Saturday, October 10, 2020

Coventry, Warwickshire


1950s dinosaur?

I was struck a couple of weeks ago by an article in Apollo magazine by Otto Saumarez Smith about Coventry’s city centre. Coventry, as many readers will know, was bombed with more than usual Nazi ferocity in November 1940. The post-war rebuilding programme renewed the city centre, the heart of which was an extended shopping precinct carefully aligned with a view of the spire of the old cathedral. The new centre was built in the mid-century modern style, and Saumarez Smith makes a spirited defence not just of its architecture but also of its thoughtful planning and of the works of art (sculptures, murals, and so on) that were placed around the site. The writer laments the fact that Coventry is embarking on a plan to demolish tracts of the city centre and replace them with ‘banal retail’ development.

I have a lot of sympathy for this view, although I know it will not be shared by all my readers. The post-war buildings were not perfect – one problem with the shopping precinct, for example, was the lack of footfall on the upper levels (a familiar issue in precincts and malls), an issue partly addressed by ramps in the Lower Precinct. But the precinct was far better than many later malls, and we are at a time in history when we need to reconsider town centre design. The high-street retail business is changing under the twin pressures of online and out-of-town shopping. And of course now there’s another problem: coronavirus. Suddenly old-fashioned streets and open precincts and squares like those of Coventry (once criticised as ‘windswept’) seem airy and attractive. One thing that improved the city’s 1940s and 1950s buildings – and that still enhances them – is the quality of public art that I’ve already mentioned.

A favourite of mine is a long tile mural, designed by the architect and illustrator Gordon Cullen, which originally lined one of the Lower Precinct’s ramps. The mural illustrates Coventry’s history (and prehistory), from the dinosaurs to the 1950s, featuring trades and professions (ribbon-making, bicycle manufacture), the old cathedral, some of the city’s surviving Georgian houses, and modern buildings including the new cathedral. Sadly the mural was damaged in the 1970s (it lost a lot of the section depicting medieval Coventry) and has been relocated in a less prominent position. But it’s still worth seeking out. Taking a look will reveal something that is more interesting and admirable than the ‘1950s dinosaur’ that Coventry is sometimes said to be.

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There’s more of the mural on the cover a book about Coventry here, and a photograph of a concrete mural by William Mitchell, from one of my earlier posts, is here. Bull Yard, the site of the William Mitchell mural, is, alas, scheduled for demolition.


Hels said...

Can at least the mural be saved and moved, before destruction starts?

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

My reaction to Coventry from a young age was to "hideous modern" - with the possible exception of a bit of the cathedral. However, just behind that was something not known in Birmingham at that time - a street cafe - and medieval buildings. If the only innovation offered is even more hideous even more "modern" under pressure from the big retailers, then I'm sorry for the city and its inhabitants. The same floor space can be produced with architecture and traditional design: there's quite enough of "modern, progressive" disfiguring the landscape between Birmingham centre and Coventry. The little wood where I used to go as a teenager became one of the vast carparks for the Exhibition Centre - a sensitive development could have kept the woodland, even amidst the maze of useful motorways.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: I don't think the mural is under threat now.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joseph: I'm not for all 1950s architecture, but I think Coventry's 1950s centre worked well and wasn't hideous, although it did have flaws. It was later altered to address these flaws, but the alteration wasn't very successful, was still modern, and adversely affected the integrity of the post-war architecture. Now I fear the good in what is left will be destroyed. But all this is a matter of opinion.

Anonymous said...

I worked for 6 mths in Coventry recently and live in the county. I see that just like other renovation projects elsewhere - such as Kings Cross station - the simple logic of returning the buildings (of the “new” city centre) back to their original vision is in evidence and is working well. Much of the hatred of such buildings is owed to generations of awful “improvements”. Stripping out the tat and garbage added - usually in the 1980s - and the relationship with the original vision is revised. Just like Euston station’s concourse Coventry has removed god awful little appendages and shops to reopen a broad and airy pedestrian underpass in the centre and removed a god awful escalator from the precinct. 80s raise brick “flower” beds have gone and I hope the glass roof is removed too. It’s not complicated - let the original design live. Parts can be demolished but the core civic centre has now survived long enough to have its own vintage period charm and can become much loved. Alas Coventry city centre is not a city centre but a university campus. The city has put it all on black and its university was in trouble before covid. I fear very dark times ahead for the city when the education bubble bursts.

Michael W said...

I love the stegosaur and the plesiosaur; that's a bit of modernism It'd be awful to see lost.