Rome 3: The sites debate, 1951-81
Spence took the Rome commission extremely seriously, determined to honour the challenge of designing for his country next door to Michelangelo. He involved closely in the project both his son, John, and his son-in-law, Anthony Blee. His concept was a hollow square plan on two storeys, raised up on sixteen sturdy concrete posts. This increased the apparent mass and monumentality of the building to reflecting a traditional palazzo form, and let the garden and water flow through beneath the building (and thereby also avoid disturbing the Roman remains beneath). Spence took his main horizontal levels directly from the Porta Pia so as to match its height and scale, and he found different elevational rhythms for his two floors to reflect their interior arrangements. The whole was to be clothed in travertine. A block of fourteen staff flats on the eastern half of the site was more loosely planned on three floors above a floor of common services.
The original brief was for a maximum net internal area of 23,000 square feet, excluding garages but including 1,000 square feet for design flexibility, to be achieved within a cost limit of £250,000. This cost limit never had much chance of coping with Spence, and the soaring costs of labour and materials in Rome quickly drove up the estimates. Ove Arup and Partners were commissioned as structural consultants, with Edmund Happold as their project officer; the Ministry’s own engineers were responsible for the mechanical and electrical works; and Reynolds and Young were the quantity surveyors. Professor Luigi Nervi was appointed as Spence’s Italian architectural consultant, not least to add gravitas to dealings with the local authorities.
The Ministry authorised Spence in May 1962 to present the design to his fellow Royal Fine Art Commissioners and they were ‘pleased to see this scheme and had no comment to make on it. They wished it every success’. With that reassurance, Spence presented his design in September 1962 to a joint meeting of two key committees of the Rome Comune and five distinguished architects invited by the Comune as town planning experts. As things were at that time, the Porta Pia site was designated in the draft 1962 piano regolatore (town plan) as a special area where nothing could be either demolished or erected. Italia Nostra, a powerful conservation body, wanted to turn the site into public open space. Spence therefore needed to persuade the Comune, a notoriously riven and fractious body, to change the site’s designation to edilizia speciale (special building zone) to render the scheme even theoretically permissible.
The meeting was therefore make-or-break for the project and Spence rose magnificently to precisely the kind of occasion for which he had been appointed. He won the day by illustrating how essentially respectful his design was to the city of Rome. Descriptions vary about the width of the winning margin. One version is that he was given a standing ovation. John Burgess, a Ministry of Works official accompanying Spence at the meeting, more staidly thought that the scheme was ‘generally admired’. An embassy official, later briefed about the committees’ private discussion after the British team had left the room, said ‘evidently, it was by no means plain sailing’. In any event, a ratification process, culminating in signature by the President of the Republic, was set in train and two years later Spence’s building became legally buildable – provided that it started on site by mid-1967.
Spence was authorised to start on the working drawings in July 1963, for which purpose he opened an office in Rome in a flat at Via Giulia 163. The estimates continued their upward march, fuelled by rising costs, space additions, and changed methods of construction to £950,000 in 1964. Periodically, Spence went back to the drawing board to see what more could be cut back but he was ever shorter of options. The squash court, swimming pool and floodlighting all went: the Rome authorities’ request for the original stable block to remain led to a saving, but it looked as though the block of fourteen staff flats would be the next victim. There was then a hiatus of three years while financial crises caused the suspension of building programmes across the whole of government. The chief secretary to the Treasury, Jack Diamond, proposed in 1965 that a halt be called to the Rome project with a view to looking at it again in two years’ time with a cap on it then of £1 million. Spence was appalled, and threatened to resign. His spirits had not been lifted, either, by meeting at a dinner George Brown, then Secretary of State for Economic Affairs. Referring to the embassy design, Brown had said ‘Throw it away! – we don’t want that sort of thing’.
A team of senior officials was dispatched to Rome to assess whether to cancel the project. Its recommendation to proceed as planned prompted an intensive new round of lobbying. The issue almost went to Cabinet in September 1965 but Diamond relented, provided that no more than £100,000 was spent on the project in the forthcoming1966/7 financial year. This meant not starting on site until autumn 1966. Just before then, and after the tenders had been issued, Diamond found himself with no financial leeway left and he demanded deferment of the project for an indefinite period. The tenders were withdrawn, and another review was put in hand. It came to the same conclusion that building the offices was the best economic answer for the embassy in Rome but it found that the economic case for building the block of fourteen UK flats was no longer convincing. This block was therefore taken out of the scheme, which meant that there would be room to build a new residence on the eastern half of the site at a future date. This idea had been anathema to a succession of ambassadors, more than content with living in the Villa Wolkonsky, but was favoured by the current incumbent, Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh. During the hiatus, the internal layout of Spence’s building, which had never delighted either the embassy or departments in London, was somewhat rearranged, mainly to meet changing security requirements. As a result, the Foreign Office told the Ministry that it was ‘satisfied that what we have now produced is, by and large, the best we can do with the Spence building itself. Short of scrapping the whole thing and starting again we cannot eliminate [its deficiencies] completely’. London dared not be more radical for fear of Spence exploding and the Comune reneging.
The Treasury finally gave approval for the project to proceed in July 1967, with a cost limit of £850,000, on the express conditions that the Villa Wolkonsky estate would be sold upon completion of the office building and that the ambassador would move into a leased residence. Tenders for the office contract were invited in October 1967. Laing declined and Taylor Woodrow wanted to work with an unsuitable Italian partner with the result that the three returned tenders were all from Italian firms. Despite devaluation of the pound during the tender period, the tender of Impresa Castelli came in lowest at only a little over £850,000. It was accepted on 28 February 1968 and a token start was made on site the next day to conform with the building licence which was to expire two days later and had already been significantly extended. Spence wrote to the Ministry ‘As you know, I had a feeling that I might not live to see this building’. But he did: it was completed in June 1971, about ten months later than planned, at a cost of £890,000. Julian Amery, the eighth Minister of Works to have held office since Spence was commissioned twelve years previously, performed an inauguration ceremony on 20 September 1971.
The building opened to much fanfare and some admiring architectural reviews but it somehow struck a slightly false note: admirable and skilful in many ways but a little passé for the modern embassy of a country about to join the European Economic Community. Shuckburgh, the ambassador who had worked closely with Spence during 1966-9, captured some of this ambiguity in the Architectural Review:
‘Sir Basil never did conceive that he was designing a mere office block, even when this would seem to have been the commission given to him. He took a bolder view and assumed that since he had been invited by the British Government to design an official building on one of the most prestigious sites in Europe, if not in the world, then presumably something beautiful and splendid was expected of him. … So he went ahead and designed a building of the greatest distinction, ingenious, imaginative, self-contained and worthy of the situation in which it stands. In short, he assumed that a chancery building designed by himself should carry the full prestige of an embassy.’
Spence’s success in presenting a fairly small office building as a major monument on an illustrious site deserved applause. Spence set his heart on his initial conception and proved strong enough to force it through to completion. Without him, there would never have been embassy offices on the Porta Pia site, and the Ministry had ample reason to be grateful to him. Nevertheless, as embassy offices, the building has always been rather a disappointment, largely because it could never be operated in the way that Spence envisaged: the dignified and ceremonial arrival route was hardly used because of security risks; the grand staircase had to be closed for most of the time, forcing staff and visitors into the single inadequate lift in one corner; the offices on the so-called piano nobile were awkwardly shaped for working in; and the furniture that Spence had bullied the Ministry into being allowed to design was disliked.
The building remains in full operational use: it also nowadays accommodates the small mission to the Holy See.