Sir Basil Spence
A certain church at Bedford in England, boasts an exquisite medieval stone font, that survives with a tale. During the nineteenth century, as was common at the time, the church fabric was subjected to a comprehensive ‘improvement’ scheme. The original font was cast aside and replaced by a more functional item. However, photographs of the old font survived. Over a century later, conservationists agreed that the original item should somehow be found and reinstated. A protracted search proved fruitless and the idea was all but abandoned.
To the chagrin of all involved, it became apparent that the font had never been lost. After being discarded, it was used as a planter in the churchyard. Generations passed it every day, but nobody ever noticed. How many other objects are overlooked in our own travels?
Just beyond the south-west boundary of Kippen, stands a house named “Gribloch”. Its considerable size, and white rendered walls make it visible not only from the road to Fintry, but at many points along the Carse. The writer admits his own shame for passing this magnificent ‘A’ listed dwelling on countless occasions, without thought or due regard for its provenance.
Gribloch was the last of a trio of grand houses built in Scotland in the immediate years preceding the Second World War. The first, Broughton Place was constructed at Tweedsmuir and the second, Quothquhan near Biggar. The design of all three are attributable to the architect Basil Spence, whose practice was based in Edinburgh. Gribloch was built for the steel magnate John Colville and his American wife Helen. The couple had lost their previous home as the result of a fire. John Colville’s instruction to Spence was that the design should take full advantage of the elevated plot, including the view of Ben Lomond. This, Spence achieved by incorporating a window running up two storeys to light the central oval staircase. What proved more difficult was accommodating Helen’s wishes. At various points, Spence was obliged to accede to interior schemes submitted by Mrs Colville’s New York architects. The proverb ‘too many cooks’ comes to mind, and Spence’s flair suffered accordingly. One critic subsequently described the interior as ‘Hollywood Regency’. Gribloch’s foundations were laid in 1937 and the house largely complete by the outbreak of the Second World War. This was to be the Covilles’ home for some years.
By this time, Spence had accepted an army commission. He arrived in France as part of the allied invasion forces on D-Day 1944. The Norman tower of the abbey church at Ouistreham overlooked the landing beaches. There, enemy snipers had positioned themselves in the belfry windows to await advancing troops. The snipers were dislodged by allied shelling. Within minutes the abbey was largely in ruins. Spence understood the necessity of shelling but was grieved by the resulting desecration. He vowed, that should he be spared the conflict, he would cause a new place of worship, preferably a cathedral, to be built.
Within months, that wishful thought took a step towards reality. A forthcoming architectural competition was announced for the construction of a new Cathedral at Coventry. The old Cathedral had been largely destroyed by an air raid in 1940. Spence later entered, and against some 200 other designs, won the competition.
Spence’s design was by no means the most radical submitted, but nevertheless attracted a chorus of criticism. One factor was that the Gothic tower and the remains of the outer walls of the Old Cathedral had survived destruction. Many favoured rebuilding on the old structure rather than embarking on a new design. One critic bluntly told Spence that his design might be better utilised to build a factory. In the months to come, Spence’s wife proved adept at weeding the most wounding missives from the post before they reached her husband’s desk. In spite of this, the foundation stone of the new cathedral was laid by Her Majesty the Queen in 1956 and dedicated in her presence in May 1962. Spence was knighted and subsequently oversaw the design of many important projects in Scotland, notably Glasgow Airport.
At some point, Spence was invited to participate in a scheme to replace 62 acres of tenements in Hutchesontown, Glasgow with new housing. The scheme was divided into areas, A to E. Robert Mathew, then Spence’s junior partner, took responsibility for area ‘B’ and Spence area ‘C’.
Spence designed, as one newspaper described them, ‘two colossal, rugged 20-storey slabs”. In explaining his vision, Spence told the Glasgow Corporation’s Housing Committee that, “on Tuesdays, when all the washing is out, it will be like a great ship in full sail”. This reassuring vision of life in a high-rise flat helped break down resistance to the plans among local councillors. The buildings were finally ready for occupation in 1962.
The blocks were popularly known as ‘Hutchie C’. For the first ten years the building was considered reasonably satisfactory for its inhabitants, particularly in comparison with their previous housing conditions. However, the reality of Spence’s vision of a ‘ship in full sail’ was, that washing frequently blew away when hung out at such heights. Life in the building proved less popular over time because the maintenance required for such a large and complex structure had been underestimated from the beginning. Tenants’ Associations pressed for a solution to the problems of damp and fungus in the buildings and water running down walls.
The persistent dampness, coupled with vandalism and the uncompromising design, meant that by the 1980s the complex had become an eyesore. In 1987 and 1988, the City Council undertook a major renovation, but to no avail. By contrast, Mathew’s more muted designs for area ‘B’ had stood the test of time and were highly regarded.
Plans were made for demolition of area ‘C’. In response, an architectural conservation organisation protested at the decision. It applied to have the buildings listed and preserved as one of Scotland’s key modernist monuments, but to no avail.
The end of ‘Hutchie C’ came on Sunday 12th September 1993 when the City Council invited local people and the media to witness the ‘blowdown’ of the blocks. Sadly, the public viewing area was placed too close to the building and debris hit the crowd, killing one and injuring four others. A subsequent inquiry into the accident revealed that twice the amount of explosive necessary to fell the structures had been used. Mercifully, Spence was spared the occasion, having died some years earlier.
Successful architects by and large, look to the future rather than embrace the past. Spence was, by nature, forward-thinking and well aware of the risks of a pioneering spirit. Nevertheless, there remains debate about whether his attempt to design a building with a “forceful, metaphoric character”, was a step too far for a mass housing project at that time.
Had ‘Hutchie C’ survived, would it today, with the benefit of hindsight, be accorded the same critical appreciation of Spence’s vision at Gribloch and Coventry Cathedral? Irrespective of personal taste, we are fortunate that a fitting memorial to Sir Basil exists within this locality.