20 Feb 2011

Urban Impressions – Amazing Coventry


One of many public modernist artworks in Coventry

Coventry is a fantastic urban experience – it will just blow you away. Maybe that's not the best term to use as Coventry will always be remembered for the horrific bombing of the city centre in 1940, so vividly and movingly recalled by survivors on TV last year. But the shock of Coventry's urban structure and fabric is specifically the response to that tragedy – the rebuilding of the city centre to a bold new vision which would be unthinkable today. It was a source of national pride, a highly symbolic statement. I remember as a schoolchild being taken to see the new Coventry and it made a great impression on me then as it still does today.


Hay Lane - more convincing than Spon Street

Coventry is a highly unusual city. A medieval boom town, it languished as Birmingham exploded in the industrial revolution but then emerged in the C20th as one of the most dynamic industrial cities in England. The bike, motorcycle and car plants were built around the medieval city which remained largely unspoilt, as J.B. Priestley records in his 'Journey through England'. The blitz mostly missed the factories but annihilated the city centre. Amazingly some of the most important medieval buildings survived, like Holy Trinity Church with its famous Last Judgement painting and St Mary's Guildhall. There are enclaves that still recall the character of the pre-war town but the city centre today reads as a dramatic New Town. Having said that the palimpsest of old Coventry can often be traced via isolated survivals often in bizarre relationships to the new city. Also much of the old street layout survives.


Ring road dodgems


A walk in the park for pedestrians and a bum clenching nightmare for motorists

Arrival in the city is confusing. The inner ring road is disorientating and terrifying for the driver with traffic shooting on and off slip roads all very close together. However since much of it is on viaducts it is actually quite permeable for pedestrians and even exhilarating with the drama of the curving flyovers although the groundscape is usually incoherent and aesthetically challenging. From the railway station (built in 1962 with simple confidence, a very clear plan and big slab roof) your route across the sunken ring road is quite pleasant and feels like an extension of Greyfriar Green.


Reason, light and space at Coventry station

From this attractive open space you get a good view of the three medieval spires of Christchurch, Holy Trinity and the old Cathedral which still dominate the skyline of the city at least in the historical imagination although competing with many modern towers and slab blocks. Warwick Road looks like a lost bit of Leamington Spa but you meet New Coventry at Bull Yard.


Precinct Shopping


Maintenance and providence

This is a handsome little square at the entrance to 'Precinct Shopping'. The new buildings have a satisfying rhythm of vertical fins recalling Moro's Nottingham Playhouse, and there are interesting murals and reliefs – quite a feature of Coventry. The square looks out to the spire of Christchurch, a grand Methodist Hall and the stucco of Warwick Road. It would be a much more attractive place if less cluttered with gimmicky distractions (another feature of Coventry) and if Warwick Road were rethought as a city street rather than a Colin Buchanan wet dream.


Jolly moderne: coming to terms with a jingoistic past

From Bull Yard you follow the confused Hertford St, pedestrianised and in part arcaded, which opens up to the back of Broadgate House. This was designed by Sir Donald Gibson, the City Architect responsible for the post war plan and is thoughtfully composed with interesting reliefs at the first floor level. However the siting blocks the route into Broadgate Square and a big ground floor extension spoils the composition. Pevsner was very sniffy about Broadgate House but the façade to the Square is actually rather jolly with a coat of arms, minimalist clock and a carillon.


Godiva shows her back to the Catheral Lanes shopping centre

The Square is the heart of the new planned city. Lady Godiva sits on her horse in the middle, fenced off against indignities. She faces what was the Leofric Hotel (named after her husband) but now more prosaically a Travelodge. The show piece curtain wall department store enclosing the north side is now Primark. The block paving design of the square is really rather a let down and much more could be made of this space despite the bland 80s Cathedral Lanes (sic) shopping centre which in reality moons its servicing backside towards the Cathedral.


Gibson plan


Spot the anti-planning ethos of the 1980s

Gibson's plan for the New Coventry was published as early as 1941. The centrepiece is the Shopping Precinct which was the most radical reconstruction of any British city and Europe's first pedestrian shopping area. It takes the form of a cross with the east – west axis between the old Cathedral spire and a new 22 storey tower. The Upper Precinct which is on two levels opens off Broadgate Square and is in a Festival of Britain style with warm brick and stone detailing. The Lower Precinct dominated by the tower and also on two levels is slightly later and has a series of low gables. It contains some very interesting features including the circular Godiva café in the centre (very Mod), electric artworks under alternate gables featuring Coventry industries like ribbon and clock making, and a magnificent mural by Gordon Cullen depicting the development of Coventry from prehistoric times to the reconstruction. Swinford Way to the north is closed by a less elegant tower with a pyramidal hat. Market Way to the south is punctuated, or rather visually blocked by the more recent insertion of a clunky tower.


Godiva Cafe, similar to the Kornhaus Tavern

The Gibson plan for the Precinct has been compromised by many subsequent alterations which have basically sought to make it more like a standard indoor centre. The insertion of a crude ramp from Broadgate Square to the upper level shops although practical (they never traded well) spoils the set piece entrance and vistas. The bog standard West Orchard Centre pushes itself right out into the Upper Precinct with escalators in a crude and ugly glass enclosure that amazingly actually shuts out the upper level Precinct shops and ruins the axial view. The Lower Precinct has been completely glazed over and, if less poorly executed, it still spoils the original conception. Repaving too has been done in a loud, fussy, standard way. Despite all this the Shopping Precinct retains a character, attractiveness and sense of place which eludes most later shopping developments.


Fantastic imagination – the circular market


Hated by American novelty architects of glib pastiche

The siting of the 1958 circular market in the backlands of the Precinct is strange but it is a feature of the Gibson plan that the pedestrian precincts are almost a stage set with big open areas behind in which are inserted early multi-storey car parks as well as servicing and the market. It looks like a sci-fi spaceship with a car park on top. Inside are Socialist Realist murals and a handsome round clerestory. The market is lively and seems to work well but although listed is threatened by demolition as part of a crass redevelopment plan for the Precinct, of which more later. Beyond the market is the quirky City Arcade, a 50s reinvention of the Victorian original with angled shop fronts and interesting small shops. This leads you to IKEA Plaza.


Swedish Grace IKEA style

You will have already spotted this vertically stacked IKEA across the circular market and had an 'Oh my God' moment'. However this is a bold attempt to accommodate new retail demands in the centre and not unsustainably at some god-forsaken motorway junction. Although (maybe appropriately) bulky it does have some interest in its mass and relationship with the street. It is a pity the Swedish national colours expressed in the cladding are quite so strident. Also it looks uncomfortably large next to the fine C14th red sandstone church of St John Baptist and the adjacent enclave of timber framed houses. 'Medieval Spon St' as the tourist signs call it sadly looks like a down at heel Disneyland full of gap sites, pubs and takeaways.


This is Ikea plaza and nothing else 

Coventry – twinned with Stalingrad

Coventry was the first city to twin and its first twin was Stalingrad. Strong links were made with other cities devastated in the war including Dresden and Belgrade. Corporation St, rebuilt in a restrained style as a tree lined parade of shops, leads to the rather self effacing Belgrade Theatre. This was the first of the post war theatres to open (1958), but not the most successful. It was designed by Arthur Ling who succeeded Gibson as City Architect. It has recently been extended by Stanton Williams in an elegantly austere way.  However Belgrade Square is actually dominated by the blank but screaming new Premier Inn – far worse than anything IKEA could imagine.


Flimsy but intricate - The Belgrade Theatre

An insignificant entry south of Belgrade Square brings you back to the Precinct and hence to Broadgate Square. This illustrates a problem with the planning of the Precinct – it does not relate well to the surrounding streets. In fact despite the open plazas it is as internally focused as any modern shopping centre and this has been exacerbated by later changes. The successful long term future for this exceptional development will depend on resolving this problem.


The internal focus of the precinct


Civic sense

High St, which largely survived the blitz and contains some grand 30s banks, leads to the long range of the Council House - Edwardian red sandstone mock Tudor with Arts and Crafts detailing.  South of Earl St is the new civic centre (1960) in pre IKEA Swedish style, with a very pleasant courtyard. Later phases are also quite successful, although the informal gardens on Little Park St are something of a lost opportunity to create more of a civic space in front of the Council House.


Civic Centre

East on Jordan Well the 50s Herbert Museum and Art Gallery has recently been extended by Pringle Richards Sharratt with a lovely new curved roof glazed atrium creating a new relationship with the Cathedral precinct. The entrance garden with its rusty metal artworks is very effective. A sign requesting donations reads 'Free for 50 years – help us keep it free for the next 50'. The Big Society aka the Cuts makes you weep.


The Herbert Museum extension


The new industry of Higher Education


The Art building

In the 60s Coventry was evidently too rough for the new University of Warwick (which is found half way to Kenilworth) but the Poly became Coventry University with a big campus to either side of the ring road abutting the Cathedral. This adds a lot of vitality to the city centre but basically the campus is a lot of big blocks with no real focus or coherence. The first to be built was an 8 storey curtain wall job along Cox St, which Pevsner describes as 'splendidly long and uncompromising'. Even more uncompromising is the Sports Centre which bridges Cox St - metal clad but with gothic flourishes looking as terrifying as Eisenstein's Teutonic Knights in Alexander Nevsky. The Art and Design building opposite is a real bruiser while the William Morris building makes the mistake of smothering the identity of the original attractively functional factory which it has massively extended. The library with a dozen or more San Gimignano like towers close to is strange and rather disappointing.


Better than Selfridges


Millennium aspirations


Brutal Britannia

North of the University Fairfax St is bridged by the spectacularly brutalist Britannia Hotel. The hard-man image is however softened by a nice little square with a grand flight of steps up towards the Cathedral. At the end of Fairfax St is an amazing sight – the Whittle Arch, commemorating the inventor of the jet engine and looking like a Martian machine from the War of the Worlds. It identifies a rather bleak plaza in front of the Transport Museum. The view from the plaza is as uncompromising as anything in the old Soviet block but it is actually right next to suburban housing, which is screened off by a visual Berlin Wall. The arch is part of the Coventry Phoenix initiative which has created a series of new public spaces and public artworks to the city centre. So too is the spiralling Glass Bridge which links the hard plaza to the green of Lady Herbert's Garden. This is certainly not practical and actually exaggerates the visual and groundscape confusion of this area rather than reinforcing the remains of the old town wall and the very strong pedestrian desire line.


How not to build a plaza and walkway


The value of good planning and design

Back down Trinity St you find the comfort of Edwardian half timbering, which Pevsner found comical, with the miraculously preserved Holy Trinity behind. To the north is the very interesting Priory Gardens around archaeological artefacts, with more extensive remains in the new visitor centre which has big windows onto a very pleasing formal gravel garden. This is also part of the Phoenix initiative and includes the best artwork – the Water Window. Beyond this is a crisp new courtyard development of restaurants and bars.


The new Cathedral and the resurrection of Coventry


Choir stalls

The Cathedral is immediately east of Holy Trinity. Although the medieval structure was gutted, leaving only the gaunt shell and spire, a lot of the adjacent buildings in streets around Bayley Lane survived, including the incredible C14th St Marys Guildhall. The relationship of Basil Spence's new Cathedral to the ruins is inspired. It is placed orthogonally so that the old nave acts as a foil and foyer to the new Cathedral and both old and new buildings frame a superb view of Holy Trinity. The bare open space of the ruin is deeply moving.


Nave

Basil Spence's cathedral is actually quite small but because it is such a complete and uniform composition, including the superb furnishings and art works, it does not feel that way. It is a modern reinterpretation of Gothic with slender columns and the semblance of a ribbed vault. Because the walls are saw toothed, on entering through the great glazed front they appear unbroken and plain, but when seen from the chancel light floods in through the slits of full height stained glass windows. The whole is dominated by the huge Graham Sutherland tapestry of Christ over the altar and there are many other exceptional works including the wonderful Chapel of Gethsemane with its Byzantine like angel and crown of thorns screen. Although not religious, the Cathedral evokes a very strong response in me.


Blackened former stairwell to the rood screen? 


Coming to terms, or not?

The Cathedral is an obvious symbol of the resurrection of Coventry after the war time destruction and its reputation has grown since it was consecrated in 1961. However the idealistic or brutal re-planning of the city centre has been much more controversial. It was so from the start – there was always a strong groundswell against Gibson's vision. The City had actually started the destruction of the medieval streets in the 30s and Gibson famously welcomed the bombing as making redevelopment easier.


The final triumph of Good over Evil - at Coventry

Coventry really is at the very epicentre of the dichotomy about how England sees itself, its past and its future. The destruction of the old town is still felt as a loss, a wound which will never heal because the future is so uncertain and the world that has been lost was so reassuring. But this is nostalgia for cricket on the village green, not Wigan Pier which the welfare state sought to eradicate and for which Coventry was a standard bearer. The war was our finest hour and is deeply engrained on the national consciousness. However the post war sense of progress and self confidence is now seen as part of the narrative of failure and decline, the loss of empire.


Gordon Cullen 

So it is with Coventry – the boom Motown of the 50s which busted in 80s, famously captured by the Specials in 'Ghost Town'. Coventry has massively lost confidence and turns its back on the exceptional post war rebuilding. Many would probably have preferred a reconstruction on Warsaw lines. I have not seen Warsaw but smaller scale reinventions in East Berlin are surprisingly effective. However these were societies that had been shattered as well as cities. Coventry's and Britain's experience was completely different and it is that post war spirit which the city really needs to celebrate.


It's a confidence thing

The Council thinks that Coventry has a poor image and is falling behind Birmingham with its dumb Big City Plan. After a period of some sensitive and interesting enhancements to the city centre a bizarre redevelopment plan for the shopping centre has been commissioned from Jerde, a LA based 'visionary architects and urban planning firm' (their description). This includes an 'iconic' egg shaped library, a roof top city park and yes millions of sq ft of shops. Its current status is unclear on the Council's fantastically obtuse planning web site, but basically it looks dreadful, disingenuous and silly - very bad news indeed for Coventry. There must be lots of opportunities to extend the retail offer of the city centre without the destruction of its unique assets. However this will require a more radical approach to managing traffic and buses which are still quite dominant despite the mega ring road.


Severn Trent

Other big plans are also afoot. An Allies and Morrison masterplan has been approved for a big and rather standard issue looking series of office and residential blocks linking the station with Greyfriar Green across the ring road. In the meantime some sensible developments are materialising like the big but quite handsome new Severn Trent HQ next to the civic centre by Webb Gray with (they say) exceptional green credentials. So a lot of change is being planned. Coventry needs to be very careful what it wishes for. It is not for the faint hearted but my advice is to see this exceptional city before the next blitz!

N.B. A good light ale and Coventry batch, were had at the Gatehouse Inn, Hill St.

--

References
N. Pevsner: Warwickshire
J.B Priestley: Journey through England
G. Stamp: Britain's Lost Cities
D. Kynaston: Austerity Britain 1945-51
D. Kynaston: Family Britain 1951-57
Coventry City: Urban Design Framework

20 comments:

Jackie Boo said...

As a student in Coventry in the mid-nineties, I found this assessment of the city's built environment remarkably refreshing in its open-mindedness and willingness to paint a much-maligned place in a more positive light.

I largely agree with the sentiments expressed, although I would perhaps have been a bit more excoriating about the destruction of Broadgate caused by the Cathedral Lanes shopping centre; seeing old photographs showing the square and Godiva statue framed between the two spires, it makes an already architecturally bland shopping centre seem a much more crass intervention. At least they've removed the canopy that was erected over the statue, which only added insult to injury.

What's really changed since the nineties for me is this: I - along with so many others - have since developed a knowledge and appreciation of modernism and good post-war architecture in the Festival of Britain tradition. Suddenly, much that I condemned whilst I was a student in Coventry now seems to have merit and seems worthy of preservation.

This is the way forward for Coventry, not Jerde's plan. Instead of a 'clean slate' approach, Coventry should instead merely strip away some of the later, careless embellishments like the West Orchards glass escalator and have the confidence to be itself, cherish what's left of the post-war idealism it once represented, and market itself appropriately to a wider audience that suddenly seems thirsty to recapture the charm of mid-twentieth-century Britain.

Anonymous said...

Trying to compare Coventry's situation with that of Warsaw is inappropriate. The reason for rebuilding Coventry was different. The Polish capital was bombed and razed by the Nazis without mercy. The Kremlin then imposed a spooky post-war pastiche. We had brave new world meets make do and mend instead. British compromise.
And it worked in Coventry for a long time. The text and photographs show this well. I hope the city keeps its nerve and its head.

Jones the planner said...

Agree Warsaw not a good comparison but what I am trying to emphasise is that Coventry was very brave and very significant because it held to that spirit of progress and optimism despite strong opposition, make do and mend shortages and British compromise when other bombed cities settled for much less ambitious piecemeal rebuilding. This is actually a huge achievement which should be celebrated especially at this time of nihilistic counter revolution.

David Tittle said...

A nice article. I think you were a bit kind to the ring road though. You need to examine all the ring road crossings (including several dismal subways and spaces beneath flyovers) before deciding that it is pedestraian-permiable but the CABE/EH urban panel made the same mistake. There are also arguments to be had about the land take, image and cultural impact of the ring road on the city.
Thought you were a bit hard on Birmingham in comparing the Big City Plan to the Jerde Plan. Whatever its failings the BCP was given to a competent firm of urban designers and then (realising it had dragged on far to long) was taken in-house and completed by a comptetent team of urban designers. Coventry, by contrast, were conned by Californian snake-oil salesmen and mall designers into paying them £400k for an undeliverable absurdity. You are right to say that the status of the Jerde plan is now unclear. It is effectively dead, but nobody seems able to admit it, and they still put the absurd images on brochures and presentations.
Finally a factual point. The Severn Trent building (apparently we are not to call it an HQ) was designed by Associated Architects as well as Webb Gray. Not sure what the division of responsiblities was exactly.

Jones the planner said...

David, take your points. Re the ring road I was trying to emphasise the positives and comparatively speaking many of the ped routes are pretty good, inc from the station altho' agree Spon St, Hill St and elsewhere a problem. However I can't see the road going any time soon so best to try and live with it. Re Big City Plan what bothers me is the lack of fine grain - everything is BIG but there is little to convince that the streetscape, streets and public spaces are being thought through.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article: Coventry gets a knocking from many people but there are some lovely 1950s details which you've picked up that often get missed. Note that the 'uncompromising' sports centre is known as the Elephant: it was designed to reflect the animal which features on the city's crest, and does so with delightful humour!

CID said...

above, your missing the point. The sports centre does actually look like an elephant but from side facing towards sky blue way. its only visible by going onto the ring road via SBW, trunk and all. id try and take a photo but driving on the ring road and taking a photo is almost impossible.

another point is that whilst looking at the city centre through 'educated' eyes is one thing actually living in the city and visiting the city centre regularly is another.

Coventry's suburbs are far more attractive and well kept than the city centre.

ps im going to attempt to take said photo of elephant

Jones the planner said...

I'd love to see the elephant pic. I'm sure the suburbs are great but the city centre is absolutely exceptional. I'm not saying it is comfortable but the way forward is not a novelty box re-development which isn't going to happen anyway but to focus on and build from the good things in the centre. It is weird I am being criticised in Coventry for actually liking the City. Something wrong here surely!

CID said...

possibly because its hard to accept your praise after being told/hearing that you live in a sh*thole all your life.


I dont think everyone is criticising you. I wouldnt pay to much attention to the Coventry Telegraph, its a local rag based in brum which struggles to fill their pages with actual journalism.

also i think the majority of coventrians agree with your opinion of the new proposed development but also think that some sort of development is needed

Anonymous said...

I don't think the article in the newspaper was critical, it was just reprinting what you said, and invited comments from the city council and readers.

CID said...

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2296/2253991033_6b5cdc34d4.jpg

heres a link i found on the internet of the elephant side of the sports centre. the head, eye and trunk are obscured by the trees. you could possibly see more on google street map untill i get a better pic

Janet said...

I love this post and have been passing the link to everyone I know. You have completely 'got' Coventry: it absolutely needs to uncover, re-discover - and show off - its beautiful bone structure!

Now this is a long shot, but I wonder whether you'd consider presenting about this for Coventry's Pecha Kucha Night (for which I am one of the organisers)?

You can find out more about us at:
http://pkncoventry.posterous.com

and about the global Pecha Kucha phenomenon:
http://www.pecha-kucha.org

Look forward to hearing from you!

Ned Trifle said...

The pic above seems to be unavailable - was it this one?

http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l7pvms7gRE1qbqg07.jpg

I used to swim in the pool (that is attached to it) every w/end and every time we swooped down from the ring road I used to smile at the Elephant. Incidentally my late father, who worked for Peugeot, loved the ring road from a driver's perspective and I'm afraid I still do. You can access the city at any point (in a car, obviously, I totally agree with the above points re: pedestrians) if you know where you're going (admittedly a big IF)and it's actually quite exciting!

Anyway, another great post. I've been telling everyone more or less the same thing for (oh, far too long) and always get uncomprehending looks..."Coventry? Are you sure...?".

Living in Leicester and coming from just outside Cov, I do think has made me look for the best in cities! It's so much more satisfying than all the "X is a shithole" that is the normal response.

planning permits said...

However, it is actually a very interesting place, quite distinct. A town is not just an overgrown village. It has its own economy. Goods made and traded there. This city is very beautiful and it is not easy to find this city.

Anonymous said...

Some interesting points and it's good to see something positive about a city centre that is generally hated by people in the city and ridiculed by people outside.

Having said that, I live in Coventry and dislike the city centre - not for the buildings, but for the bizarre way it appears to have developed into a precinct surrounded by an odd collection of streets that are dead ends or ring road junctions that force pedestrians down into a network of tunnels. There appears to be now flow of people around the city's streets, and no visual link between people and businesses who might want to set up. As a result, the place is dead past 5:30 and the areas between the precinct and ring road are filled with empty buildings or new developments that fail to work - some of these places have been rendered unviable due to the poor access and the way the ring road cuts through the land.

It doesn't help when developments like IKEA create empty plazas and streets lined with blank walls, and the council constantly stick additional bits of metal and glass onto everything that are at odds with the original design.

Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic article, I have wandered through Coventry City Centre for years wondering if other people might eventually notice the unusual and amazing architecture we have. The sci-fi rotunda in the lower precinct. The sports centre shaped like a transformer elephant. Contrast this with the old cobbled streets around Hay Lane and Far Gosford Street's Dickensian charm. There have been YEARS of neglect and bad planning decisions which is why people are so down on the City, ignoring the original vista through the precinct and leaving buildings to rot and fall down, eventually giving an excuse to knock them down. This seems to be changing, the Fargo project looks great, I hope the Council continue to be more forward thinking and realise what they've got, with a bit of loving care and some forward thinking (instead of trying to copy everywhere else) we could have something really special.

Chris Matthews said...

Britten's War Requiem - from the archive, with footage of Coventry Cathedral building plus latest concert. Courtesy @langrabbie

Anonymous said...

Re: "The Elephant" or Coventry Sports and Leisure centre. Here is a photo of it capturing the face of the Elephant,

http://www.flickr.com/photos/andymcgeechan/7490841818/in/photostream

As a photographer I think the best views are actually more accessible without recourse to one handed driving on the ring road.

Dali_ said...

The 'Elephant', Coventry Sports & Leisure Centre extension can only really be appreciated by driving past on the ring road. As it from this viewpoint that you see it is form is that of an elephant.

In case anyone is not aware, an elephant in present in the coat of arms for the city of Coventry; I think that makes the sports centre 'Elephant' design all that more clever.

Excellent article, Jones, by the way.

Peter Martyn said...

Of course the architecture of the post-war period deserves both wider attention and above all keeping as opposed to being sacrificed for developments that'll be as destructive as the typically 3/4 empty shoppers' cage so falsely called Cathedral Lanes or unconvincing as the fake Arabic draught towers of the new Cov. Uni' library. (In fact, more is needed in the text to present fabulous location, on incline, and the human scale of the Precinct). More reference might be made to the sheer level of destruction from late-'50s onwards. Neo-colonial crap like the Ikea shopping shed (while aimed at bringing shoppers back into the centre) has apeared in a vast void caused by turn-of-Millennia liquidation of giant factory buidling that could have been adapted - without national-ist colours of that not-so-likelable country. Thre city council/corporation lcks imagination, all they do is count pennies and how they can maximise economy, which is not the way to run a city with such an important past, architectural heritage, etc.