The Dean Gallery Edinburgh Celebrates Sir Basil Spence

By Andreia de Oliveira Nobre | 19 October 2007
illustration of a low modernist commerical building at night with the sign 'Southern Motors'

Spence's early design for Southern Motors, Edinburgh. Courtesy the Dean Gallery and the Sir Basil Spence Archive

Contemporary with the birth of the British welfare system, visionary architect Sir Basil Spence designed modern buildings which were also concerned with the wellbeing of people in the ‘brave new world’ of post-war Britain and Europe.

His thinking about future needs gives the title to a new exhibition at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh marking the centenary of his birth (in India, in 1907). Back to the Future, running until February 10 2008, contains a broad display looking at his entire career.

Spence studied at Edinburgh College of Art, and his first chance to design in a contemporary style came in 1933 with the Southern Motors building, in the Causewayside area of the Scottish capital. His ability to prepare attractive drawings to explain designs was recognised by his contemporaries, who would call for his skills in many commissions later on.

black and white photo of a man with a handlebar moustache

Sir Basil Spence became a household name. Courtesy the Dean Gallery and the Sir Basil Spence Archive

Original drawings, designs and models from his student days through to his most famous works, such as Sussex University and Glasgow Airport, demonstrate Spence’s talents, while personal objects expose something of his character as a man.

More than 200 works are shown on the top floor of the Dean Gallery, allowing the visitors to access the huge variety of Spence’s vision. Many un-exhibited items from the Sir Basil Spence Archive, donated by the architect’s family to the RCAHMS (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland), form the exhibition.

black and white photo of a modern building with a large arched window overlooking a moated concrete courtyard

Sussex University - one of the first new build universities. Courtesy the Dean Gallery and the Sir Basil Spence Archive

Coventry Cathedral was his ‘masterpiece’, and winning this commission assured his career from then on, as well as winning him a knighthood in 1960. The modernist church, built alongside the remains of the original bombed building, is as symbolic as it is a source of division among critics – any architect embracing the future as Spence did is bound to draw strong opinion.

Jacob Epstein, John Piper and Graham Sutherland were all commissioned to create artworks for the cathedral, their modern styles meshing well with Spence’s design. Their works are on display in the exhibition section devoted to the cathedral.

black and white photo of two tower blocks

Spence was an advocate of the characteristic mid-20th century modernist style, which has latterly received criticism. Courtesy the Dean Gallery and the Sir Basil Spence Archive

Spence was also a passionate advocate of his profession, helping to promote the understanding of architecture in the public arena – his book about the genesis of Coventry Cathedral was a bestseller. He was also key in modernising the Royal Institute of British Architects, of which he was president.

Film, audio and slideshows reveal his design process, but the show will not only appeal to those interested in the methods of architecture. Samples of materials and artefacts recovered from his projects will enlighten visitors, while a specially designed education programme takes place throughout the duration of the exhibition with guided tours for school groups.

The current exhibition is part of a larger project, originating in the gift of the Spence archive to the RCAHMS and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Scottish Executive. Conservation and cataloguing are also continuing as part of the Sir Basil Spence Archive Project, and the collection is now available online at

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