Love or hate Spence design, it's here to study

6th January 2006 at 00:00
An archive project of the controversial architect's design materials has sparked a series of workshops, Miranda Fettes reports

or some people, Sir Basil Spence's buildings are grotesque monstrosities; for others, he etched himself a place in history as one of the most celebrated 20th century architects.

Regardless of whether you consider him a genius or a joke, few would deny he was one of the most influential and prolific architects to have emerged from Scotland.

Now a project to conserve his drawings and papers has attracted pound;1.175 million in funding - pound;975,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Pounds 200,000 from the Scottish Executive - and will educate school pupils and community groups about his work.

The project is being led by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland in partnership with the National Galleries of Scotland and The Lighthouse (Scotland's centre for architecture, design and the city).

"The archive (38,000 items) was passed to the Royal Commission. It's an Aladdin's cave of Spence's working papers and materials and drawings throughout the design process," says Alan Muirden, the commission's education and outreach manager. "So we put a project together to take his papers, catalogue and preserve them, which involved conservation work."

Most famous for the new St Michael's Cathedral in Coventry, Spence lived from 1907-1976 and was knighted in 1960. He also designed the British Embassy in Rome, the Home Office and Knightsbridge Barracks in London, various buildings at Sussex, Cambridge, Southampton and Durham universities, Edinburgh University's library block and the infamous Hutchesontown C or Queen Elizabeth Square tower blocks in Glasgow's Gorbals, which were demolished in 1993.

Although the Sir Basil Spence Archive Project depicts him as Britain's most celebrated 20th century architect, many critics have called his buildings "ugly", "grotesque" and "monstrous" and much of his public work remains controversial.

The project features a programme of seven workshops on different themes - office life, travel, new design in historic places, urban regeneration, housing, education and worship - with some aimed at schools and others at community groups.

"We're taking Spence as the starting point and using him to explore bigger issues relating to the built environment," says Laura Baxter de Gutierrez, the audience development project manager at The Lighthouse. "Each workshop is working with very distinct themes, different ages and different backgrounds."

In the first set of workshops, which ran over three days in November, two groups of secondary pupils in Edinburgh visited Spence's landmark Scottish Widows building at the foot of Arthur's Seat. S4 art and design pupils from the Royal High and S3 graphic communications pupils from Broughton High participated in the Design of the Times project.

"The focus of the workshop was to look at the design process from conception to execution," explains Mr Muirden.

"It gave us a new insight into architecture and design," say Royal High pupils Carli Carmichael and Kathleen Dempsey. Classmates Rachel Gilchrist, Hayley Mills and Catherine Anderson add: "We now love architecture."

Carol Binnie, the principal teacher of art and design at the Royal High, explains: "The pupils worked with Sam Booth, a professional architectural model-maker and interior designer. They learned about Spence's work, visited the Scottish Widows building and asked staff about its design and usage, and learned model-making skills before coming up with an individual design for a new office block for Edinburgh."

Interestingly, she says, the class started out planning to design a traditional-style building. But after the Scottish Widows tour and learning about Spence, every single one had been converted. "They started off thinking they preferred traditional historic buildings and by the end they had all changed their minds.

"I think they were influenced by Spence's idea of taking a very simple shape. With the Scottish Widows building, Spence took the hexagon as well as the shape of Salisbury Crags."

The pupils were shown the garden on the car park roof. "You look right and see the Crags and look to the left and see it exactly mirrored in the two levels of the building," says Mrs Binnie. "They were really impressed by that."

Richard Robinson, the principal teacher of craft, design and technology at Broughton High, says his pupils were "impressed" by their tour of the Scottish Widows building.

His own perception was also altered. He says he was unpersuaded that it was sympathetic to its environment until he stood on the roof of the car park.

"I just thought it was an ugly building until I looked at it with an appreciation of what he was doing. I'm not a fan of 1960s1970s architecture but it had some very fine points. You look one way and the other and there is a definite theme running through the building. It was a good talking point."

Using Spence and the Scottish Widows building as inspiration, his class was given a self-chosen design task to fulfil.

"They mostly went for office furniture," he says. "Once they'd refined their ideas on paper, they tried to see what it would look like in 3D model."

"And we kept looking back to whether their ideas would fit in with the environment.

"The models they did at the end were very modern in feel."

The next workshop, in February, will focus on travel. Former BAA employees will be working with a graphic designer to create a pamphlet examining the history of Glasgow Airport and how Spence's design fits into the idea of the golden age of air travel.

A workshop in April will take Spence's Canongate housing project in Edinburgh as its reference, with members of Canongate Youth Project producing a large video projection.

In June, in the fourth workshop, 25 P6 pupils from Blackfriars Primary in Glasgow will create a short film documenting life in a Gorbals tower block.

The 10- and 11-year-olds will talk with local people and a community group about life in the high rises.

"They're going to be interviewing people who either lived in or remember the Spence flats and speaking to a group of older community members called the Gorbalites," says John Lawson, the headteacher at Blackfriars Primary.

"The film will show people recalling their memories of life in the tower blocks. We're going to visit the site where the buildings used to stand and show them buildings that are there now.

"There are loads of photographs of the Gorbals. They can compare the really old buildings that the Spence towers replaced and compare the modern, much lower ones that were built to replace them."

He adds: "I don't think many of the children have been involved in a digital video project before, so it will be interesting for them to get to do that."

Pupils at Thurso High in Highland, Duncanrig Secondary in East Kilbride, South Lanarkshire, and Kilsyth Academy, North Lanarkshire, will participate in the sixth workshop in September, on the theme of education. Pupils from S1-S6 will be involved in creating a short film documenting the history of the schools, which were all designed by Spence.

"We're always pleased to involve our pupils in activities that cover their history and culture," says William Bruce, a depute head at Thurso High.

"Some of the staff here were pupils who moved from the old Miller Academy to the new Thurso High. The school was designed to cope with the influx of pupils to the area due to Dounreay."

The project is likely to involve art and technology, history and modern studies pupils, he says, as well as input from the pupil council and debating societies. "We'll involve a broad cross-section of pupils across the years. For many, film is a new medium, something they haven't used to express themselves or explore issues before."

Each Spence project workshop has it own theme and set of aims, says Ms Baxter de Gutierrez, "but all of them share a broader objective: to develop a greater awareness and appreciation of the built environment."

To coincide with the centenary of Spence's birth, a travelling showcase of the project and an exhibition at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh are planned for 2007

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