12 May 2019

Coventry Revisted: City of Modernist Culture

I recently heard a performance of Britten’s emotionally shattering War Requiem which was first performed at the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. Both the Cathedral and the Requiem are hugely significant for the history and psyche of post war Britain and Europe. They are profound reflections on the horrors of war and the destruction of cities, of which Coventry is one of the most infamous examples. But they are also deep symbols of understanding, reconciliation and renewal. It is especially poignant to listen to the War Requiem today when Britain seems to have willfully misread the lessons of the world wars with blustering politicians and pundits routinely expounding ludicrously distorted and jingoistic views of our nation’s past. We are enjoined to celebrate Crecy and the WW1 trenches, re-enact Dunkirk against phantom enemies and to see our future as establishing Empire 2.0. God. Help. Us.

A pilgrimage for planners

That Coventry voted 55% for Leave is maybe not very surprising given the decline of the post-war boom town’s industrial economy over the last 40 years of neo-liberalism. But Coventry is more advantageously placed than many cities and has sought to reinvent its economy, with some evident success. And it is encouraging that the winning bid for City of Culture 2021 includes celebrating Coventry’s cultural diversity.

Evidently not crap – towards Bull Yard

Coventry was one of the earliest jonestheplanner excursions. We were by no means the first to admire the post-war redevelopment of its blitzed city centre, once a source of national pride and a symbol of hope for the future. But in 2011 modernism was largely excoriated and Coventry was generally seen, and saw itself, as a ‘crap town’. Our views were shocking enough to warrant front page coverage in the Evening Telegraph and phone-ins on Radio Coventry. It was evident that many local people did not share our enthusiasm.

Pubic-private partnership 'scribbling on a Mondrian'

The City Council too seemed to have little regard for its modernist heritage, agreeing deeply damaging changes to the Precincts and the execrable Cathedral Lanes development which blocked the iconic axial view between the Precinct and the Cathedral. Worse still was the bizarre redevelopment plan for much of the post war shopping centre designed by Californian ‘visionary architects’ Jerde, the centrepiece of which was to have been an iconic library in the form of an egg. It was the sort of thing that you would find in Astana or Dubai but fortunately was just a fantasy for Coventry.

The value of Modernist architecture, needs a little TLC – Coventry Central Baths

One of the few encouraging things in the last dismal decade has been the growing awareness of the value of modernist architecture. Writers like Owen Hatherley have championed its legacy in Coventry, as has the 20th Century Society. Historic England have now listed many of the key buildings and in 2016 published an invaluable book Coventry – The making of a modern city 1939-73 by Jeremy and Caroline Gould. This book is endorsed by Coventry City Council too, which seems encouraging. And recognition of the importance of Coventry’s architectural and cultural heritage in the winning City of Culture bid represents an important change of outlook. However on revisiting the city this spring it appears that not much has yet really changed in Coventry’s relationship with its modernist past.

Listed but feels unloved

This is apparent from your arrival at Coventry station. In 2012 Owen Hatherley wrote ‘Coventry has what Birmingham so conspicuously lacks – a sense of arrival. It is in that sadly very select company of great post war stations …. there is nothing fancy …. it’s unassuming but generous modernism, a simple concrete box beautifully finished in wood and marble, clear, spacious and achingly hopeful …. marred only by adverts. What must be noticed is the ease of circulation and the absence of clutter and tat. The platforms are a Brief Encounter world of rectitude and sadness’.

RIP: the Station square

The station still looks great today and fortunately it is now listed. There are plans to expand its capacity and facilities with new platforms and a bus interchange. This is obviously a good thing, but the plans also include building a multi-storey car park sited alongside the listed building. From the promo images this will be clad in strident Virgin Trains red. It is difficult to imagine a more disastrous neighbour for the deliciously understated listed station. What idiots are promoting this? Well, Network Rail, the City Council, the unelected LEP and the elected Mayor of the West Midlands who says ‘ this will do for Coventry what Grand Central did for Birmingham’, thus demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of both cities and their stations.

Coventry's new walk

The context of the station is also changed. The ensemble of 60s buildings that previously enclosed a station square - one a 15 storey tower and the other a horizontal block with glass bridges and shops and cafes at street level, which as Hatherley says ‘prolong the crisp clarity of the station’ - have been torn down for a new pedestrian axis from the station to the city centre and to enable a proposed new office quarter.

Quality subterranean streets – the underpasses

A warm welcome – Greyfriar Green

The station is immediately south of Coventry’s inner ring road, a nightmare for drivers but visually dramatic and surprisingly permeable for pedestrians since much of it is elevated and many of the pedestrian subways are well designed and retain original tiling and artworks. They have sensible ramps around sunken gardens making them accessible for wheelchair users and cyclists. In ‘Towns in Britain’ we commented on ‘the pleasant walk from the station on a wide, clear and level path over and under the slip roads and through landscaping which merges into the attractive open space of Greyfriar Green’. But this walk did include a subway, a cardinal sin in the urbanist mantra. So a section of the ring road has been decked over to allow pedestrians to walk at grade, although they now have to cross a busy slip road.

The new City Council offices, could be Manchester

Allies and Morrison’s masterplan for the ‘Friargate office quarter’ is well considered in conventional terms, with clear streets, city blocks, urban scale massing, active frontages, pedestrian dominated spaces and landscaping. The images suggest something like Kings Cross Central. It is difficult to tell how it will turn out as so far only one block has been built, and this as the new City Council offices. The new HQ is sober, not assertive or attention seeking, boldly modelled in brick with two-storey framework and a generous arcade and café. It is a reasonable start.

Impersonating Brum, badly

Greyfriar Gate gardens are a really pleasant introduction to the city especially in May as Coventry maintains that fine civic tradition of planting sumptuous floral displays. At its apex is the spire of Christchurch, one of the three surviving and iconic medieval spires which informed much planning and urban design of Coventry’s city centre. However you will now find the most God awful new leisure centre jammed right up next to the spire of the blitzed church. Termed ‘The Wave’ and designed by Faulkner Brown it is a clumsy and ungainly circular structure, glassy below with a monstrous over sized, skew-whiff Jackie Kennedy style pill-box hat in blue cladding on top. It is simply terrible and must be a shoo-in for the next Carbuncle Cup.

What's wrong with a good swim?

The architects say ‘creating a more elegant leisure destination …. will provide residents and visitors with a world class facility.’ What it really means is the closure of the acclaimed Coventry Swimming Pool on Fairfax St with its striking winged design, huge south facing windows and sunbathing terraces. It was designed in 1956 by Arthur Ling and others and when opened in 1966 was described as the finest in Europe. There are no plans for the future of this superb listed structure which the City owns. This is outrageously irresponsible.

Civil arcades – New Union Street

Cheap novelty beside good modest design – New Union Street

The Wave is an indictment of the architecture profession, the planning system and particularly the politics of regeneration which is so addicted to such novelty toys. It is especially telling to contrast this shoddy gimmicky stuff with the adjacent, modest, commercial blocks on New Union Street, built in the 1960s with careful consideration and some elegance and pride. But at least these are not slated for demolition, unlike Bull Yard to the west of Christchurch.

Market Murals – form & fun

Rhythm, light and type

Coventry abandoned the fantasy of the Jerde plan but still wants to see major redevelopment of its shopping precincts so as to compete with Birmingham, a hopelessly lost (and self-destructive) cause. Scaled down redevelopment plans have been agreed in principle for the ‘City Centre South’ which includes the demolition of Bull Yard, Shelton Square, City Arcade, Market Way and Hertford Street. The projected regeneration scheme promises an anchor store, restaurants, cinema, bowling alley, student accommodation and luxury flats to provide vibrant life 24/7 for the city. Fortunately the highly distinctive circular market with its ‘socialist realism’ murals has been listed thanks to the Coventry Society, so it is excluded. Today the market is teeming with slightly anarchic life, as it should be, but the structure looks run down and in need of maintenance.

Materials, texture, detail and contrast – Hertford Street

So good that it must be at risk – Coventry Point

Little progress has been made with ‘City Centre South’ - hardly surprising given the dire state of the retail development market. But the plans blight a large area. Bull Yard is an attractive and lively little square at the entrance to ‘Precinct Shopping’ containing interesting murals and reliefs which are a big feature of Coventry, including William Mitchell’s ‘Three Tuns’ Aztec-like concrete mural. Shelton Square opposite the market has well considered modernist buildings and should be an attractive place, but is being deliberately run down. Hertford Street should be the priority for improvement and a start has been made with the opening up of the original wide entrance from Broadgate under Broadgate House with its ‘folk art’ carillon of Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom. Coventry Point, a 14 storey tower by John Madin which punctuates Market Way has few friends other than Owen Hatherley who writes in its defence ‘it re-asserts however violently the original future orientated impulses; its angular, twisted skyline is a celebration of wild Midland Gothic in amongst all those coolly expressed classical modernist phases.’ It is inevitably doomed.

Cutting out the crap – Broadgate House

Hatherley said of the grossly ignorant and destructive alterations to jazz up the Precincts in the 80s – ‘it's like a child scribbling on a Mondrian’. More recently Chapman Taylor’s plans for renovations to the Upper Precinct were approved by the Council despite the objections from the 20th Century Society and the City’s own conservation officer to these substantial and unnecessary alterations to the original concept and design . Fortunately Historic England have now listed key buildings including the north and south blocks, M&S and the former BHS, giving pause for reflection. The conservation and renovation of the Precincts is of national importance and central to the future of Coventry and its identity. It needs really carefully considered treatment and an imaginative concept for the future, not aping the worst of indoor shopping centres.

Listed, well done.

Modernism Restored. Coventry can do this ...

The good news is that on Corporation Street the fine Co-operative Department Store, which looks distinctly moderne, is being renovated as flats. Like so many other post-war buildings it incorporates an arcade whose pillars are etched with delightful, subtle graphics of the goods and services sold in the store. Opposite is the Belgrade Theatre with its superb brickwork and fenestration together with Stanton Williams’s elegantly austere extension. This is civilized architecture but it is on the very frontier of barbarity.

... or maybe it can't. Prefer Street View 2008.

Before & after – over saturated, clunky and dim

The race for student numbers ...

... where will this end?

North towards the ring road there is a frenzy of construction with great galumphing towers rearing skywards. Although the City’s cherished retail and office developments languish there is no stopping the inexorable tide of student living. Coventry is in the midst of a building boom not seen since the 1960s. The new towers are hideous and garish, especially ‘Study Inn’ with its Brutalist kitsch ethic. Others like Bishop’s Gate and CODE are less deliberately offensive but are still quite a poke in the eye - as bad as any student flats in Leeds, which is bad!

Universities aren't all bad – the new Alison Gingell Building

Coventry University is one of the most successful of the ex-Polytechnics and it provides much of the impetus and dynamism for the city’s economy today. Whereas the city struggles to progress its retail and office development plans, as in other ex-industrial cities the universities are in the midst of a huge building boom. The main focus of the campus is around Jordon Well and Gosford Street, close to the cathedral and the Town Hall, but development extends around much of the ring road. Few of the university’s buildings are really notable although the Lanchester Library by Short and Associates with its exotic towers is certainly arresting. However the new Alison Gingell Building on Whitefriar Street caught our eye. Close to the remains of the Whitefriar abbey, it references its context well and its saw-tooth southern fenestration seems both practical and a homage to Basil Spence’s cathedral nave. I was surprised to find it was designed by Broadway Malyan, architects of Liverpool’s infamous Futurist redevelopment.

Still not working – Broadgate Square

So has Coventry changed in the last decade? Well, apart form the University, not much. Broadgate Square has been repaved but in a rather mundane way, a lost opportunity to create a lively space at the heart of Gibson’s city centre. Key buildings around the square like the Leofric Hotel (reduced to a Travelodge) and the curtain wall department store (now Primark) are now listed. The more one sees of the Cathedral Lanes development the more outrageous it seems. It is now a restaurant complex with the usual chain suspects, which is indicative of the failure of Coventry’s retail-led regeneration plans. This has nothing to do with the style of architecture, but with the dynamics of retailing. Coventry cannot compete with Birmingham nor with on-line shopping. It needs to develop more niche markets based on the real character and qualities of the place, not on second rate shopping malls.

The best modernist city in Britain ... 

... but only if it takes this stuff seriously

Despite the increasing national and international recognition of Coventry’s modernist heritage, the city is at best half hearted about it. It sees modernism as a problem to be overcome, not its USP. The Council still seems wedded to the idea of newness, of ‘regeneration’ for its own sake. It is both backward-looking and unrealistic with all those artists' impressions of smiling happy people sipping cappuccino in the foreground masking the crap new buildings in the background. And it doesn’t happen on the City’s terms, but on those of the developer, and is quickly regretted.

A British city did this today – makes you proud

Yet Coventry is a pleasant and quite a lively place to be. This is partly because of the quality of its architecture and the highly unusual and successful relationship between modernity and medieval survivals, rather like the City of London. The Cathedral is truly world class. The parks and small open spaces are attractive, like those created in the Coventry Phoenix initiative. Within the ring road the streets are quite civilized due to ambitious traffic calming, based on Dutch principles although in England drivers are rather often more entitled than in Holland, But broadly speaking it works well and has created a much more attractive environment for the Town Hall and elsewhere.

Design and ideas, not copying

City of Culture 2017 opens up lots of possibilities for Coventry to think outside the ‘regeneration’ box. It was hugely successful in Hull, a very different city to Coventry, but with similarities too. Both suffered dreadful wartime destruction and both have suffered massive loss of confidence in the last 40 years. Both have been ignorantly castigated as ‘crap towns’. But they are not – they are highly distinctive places with extraordinary history and architecture. Hull’s City of Culture 2017 provided a huge boost in every sense but particularly in the city’s view of itself. Hopefully 2021 will do the same for Coventry and its view of its modernist heritage.

Never forget – the elephant sports hall

Today Coventry doesn’t want its elegant listed swimming pool and needs help in finding a future for it. The threatened ‘Elephant’ sports hall added in the 1970s is not listed but it is extraordinary. It straddles Cox Street on tapering legs, an apparently windowless box clad in grey zinc and formed as a series of abstract prisms. It is shocking, amazing, exciting, possibly threatening and certainly threatened. Although conventional opinion inevitably regards it as an ‘eyesore’ it seems to have captured the affection of many local people. There is a campaign to save it for a new use as an arts complex, which makes perfect sense in the context of ‘City of Culture’. Let's hope the campaign succeeds.

Modernity & originality 


Unknown said...

I enjoyed this - as a Coventry kid - made me think
thanks very much!

Anonymous said...

Good article and enjoyed by another kid.

Anonymous said...

Great article which led me to read Jeremy and Caroline Gould’s book “Coventry - the making of a modern city 1939 - 1973”, mentioned early in the article. The book is also an excellent and highly informative read. I grew up in Coventry too. Made me much more aware of the city’s architectural importance.