Basil Urwin Spence was born in Bombay on 13 August 1907. At the age of twelve he was sent to Scotland, his parents’ homeland, for his education. Having demonstrated a facility for drawing he attended Edinburgh College of Art in 1925 and heard Walter Gropius HonRDI lecture to the students. Before completing his architectural training in Edinburgh Spence spent a year in London (1929) working for Sir Edwin Lutyens, and attended evening classes at the Bartlett School of Architecture. With the award of the Rowand Anderson medal (1930), the RIBA silver medal (1931), the Pugin prize and the Arthur Cates prize for town planning, with Robert Matthew, in 1933 Spence demonstrated his architectural promise. Working for the practice of Rowand Anderson, Balfour Paul & Partners, Spence would spend his days designing country houses and department stores in a conservative style, while his evenings would be spent entering competitions and building modernist extensions to Edinburgh homes. By 1935 he had been appointed a junior partner in the practice and entrusted with designs for some of their most important clients. In 1946 he set up his own firm and carried out many commissions, including Hyde Park Cavalry Barracks, London, Glasgow Airport, Swiss Cottage Library and the University of Sussex. He is most famously remembered for his modern design for the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, for which Dick Russell RDI produced a chair to Spence’s specification.
On the outbreak of the Second World War Spence joined the Royal Artillery and rose to the position of major in the camouflage unit, where his talent for design was put to good use. He later became a staff captain in intelligence.
The critics lauded Spence’s design for the Scottish Pavilion at the Empire Exhibition, Glasgow in 1938 for which he also designed the ICI pavilion and a country cottage intended as a model dwelling. As chief architect for the 1946 Britain Can Make It exhibition Spence not only directed and guided the work of all the other designers and architects who took part in the exhibition, but also, with James Gardner RDI, designed the sports and leisure section. The following year, in his capacity as co-ordinating architect, Spence gave a visiting group of Royal Designers for Industry (RDI) an official tour of the Enterprise Scotland exhibition. His exhibition experience led to commissions for the design of the Sea and Ships Pavilion, the Skylark Restaurant, the Nelson Pier and the heavy industries stand for the 1951 Festival of Britain. His design for the British Pavilion for the Montreal Expo 67 featured a tower topped off with a 3D sculpture based on the Union Jack designed by FHK Henrion RDI. Spence described exhibitions as hot houses ‘where new seeds are planted and forced: every good garden has a hot house’.
A Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) from 1947, Spence was elected President in 1958. He was awarded an OBE in 1948, a KBE in 1960 and the Order of Merit in 1962. Appointed the first Hoffman Wood Professor of Architecture at the University of Leeds in 1955 and Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy (RA) in 1961, Spence was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art (RCA) the following year. Spence served on the Royal Fine Art Commission from 1956 for fourteen years, and as Treasurer of the RA (1962-64). Spence was one of the four judges on the selection panel for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Prize for Elegant Design (1958). He was awarded Hon DLitt by Leicester and Southampton universities and Hon LID by the University of Manitoba.
When he was appointed Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) in 1960 the Master, Robert Goodden RDI recalled ‘with particular admiration the set of designs [by Spence] for furniture of laminated construction…as experimental in their technique as they were refined in their design’. Spence attended the dinner party given by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), following the presentation of their Albert Medal, to Walter Gropius HonRDI in 1961.
Basil Spence died at the age of 69 on 19th November 1976.
Britain Can Make It Exhibition Catalogue 1946
Spence was the architect for the Britain Can Make it Exhibition, and is mentioned in the exhibition catalogue supplement as follows:
- Exhibition Officers – p236
- Designers of Individual Sections – p237, p238
To view and search the catalogue online, please visit our digital document library.
To learn more about the work of Basil Spence, his relationships with other designers, and further resources, visit the Exploring British Design prototype web portal.
Original image reference: GB-1837-DES-DCA-30-1-POR-S-68-1. Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.