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28 October 2014

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Inside Coventry Cathedral

The work of Sir Basil Spence

Back to the Future in Modern Architecture

The Herbert celebrates one of the world's most renowned modern architects, Sir Basil Spence. Back to the Future is the exhibition that showcases one of the most brilliant careers in architecture, taking us on a timeline of Spence's life and career.

Architect: The word tends to automatically trigger assumptions about architecture being much more about engineering rather than art. But as the Back to the Future exhibition at The Herbert in Coventry proved, engineering only makes up one part of the world of architecture.

He is probably best known for the design of the new Coventry Cathedral, but Sir Basil Spence has also designed many important and famous buildings around the world, such as the Household Cavalry Barracks in London, and the Beehive in New Zealand.

Spence’s career is an incredibly diverse and varied one, which has proved interesting to review and learn about.


Scotsman, Sir Basil Urwin Spence was born in 1907 in Bombay, India while his father was an assayer for the Royal Mint. Spence was schooled in Bombay, and then sent back to Scotland to pursue his education further.

coventry cathedral

The Original Cathedral

In Edinburgh, in 1925, he began studying architecture in the Edinburgh College of Art on a scholarship based on the rare brilliance of his work. During his studies, Spence won himself many awards in recognition of his work. 

In 1930, the final year of his studies, Spence, despite still being a student himself, was appointed junior lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art, where he taught until 1939.

Early Career

Alongside his teaching, Spence also practiced and his earliest of designs and sketches was very attractive and, rather than being bland architectural sketches, these works are much more artistic and self-explanatory in a very interesting way.

Between 1939 and 1945, Sir Basil took a break from his architecture and worked his way up in the army, reaching the ranking of major.

Coventry Cathedral

After the destructive bombing of Coventry’s Anglican Cathedral during the war, a competition was held to decide on a new design for the rebuilding of the cathedral.

Spence became a household name when his radical and post-modernist design won. For this masterpiece, while he was President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Spence was knighted in 1960 and became known and Sir Basil Spence.
He continued to practice until his death in 1976.

Back to the Future

Spence’s entire career, starting from his earliest works made during his studies, to his final pieces, is showcased in a grand exhibition at The Herbert in Coventry. All the original sketches, paintings and models of his work is beautifully displayed and interestingly laid out.

sir basil spence exhibition

The Exhibition

The exhibition, not only includes sketches and perspectives by Sir Basil, but it also features old photographs, films, slideshows and parts of his life in the form of old transcripts and scraps of drawings. Information about each piece and about Spence’s life is displayed in the form of an easy and short read, containing just enough information without unimportant details.

A spokeswoman for The Herbert said “There has been a very good turnout and while it’s mostly a mix of older people and older foreigners, it is nice to see some young people taking an interest too.”

Back to the Future is very welcoming and accommodating to people of all ages and people of all backgrounds.The Herbert also offers free talks about the architect and his works, especially the Cathedral. Along with that there are some tours of the Cathedral being held.

Back to the Future is a very creative testament to the opinion that art and architecture go hand in hand. Through every piece of his work, it is evident that Spence was extremely creative and had a great appreciation for the artistic side of architecture as well as the engineering aspect. Sir Basil Spence had, like many architects, the talent of using creativity and art to create what are essentially buildings. But he alone had the unique gift to use that art and creativity to create absolutely exceptional designs and exceptional buildings.

The career, life and work of Sir Basil Spence is extremely deserving of the recognition it is receiving through this exhibition, and it is highly recommended that everybody goes to have a look.

Back to the Future: Sir Basil Spence 1907-1976 is showing at The Herbert Monday to Saturday between 10am and 5.30pm until 31 August. Entry to the exhibition is free so no excuses!

last updated: 30/07/2008 at 16:12
created: 30/07/2008

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