two and three; Peter Winchester did a lot of the work on that, the design work of that, and the wonderful roof, the space-framed roof.

[there is now a short section of the recording, much of which is inaudible because of voices crossing over each other, where the authorship of the wedge-shaped building – the Exhibition Hall – is discussed]

In clarification of this section James Thomas writes:

The background is that Peter Howard had designed, early on, the First Year Applied Science Teaching Building (a rectangular building). Later, Gerald Levin was the job architect for the (very long) Second and Third Year Applied Science Teaching Building. It had four laboratory buildings sticking out from it (over where Ministry of Defence wooden huts had been).

In between was a wedge-shaped building used as a joint Entrance Hall and Exhibition Hall. The really striking feature of this (and its only feature) was the space-frame roof. I thought, and think, that Peter Winchester designed this, but he on the day modestly deferred saying he had only done a perspective drawing of it and that the design credit should go to Gerald Levin who (probably) was the job architect for this wedge as well as the long building. This design work for this wedge was done (unusually) at 48, Queen Anne Street under the overall guidance of Andrew Renton and Dennis Speller (one of the very few parts of Nottingham University prior to the Spence/Renton break-up in 1961, not designed by Basil himself). I don't think Peter Langtrey-Langton was involved. (At this time Peter was involved exclusively on Maths and Physics, the buildings on the other side of Cut through Lane – where the Pure Science buildings were.)

JT: Now Maths and Physics, this lecture theatre block was designed at Canonbury, by Basil working with Peter Langtrey-Langton. Now Peter was one of those poor chaps who had to go off to do his National Service and when he did Chris Wedderburn-Clarke took over the admin of it, and I designed this part here, which is a quite sort of clonky long run. When I came - just over-running this story - when I came back from Utzon's, in the Autumn of 1960, again the RFAC wanted to see Physics and Maths and Andrew and Peter Howard gave me this little private job for three weeks, to draw up these presentation drawings for the Royal Fine Art Commission. Gerald Levin was the architect for two and three, but you took over Gerald, from another South African or Rhodesian chap?

GL: I've no recollection of that. I remember coming up to Canonbury once and presenting the initial working drawings. [inaudible]

JT: Yes, okay. Now the tower was this way round in Basil's master plan, because it closed the square you see. Jack Bonnington hated that, right from day one, he said that's ridiculous, that south?

??: Sort of [inaudible]

JT: It's orientated north-south, so Jack turned it round and had it much more sensibly, so it was orientated east-west and the occupancy was altered too and Architecture went in there.

What's interesting is that Andrew Renton, who was a very good designer, he had done very good design work when he was younger... was involved every day on Nottingham University, but not primarily as a designer. He was a co-ordinator and a facilitator and a smoother of furrowed brows. And also, on the Nottingham team, this is a name which is not familiar to you, Louise, until I arrive: there was Basil Spence, Andrew Renton at Queen Anne Street and under him for Nottingham, the man in charge of it all, really old, he must have been thirty I should think, was Dennis Speller, and he was a senior assistant. It's quite interesting about Dennis because three people were made, provisionally, associates of Basil Spence & Partners - when I was there the firm was Basil Spence & Partners – those three were Jack Bonnington, Gordon Collins and Dennis Speller. They were made, on approval for six months, associate partners. Two of them made it, they became associate partners and of course Spence, Bonnington & Collins, that flowed from that, but Dennis Speller I don't think wanted to be a partner. He sort of definitely went off song, and he was not confirmed in the post of an associate and he left the firm and he went to the Civil Service.

Now, I just want to say, very briefly, two other things. I worked very briefly on Thorn House. Andrew Renton had an idea of some beautiful light fittings hanging down in the entrance hall and sweeping round to where the lifts were, and I drew that up for him. And I want to say categorically that Thorn House is not a Basil Spence job. Andrew Renton got the job. He lived up in Hampstead Garden Suburb and his neighbour was a chap called Jules Thorn and Andrew did a garage for him, which was a success, for his car, and Jules Thorn said, 'Oh, Andrew, I'm very pleased with that.' He said, 'We're thinking of building the headquarters office block, would you like to do it?' So, Andrew got the commission and I imagine he might have thought of going off on his own, but he did it as a huge private job in 48 Queen Anne Street. There was a Thorn House room with Humphrey [Wood], Edward Samuel, Gillie Marsh, and Gerald you worked on Thorn for a little while, didn't you? Almost when you first came I think?

GL: Indeed.

JT: He had a room full of mosaic tile samples, you couldn't get in the room. Gerald had every tile sample.

GL: Mosiac.

JT: Mosaic, yes.

DR: There was also a third year chap from [??] Kent

JT: Oh, Bill Clark. Yes, Part III, Bill Clark, from Aberdeen. I mean, the cost of production of Thorn House in the office must have been...

??: Appalling

JT: Incredible. So there was three, four, five, about seven people working on Thorn House. So can we have that in the record? Whatever Basil Spence's family say, it was not a Spence job. And I think that's a shame, because Basil's oeuvre is so colossal, so let Andrew have his one ewe lamb. What's terribly sad is that his own firm later on altered it and it's lost its crisp, pristine quality.

Finally, I also worked very briefly helping Charlie Robertson on the Gorbals. There looks a bit of Jack Bonnington there, in the sky, I think that's possibly a Jack Bonnington sky. Now, I thought the Gorbals, I thought the Gorbals an absolutely lovely, wonderful scheme by Basil Spence. They had these huge, they weren't really balconies, they were gardens in the sky, between the flats. And, as Basil says in the clip on the film, when this lady attacks him and says, 'Why is it so awful looking outside, when it's quite nice inside?' He points out that there were all these social facility buildings, there was going to be a creche and a dental surgery and all of that, in front of the residential blocks and of course that would have made a fantastic difference, it would have been a community, instead of a housing estate. So that was not built and I think the demolition of the Gorbals is really terrible.

Now can I just say, Elain… Is she still here?

EH: Yes

JT: If you could talk to your friends and say every one of these buildings designed by Basil Spence at the height of his powers, they're lovely buildings, are buildings of special architectural and historic importance and they should be listed.


LC: Thank you all very much. This late afternoon has been the best bit of the day as far as I'm concerned. What I'd like to do is to… gather our various speakers in rows so that we can answer any questions from the floor and perhaps attempt a more general discussion.