Past Events

Architecture, diplomacy and national identity: Sir Basil Spence and mid-century modernism


  • 3 to 5 December 2008
  • 9:45 – 7:30 pm

The recent exhibition, Back to the Future: Sir Basil Spence 1907-76, organized by the National Galleries of Scotland (19th October 2007 – 10th February 2008) to mark the centenary of Spence’s birth, triggered new interest in the work of this once most celebrated of British twentieth-century architects. This conference is designed to examine the architecture of Sir Basil Spence in the context of the flamboyant and exuberant modes of design developed in the mid-twentieth century for national representational buildings, from embassy and parliament buildings to international exhibition pavilions.

Unframed painting of building with trees

Design for the British Embassy, Rome, showing its proximity to the Porta Pia. DP010913

Digital image courtesy of Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland

The conference, supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, will consider the use made of classical prototypes and forms by mid- century modernist architects, and compare Spence’s work with that of Lutyens, Le Corbusier, Saarinen and Kahn. We will also look at the reception of Spence’s Embassy building by architects and critics in Italy, where it was termed ‘una lezione di civiltà’ (a lesson in courtesy) by one writer, and consider it in the light of post-war Italian architecture and attitudes to building in the Eternal City.

Speakers will include: Gavin Stamp (London) on Lutyens and Spence, Robin Skinner (University of Victoria, Wellington, New Zealand) on the design of the New Zealand Parliament building, Jane Loeffler (University of Maryland) on the architecture of diplomacy, Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen (Yale University) on Saarinen’s US Embassy in London, Miles Glendinning (Edinburgh College of Art) on Spence’s British Embassy in Rome and Maristella Casciato (University of Bologna) on post-war Italian architecture.