Basil Spence revisited

An exhibition of Basil Spence’s work at the University of Sussex runs from 10 May to 14 June in Room 108 of the Arts A Building and is open 10.30 am to 5.30 pm, Monday to Saturday. David Robson, an architecture student in the 1960s, sets it in context.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of University of Sussex and it is staging a small exhibition  devoted to Sir Basil Spence, who was the master planner of the campus and the architect of its early buildings

I was a student of architecture during the 1960s at a time when Sir Basil, then at the peak of his career, was probably the most celebrated architect in the land. But Spence was not an architect whom we students admired. Our tutor, the scabrous critic, Reyner Banham, had dismissed Coventry Cathedral in a New Society article as “a ring-a-ding God-box” and re-dubbed its architect “Banal Sir-Spence”. To us, his designs for Sussex University were neither innovative nor rigorous and were conceived in a populist picturesque style – a far cry from the singular monumentality of Lasdun’s East Anglia, the compact urbanity of Epstein’s Lancaster or the heroic iconoclasm of Stirling at Leicester. Worse still, he had plundered the work of our true hero, le Corbusier, of Ronchamp and la Tourette, of Chandigarh and the Maison Jaoul.

Today, looking back with the benefits of hindsight and a newly published monograph (Basil Spence: Buildings and Projects. Miles Glendenning, Jane Thomas and Louise Campbell, RIBA Publishing 2012), it seems to me that Banham was right. Spence was a prolific builder during the three post war decades, but his work was inconsistent and, for the most part, mediocre.

His peaks included the Sea and Ships Pavilion at the 1951 Festival of Britain and the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, an equivocal design which was redeemed by its great artworks. His troughs include his brutalist Glasgow housing high-rises, which were completed in 1962 and demolished in 1993, the Dalek-like extension to the New Zealand Parliament in Wellington and his intrusively gargantuan designs for the Barracks in Knightsbridge and the Home Office Building in Queen Anne’s Gate, which later prompted Norman St John Stevas to hail him as the only architect to have ruined two London parks in a single lifetime.

But it now seems that we were all wrong about Sussex. Many of the new post-war universities were marred by badly thought-out masterplans, inappropriate designs, low budgets, poor maintenance and insensitive additions.

East Anglia, our favorite design in the 1960s, has turned out to be a brutalist concrete blot on its landscape, its later additions being forced to pit themselves against Lasdun’s unrelenting megastructure. Sussex, however, has turned out to be one of the most successful of the bunch. Its clusters of pavilions (left: an arcade and the Meeting House) fit neatly into the downland valley setting, its materials have mellowed over time and it has successfully accommodated most, if not all, of its later additions

Spence established a legible masterplan which embodied a pragmatic looseness of fit and allowed for unpremeditated growth. His initial core buildings – Falmer House, the Library, the Asa Briggs lecture theatres (above right) and the Pevensey and Chichester buildings – established a palette of materials (brick with exposed  concrete beams and vaults), a kit of parts and a sense of scale and rhythm which were capable of sustaining the development of the university for decades to come.

They also, between them, formed the Agora (above left), which still serves admirably as the central concourse of the campus, though it lacks the defining structures necessary to create the desired degree of connectedness or containment. Falmer House in particular was an elegant essay in symmetry and asymmetry, enclosure and perforation, which served as a fitting gateway to the campus, though its empty reflecting pools have for too long languished as vast refuse containers.

Today we can see that whenever Spence’s principles have been adhered to – as, for instance, in the Sussex Innovation Centre and the Freeman Centre – the results are pleasing. But when they are ignored – as in the Medical School or in much of the student accommodation – the results can be catastrophic.

This excellent exhibition contains interesting models and drawings and shows a short film which reveals much about Spence’s character. Unfortunately, the captioning leaves us uncertain as to which of the drawings is really from the knight’s own hand and which are the work of mere office hacks. A number are attributed to an assistant called Peter Winchester who, it is implied, made a big contribution to the initial design.

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