Friday, April 29, 2016

Notable towns

John Minnis, Katie Carmichael, et al, Boston, Lincolnshire: Historic North Sea Port and Market Town
Jeremy and Caroline Gould, Coventry: The Making of a Modern City 1939–73
Published by Historic England

These are the latest two volumes in Historic England’s Informed Conservation series, which zooms in on areas of historic interest, highlighting their particular value and the pressures of change and development that they face. The current books focus on places that aren’t high in the public consciousness when it comes to historic buildings – Boston, out on a limb in south Lincolnshire, and Coventry, famously bombed during World War II and rebuilt afterwards. But both contain much that is valuable, not just in terms of particular buildings, but in townscape, planning, and local character.

Coventry: The Making of a Modern City 1939–73 first. Apart from a brief opening chapter, the whole book is concerned with the developments after the city was comprehensively and devastatingly bombed on 14 November 1940. The authors describe the pivotal role of city architect Donald Gibson, who was already replanning the city before the bombs fell, the various adaptations of his plans to create a striking modern city centre with zoning and a serious-minded kind of modernist architecture, influenced by contemporary developments in countries such as Sweden.* Gibson’s successor, Arthur Ling (and his successor Terence Gregory), continued this work through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, coping with Coventry’s expansion on the back of an economic boom. The boom produced demands not just for factories and commercial buildings, but also for houses, schools, hospitals, and old people’s homes – and for better roads, as car ownership shot up.

The story of the replanning, rebuilding, and expansion of Coventry is a complex one, involving varying needs, adapting visions, and changing plans. The book does a good job of describing this development and showing its lasting impact. This impact is important in more than one way. Firstly, it transformed Coventry’s centre, creating buildings and townscapes that are increasingly seen as valuable. Broadgate House, City Market, the Belgrade Theatre, and of course the cathedral – all these are widely recognised as important and central to any kind of informed conservation of the city; so too are some of the outstanding pieces of public art such as William Mitchell’s relief panels and Gorden Cullen’s tile mural. Second, the suburbs deserve attention. As the author’s say, their consistent architecture, local shops, and generous greenery could be a formula for sustainable communities elsewhere. What’s more, the authors recognise that it is possible to upgrade houses to modern standard without compromising the architecture; possible too to extend buildings such as the Belgrade Theatre without destroying it – as Stanton Williams have indeed done. Coventry was once seen as a beacon and it could shine again. This book lends it some light.

Boston Lincolnshire has a rather different focus, with a longer historical view, reflecting the rich heritage of the town. Trade has always been at its heart. The book describes its importance as a medieval wool town, hence the large and famous church of St Botolph and its medieval Guildhall in locally made brick – a strikingly early use of this material; its expansion as a port after the improvements in drainage and navigation in the 18th century; and its further growth in the 19th century, with docks and industrial buildings – of which grain warehouses and the former feather works are among the survivors. The 20th century reveals a less upbeat story, with regrettable demolitions and a population surviving in a low-wage economy, but the book also highlights some of the architectural upsides, from the Edwardian baroque Post Office to some memorable 1930s shops. The final chapter, on ‘The Present Day’ shows how regeneration has already had a beneficial impact on the town and looks forward to a positive vision for Boston’s future, ‘tantalisingly within reach’.

The book does an excellent job of describing and illustrating Boston’s built environment – guildhall, houses, warehouses, pumping station, and more: the pages glow with red brick and pantiles. Joys in other materials – the Egyptian-style masonic hall, a stuccoed hotel, chapels and Session House faced in stone – fill out the picture. There’s also a good sense of how the place fits together as a whole, helped by some very clear maps, including one of the Market Place area and one of South Street and South Square. Boston, Lincolnshire should attract visitors, inform locals, and inspire conservationists to preserve the best of this fascinating place. Hats off to that.

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*More serious indeed (some would say less frivolous) than the style that developed around the Festival of Britain in 1951 and that has come to seem the essence of British mid-century modernism. Swedish modernism, incidentally, was widely covered in the British architectural press during the war.

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