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Memories of Robin Spence

February 14, 2018

February 1938 – December 2017

I started working for Robin in 1987 in Belsize Park Gardens. Robin was recommended to me by Adrian Gale, my professor at architecture school, whose advice was to work with a talented architect who had integrity, principles and was passionate about design.  Robin was all of these things, and as I found out, much more.

Robin provided me, and many others at S+W, with an apprenticeship you just couldn’t get at University. What Robin gave you was a complete and incredibly clear approach to design. An approach that allowed us to consider the smallest part at the same time as the whole project. An integrated approach, way ahead of its time, that made you consider materials, energy and structure before you even considered form or shape of a building. An approach based on craftsmanship where the project was born from a deep consideration of making and construction.

But the main design thing for him was truth; if it wasn’t honest he wouldn’t do it.

Robin’s knowledge of buildings and architecture provided a history of architecture we were never taught. His knowledge was encyclopaedic, he loved old buildings as much as modern ones, he would connect Ely Cathedral to the modern movement in a way that made it clear that architecture was about structure and materials and order – never about style. And all this took place in his house in Belsize Park Gardens, itself an essay in everything he was teaching us.

The other thing people have noticed about Robin was his vision, a special vision that allowed him to see things with unusual clarity, the ability to see through artifice / complexity. This was something he also did in life.

Robin couldn’t resist hiring people, even at times when we had limited work. If someone came in with energy, enthusiasm, and were open to learning (especially if they were German!) he hired them. It was this way I met great people in Robin’s office in the late 1980s, like Reinhold Schmaderer, David Henderson and Ian Butler. No surprise that we are still working together and carrying on the same approach. And no surprise that the first buildings we designed when we left Robin, have lots of Robin in them.

In the last 10 years Robin came and worked with us in our office as an external critic. I really enjoyed this for two reasons; firstly the excellent design advice he gave which changed many of our buildings for the better. Secondly, the younger people in our office learned what a really tough critic was like, he made me look like a pussycat! When Robin got an issue between his teeth he would never, never let it go…but he was always kind, never aggressive and was always seeking the best solution.

The other thing I must mention, and others have reminded me of, was his generosity and kindness.

From my first day with Robin I was struck by the extraordinary generosity of both him and his wife Delia. They Shared meals, parties, yoga, even made sure we had beds if we were working late. Robin never treated us differently to himself, if we worked late so did he…he was not proud, he would draw, make models and make the tea.

When his own practice faced deep recession in the 1990’s he encouraged us to branch out and enter competitions. He offered guidance and let us work from his office – he even helped with the drawings.

We are fortunate to have been enriched by knowing Robin. He had a love of life, truth, beauty, and people – especially Delia.

The other surprising thing about Robin (and maybe it was the key to his genius) was that for someone so serious about architecture, he took his enjoyment seriously and had a great sense of fun and humour. He really lived life in full colour. Greek food, BBQ’s in the snow with lamb and octopus come to mind – the Christmas meal of 1988 held in his garden is still talked about!

Robin also loved other art forms including drawing, music and dance which he continued to enjoy with Delia until the end of his life. Robin was also messianic about windsurfing, he even provided an office windsurfing rig, and regularly insisted on exposing us to appalling weather conditions teaching many of us to sail…but in many cases not how to turn and come back!

Robin has left a legacy of beautifully judged, lean buildings but he has also left behind another fantastic legacy to those fortunate enough to spend time with him. This was a unique approach to design and life. Never a week goes by in our office where those of us who worked with him don’t stop and think, if not say, ‘That is what Robin would have done’. He remains our enduring conscience.

Glenn Howells