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Sir Basil Spence

Event ID 567354

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Sir Basil Spence


Building Notes

In April 1959 Basil Spence & Partners were contracted by the City of Edinburgh Corporation to design a housing development towards the bottom of the Royal Mile. This was at a time when 18th and 19th century slum tenements in the area were being demolished to make way for better housing. Other buildings, such as the Manse in Reid's Court, were being restored.

The practice completed the development in 1969. It consists of three blocks containing one- and two-bedroom flats, two of which face onto the Royal Mile. There are two shops and Jenny Ha's, a public house, at ground level. Behind the development is a boys' club gymnasium, also built by Spence's practice. The blocks are constructed of harled brickwork, stone and concrete, and include segmental concrete vaults that by 1969 had become a Spence trademark.

Archive Details

A correspondence file in the Sir Basil Spence Archive reveals that Spence considered the Canongate job to be 'a wonderful opportunity to get vitality back into the Royal Mile'. It shows the challenges faced by the practice in the two years after they accepted the contract. Letters indicate that a craft centre and a nursery school might have formed part of the development, although these ideas were later abandoned. The architects identified that a good amount of open space on the site was needed so that residents could appreciate the historic views.

The earliest drawings from 1959 show a completely different arrangement of blocks with arched roofs. Drawings from early 1960 start to look more like the completed scheme, although these were modified and developed by the mid-1960s.

Correspondence from 1965 reveals that work on the design had stopped, and that Spence (now London-based) was keen for his Edinburgh office to resurrect the job. Letters from 1968 show disagreements with Scottish & Newcastle Breweries as to the interior design of Jenny Ha's Tavern. Spence thought the pub should be traditional in essence, but also using materials that were in-keeping with the modern look of the blocks. The brewery director thought that a very traditional interior, rather like an old Scottish howff, would attract more beer drinkers.

Archive Summary

The Sir Basil Spence Archive contains one manuscript file, 20 drawings and 12 photographs relating to the Canongate development. The Spence Glover & Ferguson Collection, also held at RCAHMS, includes 87 working drawings, 20 photographs, and 14 colour slides of the development.

This text was written as one of the outputs of the Sir Basil Spence Archive Project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, 2005-08.

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