Blue Plaques

SPENCE, Sir Basil (1907-1976)

Plaque erected in 2011 by English Heritage at 1 Canonbury Place, Canonbury, London, N1 2NG, London Borough of Islington

All images © English Heritage




Architecture and Building


Sir BASIL SPENCE 1907-1976 Architect lived and worked here



Born in Bombay in 1907, the young Spence was educated until the age of 12 in India before being sent to George Watson's College in Edinburgh. He studied architecture at the Edinburgh College of Art, and spent a year at the London office of Edwin Lutyens, who was a clear influence on Spence's work. During the 1930s Spence undertook his first architectural commissions with the Edinburgh firm of Rowand Anderson, Paul and Partners. These included Broughton Place (1935-37), executed in Scottish-Renaissance style. Spence set up his first practice after Army service during the war. He combined his home and office, first in Edinburgh and then at two successive addresses in London.

Following his 'interesting, exciting, and lucrative' work on the Scottish and ICI Pavilions at the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, Spence designed the Sea and Ships Pavilion at  the Festival of Britain in 1951. He later produced an uncompromising design for the British Pavilion for the Expo '67 in Montreal. Public housing was a staple of Spence's work. His low-rise schemes in Sunbury-on-Thames, Surrey (1948-49, 1950-52), and at Dunbar, East Lothian (1949-52, 1955-56) won awards. But controversy dogged the twenty-storey twin slab blocks at the Gorbals, Glasgow, known as Hutchesontown 'C' (1961-65): they proved difficult and expensive to maintain, and were demolished in 1993.

"Contemporary genius"

Spence's commission for a new Cathedral at Coventry - which replaced the one destroyed by the Luftwaffe - is his best-known building and its popularity endures; it was voted Britain's favourite twentieth-century building in a poll held at the millennium, and was described by architecture critic Jonathan Glancey as 'contemporary genius'. Spence helped to secure the involvement of the best craftsmen and artists of the time, including Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Dame Elizabeth Frink and Sir Jacob Epstein. A powerful symbol of Britain's post-war reconstruction, the bold new cathedral made Spence's reputation; its design and construction were described by the architect in Phoenix at Coventry (1962). Spence also designed parish churches in Coventry, Sheffield, Leicester, Manchester and Reading. His design for the Mortonhall Crematorium (1966) in Edinburgh is much admired.

As a University architect, Spence is most renowned for the University of Sussex (1960-75), in which his use of vernacular materials in a parkland valley setting spoke of his respect for local and historic context. His university buildings at Cambridge, Southampton, Exeter, Liverpool and Edinburgh testify to his widespread reputation in that sphere. Other important commissions included Glasgow airport (1961-66; remodelled 1991), Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall and Knightsbridge Barracks (1967-70), which remains the object of controversy for its 33-storey tower adjacent to Hyde Park. His Swiss Cottage Library (1963-1964) was noted as a civic building of significant distinction, following its recent sensitive refurbishment.

Spence was made an OBE in 1948 and knighted in 1960. He became only the second architect (after Lutyens) to be admitted to the Order of Merit in 1962. As President of the RIBA in 1958-60, and Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy from 1961 to 1968, Spence was an unflagging advocate for his profession. The French Académie d'Architecture honoured him with their Médaille d'Or.

He died at his country home at Yaxley Hall, near Eye, Suffolk in 1976 and is buried nearby at Thornham Parva. Eric Lyons, a later President of the RIBA, stated that the best of Spence's public buildings 'reflected the spirit and vitality that was shared by the British people in the post-war era.' Fellow architect, Sir Frederick Gibberd, paid tribute to him as 'the best-known British architect, almost the only one known to the general public'.

Number 1, Canonbury Place

Number 1, Canonbury Place was Spence's London home and office from 1956, until he acquired Number 2, next door, in the mid-1960s; this then became the family home. Number 1 (usually rendered as 'Number One') had a connecting door, and became the nerve centre of Spence's large architectural practice, and continued functioning under his name until long after his death. It was built in 1767-71 by John Dawes, and is listed Grade II. The Blenheim oak tree in the garden was presented to Spence by Sir Winston Churchill in 1959, in gratitude for his chairmanship of the competition committee for the design of Churchill College, Cambridge.

"Charmingly fluent"

Howard Spencer, English Heritage's blue plaques historian, said:

"Although he has had his critics, there can be little doubt of Basil Spence's huge contribution to post-war architecture, or that his designs were executed with real spirit, adaptability, mastery of materials, and skill.  His reputation has rightly enjoyed a revival in recent years and many of his buildings have been listed. English Heritage is delighted to commemorate Basil Spence with a blue plaque."

Anthony Blee said:

"Spence's remarkable talents extended beyond planning and design. He was recognised as a gifted artist in that he was able accurately and convincingly to demonstrate how his buildings would appear in reality and in context. Likewise, he was charmingly fluent in explaining his concepts with vivid clarity. He had such design dexterity that he could take pleasure in applying himself to a wide range of challenges, from major building commissions to small scale details such as furniture design and architectural models."

Nearby Blue Plaques

Nearby Blue Plaques

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