Scottish Design Icons: Basil Spence

Scottish Design Icons is a series of small articles showcasing the big hitters of Scottish design. Today Susan Whyte touches on achieving success and facing setbacks as a designer, through the lens of architect Basil Spence.

As a student teacher I visited Coventry on a religious studies field trip. The most memorable part of the trip was a visit to the Cathedral at night. We had the entire place to ourselves, walking around in stocking feet, in the dark. I was taken with how architecture creates a memory, in almost a physical way; it was so peaceful and private, I relished the time in that magnificent space.

It's no surprise, then, that I am drawn to Basil Spence’s Interior Perspectives of Coventry Cathedral in our Scottish Design Galleries. One of Britain’s most celebrated Modern architects of the post-war era, Spence's Coventry Cathedral, built after the original was destroyed in the first air raids of the second world war, was the most important commission in Spence’s career. It helped expand his business, allowing him to have offices in both Edinburgh and London. Although his design initially came under some criticism, it is still credited today as the building that made him a household name.

An oil on canvas with graphite underdrawing image of the interior of Coventry Cathedral showing the main body of the b uilding looking down toward the altar.
'Interior perspective of Coventry Cathedral from the south towards the altar' by Basil Spence (1951). © Historic Environment Scotland

Adjacent to this canvas in the galleries is an illustration of Spence’s design for Hutchesontown C towers in Glasgow. At 2.5m long, it's a powerful object, but if you look closely at the fine details, you can see pieces of tape and pencil marks. It's easy to imagine the utopian dream that Spence visualised as the solution to tenement housing problems.

Architectural rendering of the long side of highrise flats. Precise and sprawling, the picture looms like a massive squared off cruise liner more than a housing block.
'South-west elevation of Hutchesontown Area C, Gorbals, Glasgow' by Spence, Glover and Ferguson (1958). © Historic Environment Scotland

Spence said, ‘on Tuesdays, when all the washing’s out, it’ll be like a great ship in full sail’. Welcomed by the first residents, the buildings soon fell out of favour. Sadly, high levels of maintenance and wider social deprivation problems led to their demolition in 1993.

Close-up line drawings of a building with simple figures hanging out washing and sitting in the windows.
Close-up look at Spence's Hutchesontown C towers illustration.

The high-rise flats came down 30 years after the success of Coventry Cathedral. To hang these two objects side by side makes a vivid statement: even the most celebrated designers can face setbacks. I hope that the many aspiring young designers visiting V&A Dundee will take comfort from that.

Susan Whyte is the Schools Development Officer at V&A Dundee.