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Sketches of Spence

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Sketches of Spence


Doodles abound, but Spence exhibition lacks historical context, says Neil Gillespie.

Dean Gallery, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 19 October 2007-10 February 2008, The Archive Project: www.basilspence.org.uk

In an obituary of Basil Spence, who died in 1976, Hugh Casson is quoted as saying: ‘His pencil never slept’. Spence’s evocative skill as a draughtsman was ideally suited to many of his early commissions for exhibition and trade shows, as well as established architects who used his services to illustrate their projects.These included Edwin Lutyens, for whom Spence worked on the Viceroy’s House, New Delhi, India.

Two commissions in the early 1950s, however, dramatically established Spence’s presence on the international stage: the winning of the competition to design a new Coventry Cathedral; and the Sea and Ships Pavilion for the Festival of Britain. Spence was brilliantly placed to represent a new architecture for post-war Britain – he cut a suitably dashing figure with his manicured moustache and had a facility for communication both visual and verbal, as fragments of archival Pathe News footage reveal. In her essay ‘Spence as Church Builder’, academic Louise Campbell talks of him as giving ‘a glimpse of the future, a world of light, modernity and fun’ and as a ‘glamorous moderniser’.

But what of his position in the architectural constellation? Too young for the heroic period of Modernism and too old for the Post-Modern era, Spence occupies a somewhat ambivalent position; known famously for Coventry Cathedral, and infamously for Glasgow’s ill-fated Hutchesontown C housing block in the Gorbals. While Coventry Cathedral (1951-1962) propelled him into the nation’s hearts and imagination, Hutchesontown C (1958-1966), reviled by its occupants, suffered ignominious demolition in 1993.

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