Sir Basil Spence

— #9 Great Michael Rise

Overview Sir Basil Spence Fishermen’s Park Boatbuilding

Basil Spence was born in Bombay on 13 August 1907, the son of Urwin Spence, who was employed by the Royal Mint, and his wife Daisy Crisp.

He completed his elementary education in Bombay, but in 1919 at the age of twelve he moved to Scotland and attended George Watson’s College as a day pupil.  He enrolled into Edinburgh College of Art in September 1925, initially to study painting and sculpture.  He soon transferred to the School of Architecture, studying design practice and town planning, and architectural history and theory. His brilliant draughtsmanship secured him a place in the office of Sir Edwin Lutyens, whom he assisted with the designs for the Viceroy’s house, New Delhi, and while in London he took the opportunity to study at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

Sir Basil Spence was particularly noted for the design of Coventry Cathedral. PHOTO: Creative Commons: File:Coventry_Cathedral_Interior. Diliff.jpg

On his return to Edinburgh Spence won the RIAS Rowand Anderson Medal during session 1930-31. In the latter year he gained his diploma from the College of Art and won the RIBA’s Silver Medal as the best architectural student in the UK.  In practice, Basil Spence’s own buildings were modern in style, but the influence of Lutyens can be seen in his early work.  After the war, he was about to move to the United States to work for America’s best-known architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

However, his plans changed when in 1950 when he beat over 200 other entries to win the competition for the new Coventry cathedral. This would replace the medieval building which had been been almost completely destroyed by the Luftwaffe.  He was also appointed chief architect for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

Spence was invited to submit plans for the improvement of the houses in Newhaven most of which had been described as defective in the post-war Abercrombie Report with over two-thirds of the housing stock suffering from overcrowding and lacking basic sanitary facilities such as hot-water, baths or even inside toilets in Newhaven, most of which had been described as defective in the post-war Abercrombie Report.  Over two-thirds of the housing stock suffered from overcrowding and lacked basic sanitary facilities such as hot water, baths and even inside toilets.  Most were owner-occupied with the residents maintaining their houses as best they could but the need for improvement was obvious.

3_9034 Michael Rise looking north, taken at the time of its completion in 1970. The sea is just about visible, the high rise tenements of Western Harbour development have still to be built. PHOTO: The Liston Legacy

Basil Spence planned Great Michael Rise as a starting point, as well as a block of flats at Laverockbank Avenue at the other end of the village. The flats at Laverockbank were designed in  such a way as to allow occupants to enjoy the fresh air, privacy and views of the Forth on their balconies,  as can be seen in this picture.  Basil Spence’s plan for New Lane and Great Michael Rise was equally as sensitive. The houses built were of 2, 3 and 4 storeys using brightly coloured harling of different hues to simulate the traditionally painted cottages of the East Coast fisherfolk.

The families from New Lane were offered these houses to move into, which most did with alacrity, having the luxury of hot and cold water, a bathroom, more bedrooms and living space.

The improvement of Main Street and its back streets was to be spilt into two phases with Phase One being the south side (i.e. farthest from the harbour) and Phase Two being the North side).  Spence’s intention was that almost all the existing houses were to be retained after improvement. However, Edinburgh Corporation, as it was then, had other less expensive objectives and Basil Spence’s masterplan never came to fruition.

Basil Spence's saw-tooth design of the balconies in the main block ensures that each property gets a good view across the Firth of Forth. PHOTO: Creative Commons — 6038885281

That Spence’s undoubted talent could be employed for such a mundane scheme as domestic housing development is noteworthy.  He would go on to design many significant buildings at home and abroad such as Mortonhall Crematorium, Edinburgh University Main Library, Glasgow Airport and many significant church and university buildings within the UK.

His most iconic building abroad is probably the Executive wing of the New Zealand parliament building,  which is known fondly as ‘The Beehive’.  Spence also designed the British Embassy in Rome.

The iconic Beehive Parliament Buildngs in Wellington, New Zealand, another of Sir Basil Spence's fine creations. PHOTO: Creative Commons - Bgabel at wikivoyage shared