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.
PW: Peter Winchester
LC: Louise Campbell
DR: David Rock
PW: Those of you who know me, know me, and those of you who don't, know about me now through Louise's brilliant paper about Sussex. So I'm not going to talk about me at all actually. I'll talk about Basil. David's given me a couple of cues, two words, ‘lovely man’, I think, and he was very happy. I've got my own take on this. Let me just start by saying that Basil, I always think of him as Basil, when we were in the office I used to call him 'Sir', he liked that, and I knew that. Others used to call him 'Mr Spence', he liked 'Sir'.
Anyway, I always.... Basil was extraordinarily generous to me, he gave me a marvellous opportunity to work on Sussex. As David has very brilliantly outlined, he gave a lot of young Turks... what were you, 24 when you started?
PW: I was 24. Jack Bonnington was 26. We were all very young Turks
PW: You were 23?. Ah, forever young. Anyway, the thing was that Basil gave these young Turks, us Turks, whatever, huge, you know, worry and responsibility and, you know, do it. It was a huge compliment actually, because as you know Spence himself was a marvellous draughtsman, marvellous. I think the only draughtsman who comes anywhere near Basil, is David actually. I certainly didn't.
Anyway, so that's me. I am grateful to Basil Spence, hugely. It was the peak of my architectural career which lasted, I don't think very long, about another six to eight years, which is fine. They were the happiest architectural days of my life, to pick up your cue. The office was very, very happy. I worked at Queen Anne Street for three months, in the sort of colonial section, with Gerald and fellow South Africans, out in some [?] room. It was great fun, people smoked, they sang, they talked, they told jokes, they talked about girls, they talked about everything, at the same time they were drawing away. It was marvellous stuff, it was very human. We all went off and had coffee, we all used to go down the pub on a Friday night and...
DR: We had a cricket team
PW: And we used to play cricket, on Wednesdays, in Regents Park. It was terrific fun. When I was elevated, or when I got to Canonbury, which was actually a far-off place, it was elitist quite honestly, it was also terrific fun. It was terrific fun. This will lead up to my first story about Basil. The office itself was, David you will know, that front room was very small. That corner was about here. About there?
PW: It wasn't very big
DR: It was about this.
PW: All right, it was... there were about ten people in that office, all with double elephant boards. There was no room. We were all, you know, what is this thing called? Ebony edge to ebony edge. And again it was terrific fun, because you could hear people talking on the phone, you could hear them saying, 'Ah, I can't get this right.' And you'd get people... Humphrey Woodward would saunter over, Jack would keep his eagle eye on things. Gordon Collins happened to sit behind me, Michael Ogden, Bob Smart.
Now, the layout of the office was crucial, because there was this huge door which led into the hall, and Basil's reception office was off the hall, and there was this huge door, a very big door, and line-of-sight was Jack Bonnington, there. This was the temporary board. I was on it for a bit, then Bob Smart was and then my assistant Roland Paoletti, of huge Jubilee fame later, he was on it. And then there was Humphrey, I think, then there was me, then there was... Anyway, line-of-sight, all working away, possibly quite quietly actually. All of a sudden the door would go 'shooom', burst open this way, burst open, and in would come Basil. Ram-rod back, 'Jack!' Now there were two intonations about 'Jack': there was Jack something's wrong, which was 'Jack!!' and Jack would turn round very slowly, 'Yes, Mr Spence.' And there was the other intonation, which was, and we all knew this, it was everyone's got to listen. He'd come in and say, 'Jack?', sort of with a question mark.
That was the cue, because we all knew that something was going to happen, a something. Something....well, you know, pontificating. Basil would, Basil would talk about [inaudible]. And we would listen because that was the cue and we'd all drop our pencils, because those were the days of pencils, and we'd all turn round, and there would be Basil centre stage. And here's his office, all like you, you're looking at me, all looking at Basil, and he'd say, 'I don't [??] Those windows!' and we'd all say, 'Well, they're very beautiful, Sir.' He wanted reassurance, out he'd go, out he'd go. And then the next one, all of a sudden the door would go 'shooom' and he come in, 'Jack!!'. And Jack would sprint out because something was wrong, and they'd go into his office and Jack would come back, pretty cool actually and sometimes sort of white-faced. God knows what was happening, something had fallen down or something hadn't happened, but we never knew.
But one particular day, oh yes wait a minute, a cue - 'lovely man'. Basil, I don't think he was a lovely man, actually. He was a very, very complicated, very, highly, highly.... I mean brilliant, intensive, energetic. I think probably a good architect...probably...probably. Marvellous with materials, marvellous, a marvellous sense of materials, but he wasn't a lovely man, actually. He was very complicated, and he had one quality which I'm sure had driven him, drove him to the top, with great respect to him, and I think it drives many, but not all people to the top from my observation, and that is self-importance, and he had a very, very strong...like this Kevin Pieterson fellow, he's got a, you know, great sense of himself, and that's why he's going to be a successful captain, so the papers' say. Basil had this knowledge that he was a great architect and he was generous enough to, you know, let the boys run and do this and do that and whatever, but to the outside world of course, who didn't depend on him, he could be seen in a different way.
One day, early March, it's very, very cold and grey, very, very cold and grey, horrible day. 'Shooom', opens the door and, 'Jack?'. That was it, the interrogative, 'Jack?'. All we go pencils down, swivel round, 'Jack, I don't understand this.' Ah, this is a good one. 'Jack, I just don't understand this.' This was the time when as Past President of the RIBA he was having his bust done. Usually the others have their portraits done, but Basil wanted a bust, and of course for a bust you go to Epstein. 'Jack, I just don't understand this. Listen, I've just come back from Jacob's [Jacob Epstein] studio, and it's terrible.' He said, 'He's only doing my bust, he sits me in my underpants, on a chair, in the studio, with all the windows open!' And we said 'Oh dear me, oh deary me. Oh dear, oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.' So he was twigged, Basil was twigged.
But he was great. I mean, as I say, the two years I spent with him were magic and... oh wait a minute, just one more point before I finish my short slot. The people, I come back to this thing about the office. I worked in Milton Keynes for ten years, many years later and I met up with David [Rock]. David did some work with me, for me actually, again brilliant designer, brilliant designer, don't know what happened to him, but that's when we last met. But Milton Keynes was a huge, huge, I don't know how many architects, a hundred and fifty? And there was an astonishing fellow, Derek Walker, and he was very keen to build a community, what he used to call an atelier within a bureaucracy and he got fifteen or twenty people. The difficulty for me was they all came from the AA and they came from that year that had sliced Basil, many years ago incidentally. They grill young Turks. Anyway, I was on old Turk by then so it didn't matter, but the thing was that Walker tried to build this atelier thing. Now Basil, by default, or design, built it; for instance, Jack Bonnington was the number two in the office, he was you know, he was in command, he was Basil's, you know, full-stop – actually Andrew was his real full-stop – Jack was the full-stop in the office. Jack and I used to go to all-in wrestling matches in the east-end of London, you wouldn't be allowed, you know [inaudible] these days, and we used to go off by bus and watch, you know, The Strangler strangling, you know, the Blue Lagoon, or whatever it was. Marvellous!
When Paoletti worked with me, for me, I must tell you, Roland was a Jesuit and I respect him for that, of course, I learnt a lot from him, and I gave him the kitchens at College House [Falmer House], and he never batted an eyelid, because he wanted also to design [inaudible] and I said, 'Kitchens, Roland.' So he did the kitchens, immaculately. He may well claim the rest, I don't actually care, it doesn't worry me remotely. Roland and I used to go to theatres, first nights, Roland had a very good technique for getting in on a first night. What you did was you hung around the front on a first night and there was always a cancellation. Somebody always cancelled. So about a minute to curtain up Roland would dart in and say, 'Any cancellations?.' 'Well as a matter of fact we've got two.' 'Ok, half-price.' In. So we used to go first night. We went to Osborne and Pinter, and Bolt, the whole damn lot of them, so that was great fun.
A third person I used to mix with was Gerald Levin. Now, we used to have all night poker sessions. Do you remember that? Up in Hampstead, there was Gerald and the other South Africans, it was great fun. I was still at Canonbury, but the thing was, and again, we used to play cricket. There was this huge camaraderie. I don't know to this day how much it was designed by Basil, but he certainly encouraged it and he let it go, and he let it go because he employed young, bright people. He needed, you know, the wise heads like Edward Samuels. Who were the other guys up at the top? There was Edward Samuels,
??: Gillie Marsh, Humphrey Wood.
PW: Humphrey. There was another one. Oh...
??: Gillie Marsh.
DR: Gillie Marsh
PW: Yes. No. And Rex Speller the office manager. They were, they were sort of old men of thirty-five that ran this office, and there were the boys who used to sit around and laugh and play cards, but draw incidentally, aged twenty-five, and that was it. So thank you Basil. Really, thank you and I'm delighted to have come to say hello to people I haven't seen... it's a long time ago actually, so I'm very grateful to Basil.
LC: Thank you very much. In my haste to grab a pencil, I didn't introduce Peter at all, and just in a sort of coda to what he's been telling us about, I should probably say that he got his diploma in architecture, with distinction, from Regent Street Poly, in 1958 and was with the Spence office for two years, '58 to '60, doing the master plan and design of the first buildings at Sussex. He then went overland to Chandigar, 1960 to '62. Milton Keynes Development Corporation, '71 to '81. He then changed tack, a PhD in development studies at the University of East Anglia, low cost housing in cyclone and flood prone areas of south east India. He set up a micro finance charity in 1977
LC: '97, and cyclone mitigation project for the World Bank from 1999 to 2002. And now another change, he's enrolled for a diploma in art history at Oxford.