Sir Basil Urwin Spence, OM, OBE, RA, lived from 13 August 1907 to 19 November 1976. He was an architect who produced many buildings in the UK and beyond in the Modernist/Brutalist style. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Basil Spence was born in Bombay, India, and was the son of Urwin Spence, who worked for the Royal Mint. He was educated in India and then between 1919 and 1925 at George Watson's College in Edinburgh. In 1925 he became an architecture student at the Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), winning a number of prizes and becoming recognised as an outstanding talent. In 1929 he worked at the London office of Sir Edwin Lutyens, an experience that would have a considerable influence on Spence's style. He returned to the ECA in 1930, where he completed his studies and also began to teach part time, something he would continue to do until 1939.
In 1931, Spence set up a practice with William Kininmonth in offices in Edinburgh's Rutland Square. Basil Spence married Mary Joan Ferris in 1934. By 1938, the architectural practice had become known as Rowand Anderson & Paul & Partners. Basil Spence's work focused on exhibition design, including three pavilions for the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, and country houses. Two of these, Broughton Place near Biggar, and Quothquhan in Lanarkshire were traditional in style while a third, Gribloch was of a modern design.
During the war, Spence served in the army, rising to the rank of major by the time of his demobilisation in September 1945. Spence then continued his exhibition work, receiving an OBE in 1948. He worked on the Sea and Ships Pavilion at the 1951 Festival of Britain, and in 1953 moved to London full time. Between 1958 an 1960 Spence served as the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
By then his most famous building was under way, a rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. Such was its success that he was knighted in 1960. Spence went on to complete a wide range of other notable commissions. They included the British Embassy in Rome; Edinburgh University Library; Glasgow Airport; Hyde Park Cavalry Barracks in London; the New Zealand Parliament Buildings in Wellington (usually known as "The Beehive"); and 50 Queen Anne's Gate, HQ of the Home Office in London. Spence came to be closely associated with a Modernist/Brutalist style of architecture that has since become highly controversial. And some of his post-war residential work such as the high-rise Hutchesontown C development in Glasgow has since been demolished. Spence died in 1976 at his home in Suffolk, and 40 years later his work and his reputation continue to be the subject of heated debate.