Coventry

I came to Coventry because I was close by and because I am slowly working my way through Space, Hope and Brutalism by Elain Harwood, which has quite a bit about the rebuilding of the city in the late 1940s/early 1950s.

(Now that’s a book that requires “appointment” reading. It’s too heavy to hold comfortably so it reclines open on the dining room table at home and I pay it a visit. If I want to read it, I have to turn up the radiator in advance to take the edge off the icebox. I rarely manage more than a few pages at a time because I keep getting sidetracked into looking up related buildings and towns.)

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The apse of the bombed St Michael’s Cathedral

I have been to Coventry once before; I was probably about 10. I had a moment of déjà vu amongst the cathedral ruins, but that was all. However, the area around the Precinct was absolutely familiar to me. Not because I recalled the previous visit, but because I grew up in one of those optimistic post-war estates of uncluttered lines and open spaces that is mirrored here. There was even a touch of today’s East German cityscapes about it – one of those places that were important under the old communist system but have since been eclipsed: Cottbus, Chemnitz, Frankfurt an der Oder. I don’t mean to suggest anything totalitarian about the design – after all, the usual model cited for post-war city reconstruction is Rotterdam’s Lijnbaan. Coventry’s plans for a pedestrianised Precinct predate even that.

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Broadgate, Coventry, under Donald Gibson, City Architect between 1938 and 1954.

This I find much more attractive than this morning’s view of Milton Keynes. I don’t know how many times this has had to be renovated or restored, but it still looks in good condition. Unfortunately the overall design has been compromised severely by nasty newer tat like a generic mall blocking the view of the cathedrals from the Precinct and some hideous covering-over of the lower Precinct.

To be fair with my comparisons, I should add:

  1. pedestrians don’t get the same consideration outside Coventry’s immediate centre;
  2. Coventry already had a centre to rebuild; Milton Keynes had (has still?) to create one from scratch.

The new St Michael’s Cathedral is – well, divine. The ruined and the renewed are combined beautifully – from the exterior by the sheltering porch, and from the interior by John Hutton’s etched west screen.

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St Michael’s Cathedral, Basil Spence and Arup, 1956-62

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St Michael and the devil, Jacob Epstein, bronze

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Baptistry window designed by John Piper

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West screen etching by John Hutton

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