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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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