Sir Basil Urwin Spence (1907-1976)

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The architect Sir Basil Spence (1907-1976) devised the layout for the 1960s redevelopment of George Square into a new campus for the Faculty of Arts and headed the team responsible for the design of the Main Library building (completed 1967).


Spence was born in Mumbai, India, and, at the age of 12, was sent by his Orcadian parents to study at George Watson's College, Edinburgh. In 1925 he went to Edinburgh College of Art, originally to study sculpture, but rapidly changing course to architecture. Key influences during his time at ECA included: architectural historian John Summerson (1904-1992), architect and town-planner Sir Frank Charles Mears (1880-1953), who both lectured at ECA; Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer (1864-1929), a college governor and examiner; and visiting lecturers Walter Gropius (1883-1969), founder of the Bauhaus school, and Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953), the Art Deco pioneer.

Early Career

Having been awarded the ECA certificate in architecture in 1929, Spence left Edinburgh to work in the London office of Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), another important influence, and prepared furniture and garden designs for Viceroy House in New Delhi. He returned to Edinburgh in 1930 to complete his architectural training, proceeding to win the Rowand Anderson medal (1930), the RIBA silver medal (1931); the Pugin prize (1933), and the Arthur Cates Prize for Town Planning (1933). In 1931 he obtained his diploma in architecture and joined Rowand Anderson, Balfour Paul, & Partners, rising to junior partner by 1935. For the rest of the 1930s he combined relatively conservative baronial-style work for this established Edinburgh practice with more modernist designs for private houses in collaboration with his college friend William Hardie Kininmonth (1904-1988). Acclaim for the latter led to a major independent commission for Spence to design the Le Corbusier-influenced Scottish pavilion at the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow in 1938, along with the ICI pavilion and a country cottage intended as a model for agricultural workers. When war broke out Spence joined the Royal Artillery, eventually bringing his talent for design and landscape composition to bear as an officer in their camouflage unit. Serving in Normandy, he witnessed the destruction of ancient religious buildings and recorded in his diary his desire to build a church fit for his own times, should he survive the war.

Post-War Career

Balfour Paul were unable to re-employ Spence after the cessation of hostilities, due to an embargo on construction except for wartime repairs, and he spent some time teaching part-time at ECA. In 1946, he formed the practice Basil Spence & Partners, recruiting assistants from Balfour Paul's office and promising students from ECA. They initially specialized in designing exhibition pavilions including the Enterprise Scotland Exhibition, Edinburgh (1946), the Scottish Industries Exhibition, Glasgow (1947), and the Britain Can Make It Exhibition, London (1949). By the late 1940s, however, they were receiving commissions for working-class local authority housing in areas such as Bannerfield, Selkirk (1948), Dunbar (1949), Sunbury-on-Thames and Feltham (1950), and Shepperton (1951). Spence's designs won him the Festival of Britain award for housing in 1951, and led to further pavilion work for the Festival itself. In the same year, Spence won a competition to rebuild Coventry Cathedral which had been devastated by wartime bombing. Spence's design, which retained the burnt-out ruins, placing them at a right angle to a new structure. Finally completed in 1961, it is Spence's best-known and most controversial design, catapulting him to public prominence.

Success with the cathedral commission and the Festival of Britain buildings led Spence to open a London office in 1951. Over the next forty years his London and Edinburgh practices between them were responsible for over 160 major buildings and master plans. Coventry Cathedral led on to a succession of church commissions in England. Acclaim for his public housing projects led to commissions for central-area redevelopment schemes in Newcastle, Sunderland, Hampstead, and Chelsea, and to work on Basildon New Town. Subsequent work resulting from these master plans includes the Swiss Cottage Library and Public Baths (1960–62), Newcastle (1969), the Civic Centre, Sunderland (1970), Kensington Town Hall (1974), and the much-criticized Knightsbridge Barracks overlooking Hyde Park (1967–70). He continued to be involved in working-class housing projects, including the now demolished Hutchesontown tower blocks in Glasgow.

Spence's status as the most sought-after architect for UK public buildings also led to commissions abroad. Besides advising on the design of projects such as the New Zealand parliament building in Wellington, the United Nations offices in Geneva, and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza in Dallas, Texas, Spence was responsible for the design of the British Embassy in Rome and the British Pavilion for Expo '67 in Montreal.

Edinburgh University

In 1955, Spence devised a layout for a massive redevelopment of Edinburgh University's Arts campus, centered on George Square, originally a Georgian residential square with a large central garden. In the same year, Percy Johnson-Marshall (1915-1993) was appointed as Planning Consultant with responsibility for the overall layout, designation of sites, harmonisation of finishes, landscaping and external works. The redevelopment plan incorporated a new Main Library building. By the mid-20th century, it had become evident that Library accommodation within the Old College complex was inadequate for the future needs of the university. In 1954, Sir Edward Victor Appleton (1892-1965), the Principal of the University designated Spence as the architect of the new building. The library was to be the very hub of Spence’s campus scheme, occupying a one-acre site on the south-west corner of George Square. It would be several years, however, before an official library commission was awarded and design work could get underway, as these depended upon the award of a capital grant from the University Grants Committee and the building of replacements for the student hostels that occupied the library site.

The new Library was designed by Spence’s Edinburgh office of Spence, Glover & Ferguson. The design process was extremely rigorous, involving extensive researching into existing library structures, and close consultation with the university librarian Richard Fifoot (1925-1992) as the team sought to provide space for 2,500 readers, 114 staff and 2 million books.Spence did not personally produce a design for the library. His partner John Hardie Glover (1913-1994) was put in charge of the job and appointed Andrew Merrylees (1933- ) as project archivist. Merrylees had developed a sketch plan by February 1963 which was approved by the University Grants Committee in June of the same year. Glover, however, was unhappy with the proportions of the front elevation. He consulted with Spence who devised a suspended fascia across the entrance to amend the proportions.

Planning consent was granted in November 1964, and construction began working with a budget of £1,700,000, a considerable sum for the time. When completed in August 1967, the Library was the largest building of its type in Britain. It was met with immediate acclaim, earning a RIBA award in 1968 and a Civic Trust Commendation in 1969. Today it is recognized as one of the major modernist works in Scotland and is a category A listed building.

Further University and Library Commissions

Edinburgh University was the first of a number of significant higher education commissions for Spence, as the sector expanded considerably following the Robbins report of 1963. Besides providing layouts for Durham, Exeter, Liverpool, Newcastle Nottingham, and Southampton Universities, he master-planned the new University of Sussex and designed its library. The experience gained by Spence’s team in building Edinburgh University Main Library was put to further use in their designs for Newcastle Central Library, University College Dublin Library, the Sidney Jones Library (Liverpool University) and the Cameron Small Library (Heriot Watt University).


Spence received many public and professional awards both in the UK and abroad. He was knighted in 1960 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1962. He served as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects from 1958 to 1960, and was named Royal Designer for Industry in 1960. After a backlash against Modernist (and particularly Brutalist) architecture, his work has gradually returned to favour, with many of his buildings (including some of his most controversial) now listed.


  • Brian W. Edwards, 'Spence, Sir Basil Urwin (1907–1976)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)