A series of events are being held to commemorate the bicentenary of the Moray Feu
. These have ranged from musical performances to bake offs, and 'Moray Talks' about those with a connection to this particularly grand part of Edinburgh's New Town. One of these focused on the architect Basil Spence. John Witcombe, the dean of Coventry Cathedral for about a decade, was the excellent speaker. As well as providing a good overview of the cathedral's design process and history, the talk raised deeper issues regarding modernist architecture and the wider built environment.
Basil Spence & Partners (later Spence, Glover & Ferguson) had an office at 40 Moray Place from 1946-92. The offices of the practice were on the ground floor while the Spence family lived on the first floor. Spence had a long association with Edinburgh, educated at George Watson's and later the Edinburgh College of Art. Here he was a star student receiving a range of art and architectural prizes. His work from that time demonstrated his brilliance as a draughtsman and artist. As well as Moray Place, Spence also lived at a rather eccentric house in Morningside, 14 Jordan Lane. There he left various imprints, including a rather unattractive concrete fireplace.
Fortunately, his wider architectural imprint on Edinburgh is far more impressive. This includes Edinburgh University Main Library, which has recently been given a substantial renovation, bringing out the inherent quality of the building. The library was conceived as the 'hub' of the modern university campus. The redevelopment of large parts of George Square, stemming from the Abercrombie Plan of 1949, was one of the great causes célèbres in relation to the preservation of Edinburgh and other British cities. Groups such as the Edinburgh Georgian Society campaigned vocally against it and the full plan was not implemented.
Though, as Clive Fenton puts it, he was 'frequently featured in the media as a moderate advocate of modern architecture and design', Spence was right at the heart of the backlash against modernist architecture. His Hyde Park Barracks building was highly controversial and his engagement with the world of social housing was troubled, especially his involvement with the Hutchesontown C development in the Gorbals.
Spence's idea for a series of glass towers along the north side of the Meadows was one project which didn't come to fruition. However, the high-rise buildings of Quartermile are of the same ilk. Other significant projects in the city include Brown's Close in the Canongate and the Harry Younger Hall. The Southside Garage building in Causewayside is another, currently being used by Majestic Wine. In truth, as Andrew Dickson noted in his introduction, Spence's contribution to this building was his drawing. Of the projects associated with Spence, a number were finished by others.
Another Spence building that, unfortunately, I've spent too much time in is Mortonhall Crematorium, on the southern fringes of the city. Though looking a little tired in recent years, it's striking and interesting. In some ways, as Andrew Dixon remarked, it's a small version of the building Spence is best known for, his masterpiece, Coventry Cathedral. It was this great modernist building which was the focus of the talk. The presentation was a history of the building but also something of a love letter towards it. It's a building that often grows on people as they explore. Initial impressions alter over time.
Witcombe talked movingly of the way that the building reflected religious ideas of redemption and hope. The old 15th-century cathedral had been destroyed by incendiaries on 14 November 1940, when Coventry was largely destroyed as a city by the Luftwaffe. The destruction spawned the term 'Coventration' as a synonym of near total destruction of a city.
Witcombe outlined the uncertainty about how to proceed and the rejection of the plan by the 'obvious choice', Giles Gilbert Scott. His design was thought to be too monolithic and perhaps backward-looking. This provided a great opportunity for Spence. Spence, during his own wartime service, admitted to a fellow soldier that building a cathedral was his one great unsatisfied ambition.
Witcombe threw some sceptical light on some of the claims in Spence's own writings about Coventry, but it's clear that Spence was passionately devoted to the project; or at least the idea of designing a cathedral. As well as Mortonhall Crematorium, a proposed chapel in Bristo Street for the University of Edinburgh (designed in 1956 but shelved) shows his interest in religious buildings. The conditions set down 'gripped' Spence, according to whom 'the only thing that makes an architect is fire in the belly'. Apparently Spence hesitated before submitting his plans, aware that actually building the cathedral would require compromise from his pure artistic vision.
This tension between an artistic vision and the practical realities of a building is a theme of Spencer's architectural legacy more generally. Particularly in the case of Coventry. The shortage of toilets in the original building was one example Witcombe pointed to. Witcombe also admitted that, as a space in which to deliver sermons, it was less than perfect. The sheer length means that it isn't a great performance space in this sense. The altar, which is the centrepiece of the building, and around which the building was constructed and designed, makes sense artistically but not always practically.
Witcombe had therefore taken time to truly fall in love with the building and others had never fully warmed to it. One of these was the present King, a noted critic of much modernist architecture. 'Basil Spence has a lot to answer for,' is the King's view (as expressed to Witcombe by the new Queen Consort). After being shown around by Witcombe, he was still sceptical about Spence and the cathedral.
In general though, the building's reputation and Spence's more generally has been on the rise in recent years. For Malcolm Fraser: 'It is good to see that the world turns: we are starting to appreciate that the best of Spence's work is of a clarity, simplicity and power that towers over the wilful egotism of today's gratuitous, post-modern shape making'. The nadir of Spence's reputation followed the perceived failure of some of his social housing. As Miles Glendinning puts it in his essay, From Genius Loci to the Gorbals
: 'The project's extreme complexity made it very difficult to maintain properly and it soon fell into disrepair'. Even before it was completed, 'architectural fashion had swung violently against any kind of high blocks'.
Coventry Cathedral has not suffered such difficulties, though the initial overspend has always meant it's always been on an uncertain financial footing. As Spence put it, 'space is expensive'. Fortunately, the cathedral now is held in very high regard, in part thanks to television programmes such as Climbing Great Buildings
(2010) and the recent BBC documentary
on the cathedral. Having been overlooked for several decades, Spence's standing has also been on the rise.
Generally there is much greater sympathy towards modernist buildings of the 20th century and even brutalism has undergone something of a rehabilitation. As present, this new sympathy is largely confined to those within the architectural sphere. As many of these buildings are being demolished, their qualities are being seen afresh. Only now are some of them receiving the maintenance and restoration that has previously been lavished on buildings of previous eras. The restoration of the University of Edinburgh Library being a prime example. It is now no longer a tired relic but a thoroughly refreshed building the university is justly proud of.
Art and reconciliation
According to Witcombe, the cathedral has not undergone any significant changes since it was built, and it is not a very flexible building. In many ways, it was primarily a work of art rather than a practical building. A complete work of art. This is emphasised by the beautiful artworks found all around the building and on its walls. These included Graham Sutherland's famous work of tapestry, Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph
and St Michael's Victory over the Devil
, a sculpture on the exterior wall by Jacob Epstein. This is the ultimate example of Spence's desire to integrate art and architecture.
Witcombe has, in his time as dean, worked with the weave of the building, emphasising its status as something of an art gallery. There have been many exhibitions held in the cathedral and many other cultural performances. Several of these have focused on drawing to the cathedral those who might not otherwise visit one. Coventry has become one of the most multicultural cities in the UK with a wide variety of religions practised. Attracting those of all faiths and none has been a key theme. More fundamentally, Witcombe has a great belief in the power of art to bridge divides and promote reconciliation. He sees the cathedral as central to a wider mission of reconciliation.
This is obviously manifested in the cathedral itself, born out of conflict and destruction, providing 'living embodiment' of the spirit of the people of Coventry and a better future. A souvenir guide from 1962 was entitled A Cathedral Reborn
and this idea of resurrection is prominent in accounts of the cathedral, especially that of R T Howard, Provost of Coventry from 1933-58. Rather than being a solemn building for religious ceremonies and viewing, Witcombe envisioned the cathedral as a centre for the city. While some might be coming to the cathedral as an active religious or architectural pilgrimage, many would step in uncertain and sceptical. Hospitality is one of his watch words; giving visitors a warm welcome was essential.
Such a view of art has been articulated by many. During the 2022 Edinburgh Festival, Richard Demarco gave a series of talks on his belief in the power of culture. His view of art as a 'universal language' is echoed in Witcombe's vision of Coventry. For both Demarco and Spence, it was the Second World War which inspired them to the greatest achievements. In Demarco's case, it was the treatment of Italian immigrants during the war that led him to look for something which united rather than divided. This he found in visual art. The internationalism of the 1947 Festival inspired him in his later efforts to bring the avant-garde from across Europe to Edinburgh.
Spence was inspired to design a cathedral by the destruction he witnessed in Normandy. Later, this drove him to take on what he saw as petty-minded resistance and scepticism. The cathedral has subsequently become home of the International Centre for Reconciliation. In its early years, the organisation worked primarily with countries behind the Iron Curtain. Similarly, Demarco spent much of his life collaborating with artists in those 'imprisoned' countries, making around 60 trips to Eastern Europe during the Cold War era. Collaborations included those with Tadeusz Kantor (Poland) and Paul Neagu (Romania).
Witcombe is a complete convert; stating that 'the whole thing is glorious', and the work of 'an inspired creative genius'. Witcombe's clear love and exhilaration about the building was very moving, as were some of the fantastic visual material he used to illustrate his talk. These included the famous photos of the morning after the destruction of the old cathedral. It was clear from the photos that those involved in the cathedral were not defeated by the destruction but inspired towards rebirth. Their faith was tested but not extinguished. Also moving were some lovely pictures of the late Queen, who laid the foundation stone in 1956 ('I declare this stone well and truly laid') and was present when the building was consecrated in 1962.
Turning difficult times into positive has continued. The pandemic emphasised the need for good ventilation. As well as providing more fresh air, keeping the doors open gave the building a greater sense of openness. This was in line with Spence's original vision. He envisioned a 'west' (in truth it faces south) screen that could be opened and closed. This proved impracticable, though it is of engraved clear glass. From the east, John Piper's stained glass provides, on sunny days, symbolism of light breaking through darkness.
This desire is in line with one of the buildings Spence was most proud of: Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre. There, the design allows you to see through the building, towards the trees which surround it. Spence designed something similar for Edinburgh Sports Club, which was built based on one of his designs. In the lounge and dining area, you can enjoy views of the Water of Leith and the surrounding woods.
As a result of Witcombe's presentation, I am sure that many of those present will revisit this great modernist piece of art or explore it for the first time. Furthermore, it should give us a chance to reflect on some of the modernist structures around us. Many of them were divisive and controversial at the time of construction. Rather than the buildings themselves, this was often due to what was demolished to make way for them.
Argyle House on Lady Lawson Street, one of Edinburgh's most despised buildings, deserves re-evaluation. It is one of the prime examples of brutalist architecture in the capital. On a sunny day, the quality of the materials and design become apparent. Buildings of this type are now being seen in a new light, worthy of redevelopment and rebirth. For example, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Barbican Centre has a better reputation now than it did during its troubled past.
Finding new uses for old buildings is something that is celebrated when it applies to buildings from over a century ago. Those of the 20th-century deserve the same level of imagination to be applied to them. Some may say that the visions of those modernist architects resulted in many fine buildings being torn down. They therefore deserve to suffer the same fate. This seems a narrow and unimaginative view. While not all such buildings match masterpieces such as Coventry Cathedral, we ought to re-evaluate some of the modernist buildings we too quickly dismiss.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh