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Concrete Designs to Thrive  >  2 Basil Spence 

Walk by Design - 2 Basil Spence

LEARN - Part 2 of CONCRETE Designs to Thrive 2021

Dr Francesca Baseby from the Centre for Research Collections at Edinburgh University, and John Ennis discuss the Main Library of Edinburgh University, one of the best examples of Basil Spence architecture in Edinburgh. 


Libraries & Campuses

9 June 2021 
Edinburgh University Library and Campus, George Square, Edinburgh 

Dr Francesca Baseby, Centre for Research Collections, Edinburgh University


This talk takes place around the Main Library of Edinburgh University in  George Square, central Edinburgh. The library building opened in 1967, and at the time it was the largest library in the UK. The building was designed by Sir Basil Spence and his architectural practice, Spence, Glover & Ferguson. It is mainly concrete and glass and is designed in the modernist, brutalist style.

During this encounter, Fran and John discuss the building, and the affect that it's design has on students well-being. They also discuss the library's research collections, and Spence's links with Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh, and his contemporary modernist designers such as Mary Quant and Terence Conran.

The encounter also introduces the theme of LEARN with its exploration of Libraries & Campuses.

Here you can watch the full video, and you can read the full text adapted from the transcript of the conversation below.

Introduction: Welcome to Concrete Walks by Design 2 - "Learn"

John Ennis: Welcome to the second of our encounters for our new Concrete Walks by Design in Edinburgh. Introducing our new program which launches next year called Concrete Designs to Thrive.


Today we are in George Square, a beautiful garden square in central Edinburgh with a look on out to the Meadows. Confronting us in between is the University of Edinburgh main library.


It's particularly wonderful to be here for our focus theme, "learn". when we go around to Scotland's seven cities we're going to look at these different themes i've been talking about essential acts of life and the focus on learn allows us to look at university libraries and campuses. These are particularly interesting because of course there was a wonderful expansion of university buildings during the Modernist period of the early 20th century. 


Here we are looking up at one of those libraries. We are joined tonight by Dr Francesca Baseby, who works in the library in the special collections department. I'm going to let Fran talk us through her particular remit here in the library. 


The wonderful coincidence is that last night we were enjoying the design legacy of Patrick Geddes and tonight we're thinking about design archives and archives in general, and that archive of Patrick Geddes is held here at the University of Edinburgh special collections.

Fran, welcome. Shall we take a little walk towards the library building and you can tell us a little bit about your job here and something of the Basil Spence building that you work in.


Fran Baseby: I'm the services manager at the Centre for Research Collections. We're based right up on the top floor of the library and we provide the University with access to the archive's rare books. We also provide access to some of our museum collections, for example the arts collection and our musical instrument collections. It's quite special being in this building because i was an undergraduate here as well as a postgraduate here and it's a building that my affection for has grown over the years.

The Basil Spence main library building - a place and space for quiet and intense concentration


John: I was also an undergraduate here and i'm not sure my affection was great. I was a medical student here and practiced for 20 years in medicine. Our medical library was nearby but for that little extra bit of space and quiet there were lovely study areas up here in the main library. However, they're very much associated with those intense times around final exams.


Fran: Absolutely, and still during exam time the building has a sort of tense buzz around it. Everyone is really really concentrated and it's the busiest, and probably also the quietest the library ever is. 


John: We can just pause here and have a look up at the building. One of the special features of course is this green environment around us. We've been thinking about Patrick Geddes' riff on gardens in the city and how important it is that we grow through an appreciation of nature in the urban environment as well. That is an advantage to this library.


Fran: The whole design of the library on these different floors with glass windows all the way around means that wherever you sit you can see green space. So for me as an undergraduate coming to my favourite spot in the library - because everyone has a favourite spot, and you get very upset if you don't get to sit there - meant that you could still you could look out and you've got these interesting vistas. So even if you're looking in that direction you see Bucchleuch Place and you see Arthur's Seat beyond it. Or you look at the Meadows and George Square. So it's surrounded by greenery right in the city centre. 


John: We're very lucky in Edinburgh but actually the experience in the building is so much more enhanced because of that. Now, you mentioned something that was a surprise to me when i was thinking about archives in the library. I thought books but it's far from just books. Tell us a little bit about your career in this area; and how this area itself has developed as a speciality.

About Fran Baseby's role as services manager at the Centre for Research Collections


Fran: Previously I'd been working at Dovecot Studios on Infirmary Street in Edinburgh, working on exhibitions and the gallery there. I then did a PhD on Dovecot Studios and it's history in the middle of the 20th century.


John: Just for those who don't know, Dovecot Studios are an extraordinary tapestry studio originally in Corstorphine, now in central Edinburgh in a repurposed building. And we'll maybe come back to talk about the links between Basil Spence and that particular studio as well in a moment, but sorry I interrupted.


Fran: My research is very object-based, looking at the tapestries themselves as sources of information. It's also archival based, so a lot of my research was visiting different archives both public and private and piecing together stories, context and information. One of the things i really enjoy about my role here is it's about facilitating that, and providing access and enabling people to have that same experience with archives.


So we do have books, but not just books. We have over 420,000 rare books. We have six and a half kilometers of archive shelving. As well as the art collection and the musical instrument collections. The archives are a huge part of what draws academics to us. Particularly in the last few years, as the archives have been catalogued and made more visible online in particular. We then find we obviously get more and more researchers wanting to come and see them.


John: That's hugely significant to hear. You've made efforts to make the components of the collections very accessible through the library listings. Now, you mentioned Dovecot. We're talking about Basil Spence. We'll have a little think about the building itself and the campus in a minute but let's think about the connection between Basil Spence and Dovecot.

The connection between Basil Spence, Dovecot Studios and Coventry Cathedral


Fran: When Spence was designing Coventry Cathedral he spoke to Dovecot. As people may be aware, Coventry Cathedral has this very dramatic Graham Sutherland tapestry and Dovecot had actually already done a tapestry based on a painting by Graham Sutherland. In fact they'd done two by that point, the early 1950's. They'd also sold a tapestry to Basil Spence so there was already a network there.


So they were approached as a potential weaver for the tapestries. The folklore that's developed around it is that, Spence wanted the tapestry woven in a certain way and that Dovecot didn't have a big enough loom to do it. In fact the only place that did was Pinton Frères in France.


Actually, what i found in the archives was that it was much more of an artistic disagreement between Sax Shaw, the artistic director at Dovecot at the time, and Sutherland himself. Sutherland wanted someone who would give a very painterly depiction of his design, and Sax Shaw was very against painterly depiction.
In fact there's another link back into the Edinburgh College of Art archives through that as well because Sax Shaw taught at Edinburgh College of Art too.


John: You mentioned the word networks. This is where your access and archives really come into their own, for me. Seeing those letters and thinking about the relationships that were developed. With reference to Dovecot, and their wonderful exhibition about modernism, Mid-Century Modern: Art & Design from Conran to Quant. What was fascinating to me was the background relationships that let these people, Mary Quant, Terence Conran etc, meet, study together, socialise together.


You mentioned the relationship between Basil Spence and the weaver over there. Dovecot have a wonderful exhibition by Archie Brennan, one of their key movers at the moment. And here at the library you also have an exhibition space. Tell us a little about that.

About the Exhibitions program in the main library


Fran: The exhibitions that we program are generally based on our collections. The exhibition that i was involved in that closed early in 2020 was for the Needlework Development Scheme. The Needlework Development Scheme started in Scotland and it was about promoting and improving the quality of needlework that, initially, girls were learning at school and college. Then after the Second World War, it became much more focused on improving design, and modern design approaches.


You get a lot of conversations in embroidery magazines, letters from embroiderers arguing with each other; should you be going for traditional design or should you be going for modern design. I expect that exactly those conversations were happening at the same time that Spence was designing this building.


John: Well that's interesting isn't it. That post-war period and design really coming to the fore at that point.
We'll just pause here and have another look across. Of course there are a variety of other campus buildings here. LDN Architects have been responsible for many of the interesting re-developments of the building.


Which design elements make the main library building a success?

Let's pause and have a think about the Basil Spence design of this building, and that revision that happened around 2014-15.


Fran: One of the things that to me makes this building a success is that the actual integral structure of it did not need to be changed. Really the changes were much more about how students learnt than about how the building wasn't working. It's a very adaptable space in fact, and it is because it is essentially these large open floors with a central staircase and end staircases. A lot of the redevelopment was about preserving the design elements that Spence had put into the building but also responding to the different way that students study and learn now.


John: So there will always be a tension between the books and the study space. Was that changed at that time? Was there a different dynamic?


Fran: yes, there was there was an introduction of a lot more group study space because students now and at the time of development there was a lot more focus on group work and study work. What we find though is that students still want to come to this building to study even if they're not using the books. They want to be around the books it's almost like the books enable them to concentrate and study. It's also a real meeting point during the day, particularly when the campus is really busy. That wall that you have along the front, that's where people congregate that's where they meet and talk and say to each other, "I'll be at the library today, come and find me on this floor"


John: I think i'm right in saying that Basil Spence and his design team incorporated a connection that at one point went all around the campus.


Fran: Yes, and to me it's one of those slight mysteries. When i was an undergraduate you could go all the way from the far end of 50 George Square, and you went down and underneath the lecture theatres there where the lift is now. You went underneath the building that we now refer to as 30 George Square, David Hume Tower, and then you could keep going under the building that's now the Business School and come up. That's the route that i've taken but apparently you could go all the way to the library.


John: They knew about a cold Edinburgh winter I suspect, and staying indoors! Let's have a little scoot round this gable end of this extraordinary theatre structure. A lot of outdoor gyms have taken place in these wonderful flat piazzas. 


Fran: These spaces invite congregation. If i wanted to have my lunch outside i'll usually come and sit here because that's the sun trap at lunchtime. It's almost that familiarity with this layout - the way that the architecture has been designed - that does create a sense of connection and a real sense of place when you're a student here or you're a member of staff here.

Where in Edinburgh is the Basil Spence archive?


John: Absolutely, it's amazing. So we had this lovely chat yesterday about Patrick Geddes' legacy and you've been kind enough to put me in touch with one of your colleagues who's actually looking at archive here, and responsible for that. I'm really looking forward to digging into that. Where is the Basil Spence archive? 


Fran: The the majority of the archive is with Historic Environment Scotland. What we do have here is the architectural plans for the building. Obviously it's really fortunate for us that Historic Environment Scotland is just across the Meadows because it means we can still access the collections. 


I've seen one of the photographs of some of the initial designs here that the firm of architects had come up with. There was to be an additional extension on the back of the building as well which didn't happen, but in some ways the building is beautiful because it's that very simple shape.


John: It's a very pure architectural design. From right across the Meadows looking at it, it's this very beautiful place in space.

How has the library, and the research collection adapted to the covid pandemic? - The new virtual teaching service and one-to-one remote consultations


So thank you very much for chatting to us. It's been a big challenge for universities, and university libraries and collections in this last year with pandemic. I knew that you would have been busier anticipating the summer visitors in the past which are reduced now. Tell us something of perhaps some of the adaptations that have had to come along for you in this last while.


Fran: Absolutely because about 40% of our visitors each year are from outside the university. They're not connected to the university at all. Our international researchers for example, or local researchers. So we are open with limitations. But we've also had to develop new services. 


We have a virtual teaching service You can use collections and a member academic staff can be in the room with the collection streaming, with a visualiser looking at the items. This is a way of getting really close to the items and seeing them in really close detail; and students can participate in the seminar remotely.


John: In some ways that's even more accessible. Before it would be a solo researcher in the room with the collection but now we've got this camera link. Obviously it's not quite the same experience - white gloves and all - for the person doing it.


Fran: Oh we don't wear white gloves, no! White gloves are the big taboo [laughter]. We wear those lovely blue ones. White gloves only come out for tv filming.


We're also looking at that accessibility for individual researchers too though. So we will be running a service a bit later in the year where you can make an appointment and have a one-to-one consultation with something. Again it'll be a member of staff with the item under a visualiser. They'll be able to move it for you and zoom in on it. A lot of these things we could have done before but Covid has kind of pushed them to become that priority. And actually now that we're doing them they're not a short-term fix, these are things that we want to offer alongside physically visiting. Some collections have limitations about data protection and that kind of thing, so not everything is suitable for looking at online, but a lot of material is and we think that's still a really rich experience to have.


John: Fantastic, absolutely fantastic. I'm super grateful for you helping out and with our talk this evening, giving some insight to the collections and working in this amazing building. I'm excited to come back; one of the wonderful parts my job is getting to look at archives at the National Museums or the National Library. It'll be a treat to see the Patrick Geddes Collection in the next little while.

Can members of the public access Edinburgh University's Research Collections?


We have a chat function this evening on our video screen and we've had one question come in. It's a bit bold but i'm gonna hit you with it anyway:


"I found the listing of special collections on the Edinburgh University library public network and I want to look at one - What do i do next?"


Fran: You just get in touch with us . You send us an email at the Centre for Research Collections. Obviously you can't just pop in in person at the moment, but you send us an email we have a look at what you'd like to see. As i mentioned there are some limitations with data protection but we have different methods of dealing with those. You make an appointment to come and see it and we have staff who are here to help you know how to handle the item. People are quite nervous sometimes, the first time they go to a collection but our aim is to try and make it a really welcoming experience. So that people can really focus on what they're looking at and enjoy enjoy accessing it.


John: Fantastic! Thank you very much for coming to join this evening. Thank you very much to Fran Baseby at special collections of Edinburgh University main library. Join us again tomorrow and there'll be a lovely link next week. One of Fran's colleagues Ruthanne Baxter at the museums, will be talking to us about well-being and prescription by design.
So thank you very much and we'll see you soon.


Next video: Nest - Regenerative garden in Edinburgh >



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