Cathedral of the Atom Age

26 08 2008

The Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry may not be fully open during its refurbishment(1) but it has just hosted a wonderful exhibition on the work of Sir Basil Spence, the architect who designed the city’s new St Michael’s Cathedral.

Are you there, God? It's me, Basil.

Basil Spence was born in Bombay (Mumbai) on 13 August 1907, his father an assayer at HM Mint in the city, but returned to be educated in Edinburgh. One of his earliest assignments was a year working in the London office of Sir Edwin Lutyens, assisting with the designs for the new Viceroy’s House, New Delhi (now the Rashtrapati Bhavan). This appears to have been an influence on Sir Basil’s later designs, several of which incorporate long geometric pools, such as those at the British Embassy in Rome.

Sir Basil formed his own partnership in 1931, and over the next forty five years went on to design private and public housing, exhibition spaces, university buildings and grand public buildings all over the world, even submitting plans for a nuclear power station (you can find more about all these here). It is, however, for his design of Coventry’s new Cathedral, following the destruction of the previous one in the Coventry Blitz on November 14, 1940, that he is perhaps best remembered. Some may argue that he is more well known for the controversy surrounding the Hutchesontown C development in the Gorbals, Glasgow. It would be unfair, however, to judge him by his least successful project – demolished in 1993, killing a by-stander with flying debris – since most of his other buildings remain in use and functioning to their original specification.

Direction to the future

Despite Sir Basil’s prominence in post-war architecture, the exhibition in Coventry is the first major one dedicated to his work. The exhibition opened in October 2007 at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh and moved to Coventry in June 2008. It draws on the Sir Basil Spence Archive which was presented by the Spence family to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland in 2003 and comprises some 40,000 drawings, photographs, manuscripts, models and news cuttings. What is remarkable about the archive is that the family donated much more than just items from Sir Basil’s professional life, including artefacts from his home and his own private collection.

As a consequence of this donation the exhibition contains both the expected plans, drawings, models and paintings (Sir Basil was a talented artist) plus related artwork. The latter includes a small scale test piece for Graham Sutherland’s monumental tapestry which hangs above the altar in the cathedral, cartoons of some of the panels from John Piper’s great baptistery window, a practice panel from John Hutton’s engraved glass entrance screen and not only a portrait bust of Sir Basil by Sir Jacob Epstein but also a unique trial cast of the head of St Michael from St Michael’s Victory Over the Devil (which is on the outside south wall of the cathedral and is possibly the most iconic image of the building). The head of St Michael can be seen in the centre of the photograph below (as can Sutherland’s test piece on the right):

Back to the future

The exhibition was excellent and well laid out, taking you through the range of Sir Basil’s work from his very early sketches of medieval buildings in Northamptonshire to the office buildings of his later years. There was really only one possible response to such a successful and enjoyable exhibition: a visit to the cathedral next door.

When the new entrance to the Herbert Gallery (picture below) is opened it will take you across a small fountain filled plaza straight to Epstein’s St Michael’s Victory Over the Devil

Stamping out the Devil

and thence into the cathedral with John Hutton’s Screen of Saints and Angels on your left

Head of Saint and feet of Angels

and John Piper’s great baptistery window on your right

Shine on

In 1950 Sir Basil won the competition to design the new cathedral after the original designs were rejected. It occupied him for much of the next twelve years with the foundation stone being laid by the Queen on March 23, 1956 and the cathedral consecrated on May 25, 1962, on the same day as the new Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was composed for the occasion and on May 30 was premièred in the new cathedral to mark its consecration. In the exhibition is one of the wooden models built by Sir Basil to show the new cathedral and, importantly, its relationship with the open-air ruins of the old cathedral. Sir Basil had insisted that the old should remain, rather than being built on, and that the two should effectively form one building linked by a columned porch. The model helps to demonstrate quite how successful this integration of the old and the new is. The Historic Coventry website has an informative guide to the history and layout of the cathedral.

Red light on concrete

A visit to the cathedral is always awe-inspiring but this time the atmosphere was further heightened as the main organ was being played. You can hear a clip of this below:

Organ practice

I was surprised to find that the cathedral is not Sir Basil’s only contribution to the religious architecture of Coventry as, in 1954, he was commissioned by Bishop Gorton to design three low-cost parish churches to serve the (then) new residential suburbs around Coventry: St Oswald’s at Tile Hill, St John the Divine at Willenhall and St Chad’s at Bell Green. The Spence Archive has this to say about them:

“The architect had the buildings inexpensively constructed out of lightweight, rough textured, ‘no fines’ concrete, so called because it contained no fine gravel. This came from War Damage Commission funds, which would only have paid for one similarly-sized structure in brick.

Although built to a standard design, the three churches are individually detailed. They are each characterized by a freestanding tower that clearly mark the building as a worship space; and inside textured, concrete walls enclose a tall, aisle-less nave that seats a congregation of up to 250 people. The relationship between tower, church, and hall differs from parish to parish and responds to each individual site. Likewise, the east and west ends of the churches range from being fully glazed to almost completely enclosed. These features allow for a variety of light and ambience that lends each building its own distinct character. Spence and Partners designed most of the original furnishings, such as pulpits, altars, fonts, and pews. Just as he did at Coventry Cathedral, Spence also commissioned leading artists and designers of the day to produce a carefully integrated decorative programme for these churches.”

A trip to visit these churches is now planned and will feature in a future post.


The donation of Sir Basil’s papers and effects, and the creation of the Spence Archive, has reinvigorated academic debate about his contribution to post-war architecture and has lead to the Sir Basil Spence AHRC Research Project at the nearby University of Warwick, headed by Dr Louise Campbell a specialist in late nineteenth and twentieth-century architecture. The purpose of the project is to:

“provide a wide-ranging and detailed picture of one of the most important and prolific architects active in Britain in the mid-twentieth century. We are making a photographic survey of all Spence’s surviving buildings, and researching the context in which they were commissioned, designed and built. In order to round out the picture which we glean from scrutiny of the project files in the Spence archive at the RCAHMS and other archival sources we are conducting a programme of interviews with Spence’s former associates, assistants and partners. We aim to reconstruct the working practice of each of Spence’s offices in Edinburgh and in London, and to establish the particular roles and responsibilities of their various members.”

The project group has some way to go to redeem Sir Basil’s reputation as, although this exhibition has raised his prominence, commentators such as Chris Arnot and Matt Weaver in The Guardian both, at least initially, focus on the negative and specifically on the failure of the Hutchesontown C development in the Gorbals, mentioned above. Arnot’s article concludes:

“The Gorbals needs ongoing rebuilding — as does Spence’s reputation. By the 70s, he was under attack from traditional architects for being too modernist and from radicals for lacking a defining style.”

Weaver does at least admit that Coventry cathedral was a success and that there was some good in Sir Basil’s work:

“To be fair to Spence, he did design some great buildings. Recently restored to pristine condition, his library at Swiss Cottage in north London provides a glimpse of how exciting modern architecture was when it was first built. With its ribbed circular reading room, it has light and grace that is rare in a concrete building. Its scale is also sensitive to its surroundings. It is not bulky and awkward like too many of Spence’s buildings.

Spence is an interesting figure, but attempts to re-examine his work should honestly acknowledge that he built some dreadful buildings as well as some good ones.”

I have a very different perception of Sir Basil’s work, but my experience of him is from the cathedral, I have neither lived in one of the blocks designed by him nor worked in one of his buildings. It would be interesting to know the experience of other visitors to the exhibition.

A memorial inscription to Sir Basil was unveiled at the cathedral in 1978, following his death on 19 November 1976.

(1) Herbert Art Gallery
The museum of Burt and his history
The gallery is undergoing a £20 million redevelopment to include a 500sq metre glass-covered court, with a wooden beamed roof that echoes the one in the cathedral, providing access to new permanent and temporary exhibition galleries on two levels. Currently only the travelling exhibition space – and the cafe! – are open, with the new entrance and the main gallery due to reopen in October 2008. To give you a taste of the redevelopment, this is what the atrium looks like:


— words by Paul
— pictures by Paul & Elizabeth
— sounds by Elizabeth




One response

31 01 2010
Things that were, things that weren’t, things that are and things that may be « Inversion Layer

[…] into the 1951 competition to design the new Coventry Cathedral, which was won by Sir Basil. Our earlier post has more about Coventry […]

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