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Interview with Robin Spence

by Ben Flatman

 

This interview with Robin Spence, former partner of Spence and Webster, was conducted in Birmingham on 1st November 2004.
[06jan2002]


BEN FLATMAN: Can I begin by just asking you to provide some background about your practice, Spence and Webster. I understand it ran from the Seventies through to the Eighties?



 

ROBIN SPENCE: The practice started in 1972 and then we called ourselves Spence and Webster until 1992, I think.

How did you first come across Glenn Howells?

I think Adrian Gale recommended him. I think it was someone called Nicky, who was Glenn’s girlfriend at the time and we interviewed her and then she suggested we interview Glenn.


And how did you know Adrian Gale?

Because I used to work at Douglas Steven and Partners. Adrian used to be in Chicago and I used to work in Chicago as well. I didn’t know him at the same time as I was out in America but I met him when I got back to London.

I believe that Adrian Gale was working for Mies at that time. Where were you employed?

I worked for Skidmore Owings and Merrill, but I worked in a team that had a lot of ex-Mies people in it.

Okay, so you came across Glenn through a recommendation. What was it that he brought to your office?

Well, he is a good designer. He’s a very good designer.

And so, what happened to Spence and Webster?

Well, we started off… I’ll give you brief history of the practice - we won the new parliamentary building competition and we landed a few big commissions immediately afterwards, but then we immediately ran into the first Middle East oil crisis in about ‘73 or ‘74 (I can’t remember which) and then we lost all our work in a very short space of time along with a lot of other architects. And then gradually we built up a whole different client base, based on local authority housing and things like that. And we gradually sort of built up, until about 1983/84 we’d already built a housing scheme in Milton Keynes, a University building in Coventry and then we built a hospital in Glasgow, and then Robin Webster left at that point to run the school in Aberdeen. In the meantime I built up a client base with the property service agency - the government agency - and we were still working for them until they eventually got themselves privatised. And so the work from them dried up and we hit a recession in 1992 and we had to sell up where we were in London at that point and I then became Robin Spence Architects.

I just want to ask you about the Endsleigh Gardens scheme.

Which one?

The Endsleigh Gardens scheme, on the Euston Road.

Oh yes!

That’s a project that ended up being a ‘planning gain’ project. The way it’s ended up being built, it is a trade-off between building a social housing block at the back in return for being allowed to build office space on the Euston Road. Was that the make-up of the scheme at the time?

Well, yes it was. It was two separate clients actually. But yes, that was the idea - sort of mixed development.

But was that a novel idea at the time - to mix residential and commercial in that way?

I don’t think so. I mean it’s fairly straightforward. The front part of the site was offices and the back part of the site was flats but we made it into a single building, but obviously because offices and flats have different floor-to-floor dimension there was a sort of architectural problem about how you made a vertical building with a vertical grid that was common to both dimensions.

Was the residential element represented by a public sector client?

Well, it was a community housing association. And we had a sort of atrium between the two buildings.

I know that one of the things that Colin St John Wilson has been criticised on over the British Library is that the street elevations are very dead and that it doesn’t incorporate any commercial functions such as shops or cafes. And I’ve heard him respond by saying that that was actually government policy - the brief specifically prohibited shops from being included. So it does seem that certainly the public sector as a client at that time was not open to this idea of mixing public and private uses. Was that something that you were conscious of?

Well, the thing is, that it is really a question of designing around the commercial realities and I think that the idea would be that the Euston Road would not support shopping along that sort of frontage. You know, it’s a heavily trafficked route and it was simply designed around the commercial realities of the site, really. You know, Euston Road isn’t a shopping street. You don’t get a lot of pedestrians walking along the Euston Road - it’s mainly a sort of traffic artery - as it is at the moment.

I was wondering whether you could just say, speaking from your own personal point of view, where you see Glenn’s development in relationship to the story of English architecture? How would you place him?

Well, he’s obviously doing very good buildings. Um, in order to be economically sustainable you’ve got to work within the cost constraints of the property markets and so on - so it’s a pretty tight discipline.

Stylistically, a lot of the work is obviously within a classical modernist tradition.

Oh yes, in terms of style it’s a mainstream sort of approach, really. I mean, I think that what we’ve seen with people like Liebskind and Zaha Hadid and so on, is a - I don’t know what  you’d call it - you might call it a sort of ego-based approach. You know, highly idiosyncratic and really, you know…

Stylistically, a lot of the work is obviously within a classical modernist tradition.

Oh yes, in terms of style it’s a mainstream sort of approach, really. I mean, I think that what we’ve seen with people like Liebskind and Zaha Hadid and so on, is a - I don’t know what  you’d call it - you might call it a sort of ego-based approach. You know, highly idiosyncratic and really, you know…

Not very English perhaps?

Well, it’s not a question of nationality, so much,  I think it’s more the fact that the way the forms kind of evolve, really. You know, the building forms evolve from a very bizarre kind of way and if you listen the way Liebskind describes the way some of these building forms evolve - I mean, it’s highly banal and suspect. It doesn’t stand up to reason at all, really. I mean it relies upon people having sort of emotional attachment to the buildings, bit if you think, like I do, that they’re a load of all rubbish, then there’s not a lot to fall back on.

Obviously you know that Glenn’s father was a builder. Do you think that’s influenced the way he works?

I would have thought so, yeah.

I mean, he has said that it has - I was just wondering whether you had a view on that.

Yes, well, not having met his father, but if you approach this sort of form-finding business of architecture, you have to approach that through the discipline of actual materials and actual structural realities of things, the chances are that you will end up with a reasonably intelligent building, I’d have thought.

Does it surprise you that Glenn ended up in Birmingham?

Well, I’d have thought that Birmingham is quite a hard place to survive as an architect, really, but he’s obviously made a success of it. But, you know, I don’t know what the cultural climate of Birmingham is like.

I mean, he has said that it has - I was just wondering whether you had a view on that.

Yes, well, not having met his father, but if you approach this sort of form-finding business of architecture, you have to approach that through the discipline of actual materials and actual structural realities of things, the chances are that you will end up with a reasonably intelligent building, I’d have thought.

I think it’s traditionally quite inward-looking. Not a lot of architects from outside the city get work here.

To be able to sell good buildings in a place like Birmingham which is normally associated with…

Mediocrity? It’s only recently that Glenn’s actually been getting work in the city, which is quite bizarre. Any way, changing subject, I am hoping to go and interview Adrian in a week or two. So did you actually know him when you were in America?

Er, no, I didn’t know him when I was in Chicago - we both worked in Chicago - but I worked with him in London after I got back from Chicago.

Okay - the practice you mentioned before. Glenn’s mentioned him being a big influence on his education - not particularly enjoying his architectural education until the point that he was actually taught by Adrian. I mean, obviously Adrian’s a big influence on a lot of students over many years - what’s your take on Adrian’s contribution?

Well, I was influenced a lot by Adrian when I worked with him. In fact, we nearly worked together on the Mansion House Square project - the one that ended up by Jim Stirling for Peter Palumbo - No. 1 Poultry. Mies did a scheme, about 1969, and Adrian asked me if I would like to work on it, if it actually came to fruition, but it never actually materialised, otherwise I probably would have been working on that. Adrian and I both had the same influence when we both got back from America.

Miesian/SOM influences?

Well, yes, the Miesian way of putting buildings together. An attitude to materials, really.

You taught at Cambridge, is that right?

I did, a long time ago. I think it was in ‘78 or something like that.

So while Adrian was running his small practice in London, would you have been running Spence and Webster at the same time?

Well Adrian was in Plymouth really…

He started there in 1980, didn’t he?

Well, yes, the Miesian way of putting buildings together. An attitude to materials, really.

You taught at Cambridge, is that right?

I did, a long time ago. I think it was in ‘78 or something like that.

So while Adrian was running his small practice in London, would you have been running Spence and Webster at the same time?

Yes, something like that.

Right, that’s really helpful…

But I haven’t really thought about the whole question of commercial markets and the influence on architecture. I mean modern architecture was really sort of, um, you know, grew out of a very democratic set of principles. It’s like Charles Eames, you know - it’s about giving the best quality of life to the highest number of people, so it was a very democratic sort of movement. You know, it was the public housing that sort of caught peoples’ imagination. It was really aimed at giving a better life to everybody, which is rather different from, you know, the aims of the markets. The aims of the markets is to put as much money into the pockets of a very small number of people.

Was there ever disdain, do you think, amongst certain branches of the modernist movement for taking on commercial work?

Um… well not really. I mean, it depends on how compromising the architecture gets, really. You know, if the quality of the architecture is sacrificed for commercial gain, obviously that’s not so good is it? There are conflicts between what is good for the inhabitant of the building and what is good for the people developing the building, and the problem is with commercial - so-called commercial - architecture, is that the architect never actually gets to meet the real users of the building. I mean the criteria for a commercial building is normally set out by letting agents, who are not really interest… you know, they don’t know who’s going to occupy their buildings, unless it’s for a specific corporation, in general terms a normal commercial building’s criteria are set by letting agents.

Thanks very much.




Ben Flatman

benflatman@hotmail.com