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Archaeology InSites

Harbour Housing Scheme, Dunbar, East Lothian

Building for the future in post-war Britain

More often than not, the abiding images of the post-war housing boom are of large estates, planned new towns and concrete tower blocks. However, although these are dominant in our cities and in the public imagination, they are not the full story. Better accommodation was also required in the country’s towns and villages, and the work of Basil Spence and his partners offer great examples of how modern housing could be accomplished in ways that both complimented and enhanced a seaside town such as Dunbar.

Basil Spence, born in Bombay and educated at George Watson’s College and Edinburgh College of Art, was to become one of the most famous names in British post-war architecture. He is perhaps Scotland’s best known architect of this period, with a reputation that would only be confirmed by his design for the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral, which was completed in 1962.
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Spence at Dunbar, in two acts

Almost three decades earlier in 1933, Spence’s first work at Dunbar was undertaken when he, along with his then partner William Kininmouth, was appointed by the Burgh to prepare a town planning scheme for the harbour area. Initially large areas of poor quality housing were to be cleared and 38 new homes built. However, this was scaled back to only ten. Notable for their large arched doorways, the buildings are an early example of Spence’s ability to combine traditional and modern materials to create housing in keeping with a local aesthetic.

Spence’s next contribution to housing in the harbour area occurred in 1949 (now as part of Spence, Glover and Ferguson), when another group of buildings was commissioned. These buildings were spread across four separate sites and contained an assortment of low rise, two and three storey flats. Here again, the buildings successfully blended the demands of contemporary living with traditional styles and materials. Designed for local fishermen, the houses were built around courtyards, with space to hang their nets and stores for their fishing tackle. Most striking visually are the red clay pantiled roofs, the rubble cladding using local red sandstone and the forestairs providing access to the upper storeys. These all reference the traditional building styles of local fishing communities. The first phase, completed in 1952, received a Saltire Society Award.

A second phase of housing was completed in 1956 and the style adopted here appeared in other designs by Spence, most notably at Newhaven in Edinburgh (1956-1960), where the development again won a Saltire Award.

Overall, the style is perhaps more restrained than is typical of modern house designs but as an exercise in creating contemporary homes to match local needs, Spence’s contributions in Dunbar are great achievements.

The Saltire Society was founded in 1936 with the aim of improving the quality of life in Scotland through the encouragement of creativity. It first offered awards in a range of categories in 1937. The awards for housing especially celebrate innovation and design and their accolades continue to be presented to this day.

Historic Environment Scotland’s archives hold the Basil Spence archives, a major collection including plans, photographs and written material. Much of this is available to view on CANMORE, and all of it is available to view in our search room.
Philip Brooks – Public Services Officer
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