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Thursday24 July 2014

Book review

Basil Spence: Buildings and Projects

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Basil Spence: Buildings and Projects
By Miles Glendinning, Louise Campbell and Jane Thomas
RIBA Publishing, 370pp, HB, £45.
4/5 stars

The modernist architect gained a reputation for balancing the traditional with the avant-garde

The spirit of the modernist architecture during the period following the second world war in Britain has been characterised as “a tonic for the nation”. Basil Spence’s buildings are more of a gin and tonic for the establishment. He was the man, more than any other, who sold modern architecture to the type of people that Jimmy Porter raged against in Look Back in Anger, adeptly creating a distinctly gentrified strand of modernism for regimental officers, university dons, diplomats and Anglican bishops.

One of the best features of this new monograph on Spence is how it goes beyond a mere description of his buildings to give us a portrait of a man capable of presenting the work of his large office to conservative clients.

Spence’s reputation has suffered, initially from the disdain directed at him by the following generation, most vocally Reyner Banham, but also from a number of projects from the latter part of his career that have been widely detested. This book goes a long way to providing a convincing re-evaluation of Spence, although a number of aspects of his career remain problematic.

The book is far-reaching, luxuriously illustrated and impressively edited to integrate numerous chapters by different authors into a satisfying whole. Added to Louise Campbell’s book on Coventry Cathedral and the catalogue of a 2007 exhibition, it makes Spence, after James Stirling, the best documented architect of post-war Britain.

Spence was born in India in 1907. He was trained in the beaux arts tradition, cutting his teeth with a year in Lutyens’ office working on New Delhi. His early houses veer in style between a sleek thirties moderne and Scottish baronial. Following the war, in which he saw action during the Normandy landings, he was primarily concerned with exhibition designs, culminating in the fabulously wacky Sea and Ships pavilion for the Festival of Britain.

His career took off after he won the competition to rebuild Coventry Cathedral in 1951. He was chosen in part as a compromise between traditional, neo-gothic designs and the more radical submissions of architects such as the Smithsons and Sandy Wilson. The building is Spence’s magnum opus, although I doubt it elicits in anyone the powerful feeling of the numinous at Giles Gilbert Scott’s Liverpool Cathedral. It nevertheless does a number of things extremely well, especially the way it incorporates some of the finest art works of the period so that they coalesce to form a total statement.

The cathedral is most moving for the way that it handles its own history of reconstruction after the blitz, through the solicitude shown towards the bombed out shell of the old cathedral, and in its symbolic programme of sacrifice and resurrection. The chapter on Coventry deftly documents the “cathedral’s trajectory in the post-war imagination, from the patriotic commemorative project of the 1940s to the renewal of national architectural and craft traditions of the 1950s, to the project of international reconciliation in the 1960s”.

Spence’s other most important work is the University of Sussex, with its buildings in a genteel version of the Maison Jaoul idiom of brick and concrete barrel vaults. It places these buildings in a broadly axial progression along the hollow of a valley, in a way that lends the university a sense of occasion missing in the more radical new universities, such as UEA or Essex. Other notable projects detailed in the book include Edinburgh University library, the Erasmus building in Cambridge, the British Embassy in Rome and the British Pavilion for Expo 67.

Spence’s standing as a purveyor of a sensitive “middle way between traditionalism and the avant garde” (as Campbell puts it in the introduction) is muddied by the fact that some of his later projects were infected by the more egregious bloody-mindedness of the 1960s. Although this was indicative of the broader changes in architectural approach between the decades, reading between the lines, one also gets the impression that being the most celebrated architect of his day went to Spence’s head. Certainly he became overly willing to lend his prestige to controversial schemes.

Some of his later projects were infected by the more egregious bloody mindedness of the 1960s

Miles Glendinning deals with a couple of these problematic projects intelligently. He documents the failures of Spence’s artistic approach when it came to creating the sublime yet tragically flawed multi-storey flats in the Gorbals, Glasgow, which broke away from the modest approach of his earlier housing schemes such as the “conservative surgery” of the Canongate development in Edinburgh.

The chapter on the Hyde Park Cavalry Barracks documents how Spence had to juggle requirements for high-density development, on a restricted site and a small budget, with the many bizarre ritual requirements of the Horse Guards, such as the requirement for a drum horse to be ridden from the stables into the mess wardrobe. Horse urine contains hippuric acid, which corrodes concrete, and mercilessly exposed the project’s constructional failings.

The one chapter that strikes a wrong note is on the Queen Anne’s Gate development. Spence’s role in the design is defended as alleviating its enormous scale through skilful modelling and a picturesque approach. I fail to see this. I think that the overbearing detailing only adds to the thuggery of this Portland stone behemoth, looking like a colossal storm trooper’s helmet sinisterly leering over a lovely part of London.

Despite this, the book is a major achievement and a substantial addition to our understanding of the period. Spence emerges as a curious figure, with his clubbable and persuasive public persona at odds with a private inability to cope with criticism. His buildings are inconsistent, but at their best display an admirable dignity and refinement.

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