Monday 25 March 2019

The Modern City

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  You might look at Russell Tovey - to pull a name out of the hat - and think "who's that jug-eared weirdo?"  Meanwhile I look at him and my eyes turn into little hearts, like a wolf in a Warner Brothers cartoon.  (Did you see him on Celebrity Bake OffHe smeared butter over a metal cream horn mould then looked straight down the camera and smirked and the BF had to crack me on the back of the head with the remote control to stop my whimpering).  Beauty is not universal.

I'd been in Coventry for ten minutes and I was captivated.  There was the station, of course - more of that later.  Then a walk across the ring road via a landscaped overpass, the city's electronic road signs (the only ones in Britain) shining through the mug of a grey day.  There were a few older buildings, the kind you see everywhere in the country, and then I was smack in front of the concrete bulk of the Bull Yard.  And I was smiling.

You might not be smiling.  But I loved it.  Stark concrete.  Elegant lines.  Horizontals and verticals around a public square.  It was forward thinking and modern. 

There had been plans to redevelop Coventry before the war.  The City appointed a young, exciting new architect to oversee it, a man called Donald Gibson who'd taught at the famous and highly influential Liverpool School of Architecture.  He came up with a scheme for a new Civic Centre and parkland around the Cathedral, which got a lot of public support.  Then the bombers came.

On the 14th November 1940 more than five hundred bombs were dropped on the city, destroying swathes of what was still a largely Medieval streetscape.  Incendiary devices burned their way through the narrow streets and left a shell-shocked wasteland behind.  They had two options to rebuild it once the fighting ended.  Either they could restore the old street patterns, and try and build it as it was before, or they could try and look forward and build a new city.

They went with the second option, and I'm glad they did.

Taking his inspiration from Scandinavia, Gibson drew up a plan for low, elegant brick buildings shaped around pedestrian walkways and plazas.  Broadgate House, up there, was typical; square windows, rendered flat surfaces.  It didn't dominate the scene and yet it was powerful enough to impress. 

Shops were laid out in a precinct with fountains and offices above.  There was symmetry and subtlety.  Gibson laid out the roads with long vistas so you could see the Cathedral spire; he wanted the new Coventry to be open and inspiring.  Remember, the city before the bombs had been a warren of overcrowded lanes; this was the new and inspiring.  It was open to everyone.

It couldn't last.  Gibson left the council in 1955 after too many arguments with Councillors.  His replacement, Arthur Ling, continued his work and in some ways improved it.  He pushed through further pedestrianisation, making Market Way traffic free, and opened up the Precincts so they were more accessible.  He put in dance halls and pubs to make the city centre lively after dark.  But he also disagreed with Gibson's ideas of open space, and so those long vistas were filled with tall tower blocks to close the views off. 

A low-level panic was also setting in at the Town Hall.  Coventry was growing a lot faster than they'd anticipated, and its population was young.  They needed to accommodate the growth quick.  At the same time, the Government's financial incentives for building new homes meant the more you built, the more money you got from the Treasury; houses were good, but flats were quicker to build, and concrete flats quicker still.

Coventry went up.  The high-rise flats appeared and office buildings became slabs.  As I wandered around the city, I could see the different eras, like the rings of a tree.  Slate and marble?  That's a Gibson building.  Simpler, less fussy constructions, but on a grander scale?  Ling.  And stark, basic concrete?  That'll be down to Terence Gregory, whose tenure as City Architect coincided with a belt tightening Conservative administration. 

What struck me as I walked round was how much better the city would be if people stopped interfering with it.  There's a giant glass roof over the Lower Precincts which is completely out of place and ruins the look of the buildings.  An escalator was slapped in the middle of the Upper Precinct to get into a shopping mall, and its green snake blocks the lines of the square and gets in the way.  The cheap 1980s block paving was patched with tarmac.  And some of the buildings had been re-clad in a style that I can only describe as "hideous".

The trouble with Coventry is the bottom fell out of it.  In the 1970s, its big industries began to close up; car building mechanised, then left.  Unemployment skyrocketed which meant less money which meant all those elegant precincts became empty and windswept because nobody could afford to shop there.  The concrete wasn't maintained, so it became stained and cracked, while it turned out flinging up shoddy blocks of flats wasn't great for the residents' health or stability. 

They panicked, basically.  Add in the Fifties and Sixties' architectural styles falling out of fashion generally, and Coventry began to fiddle with what it had and make it worse.  Broadgate House, back up there, had been a wide open entrance to Hertford Street; they filled the arch with a building society to get more rates.  (It's now being restored to its former look).  If you wanted to spend some money in the city, they let you, and endless regeneration plans interfered with what they had.  They were trying anything in the hope it worked.

I'd ended up beneath the Whittle Arch, commemorating Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine and son of Coventry - another regeneration scheme.  It leads to the City's Transport Museum and obviously I was going to have a poke round that.

Unfortunately for me it turned out to be mainly car and bike based.  If I'd thought about it for one second I'd have twigged that - Coventry was famous for its car plants, and the museum is rightly proud of the many vehicles produced there.

I'm not a car person though.  They get you around and everything, and I can admire a truly stunning automobile - Coventry's own E-Type, for example:

But otherwise it was a lot of vehicles that sort of looked like one another until they didn't.  I was pleased to see a Chopper hanging on the wall - I learnt to ride on a Chopper (steady):

And the museum was well laid out, and had interesting interactive bits for the kids, and so on.  I just didn't totally engage with it.  It could've done with some mention of railways.  You can't really call yourself a Transport Museum unless you include a few trains. 

Remember how I said Coventry's car industry collapsed in the 1970s?  Those are the cars the city was producing then.  Can't think why everyone stopped buying them.

I decided to head for the Cathedral; it was about time.  The Blitz decimated the Cathedral, so they looked for a replacement.  At first they turned to Giles Gilbert Scott, who was busy showing what you could do with a Cathedral in the 20th Century up in Liverpool, but his building was both too modern and too old fashioned for the Diocese.  They then appointed Basil Spence who produced a sandstone masterpiece.

I crept inside.  There was a convention going on - an English Heritage presentation on what to do with post-war churches, which was appropriate - but it was lunchtime so the friendly lady at the entrance said I could wander around.

It really is a beautiful building.  A single massive space with the altar beneath a stunning tapestry.  Every detail was incredibly crafted; I was captivated by the wooden choir stalls.

I'm not religious at all but you have to admit: God gets some really good architects.

Alright, full disclosure; as I wandered round the Cathedral I didn't have heavenly choirs and thoughts of angels in my head.  Instead I had Victoria Wood. 
"I've just come back from Coventry.  It's nice there... I went round the Cathedral.  I got in a bit of a muddle though; I thought it was Habitat.  There's me looking for roller blinds and there's all these people on their knees, praying.  I thought, I know Terence Conran does a good job..."
Damn, I miss her.

Across from the new Cathedral are the remains of the old one, preserved as a peace garden.  The two are joined by a huge porch, and you can see the ruins through the west window; they interact with one another.

I had a bit of a wander round, but (a) it was starting to spit with rain and (b) there was a boy with dreadlocks smoking weed on a bench, so I packed up and crossed the University Square to the Herbert Museum.  It's been gifted a big glass and steel entrance staring across at the Cathedral but it's colourless and bland.  I can 100% guarantee it was referred to as "iconic" in the planning application.  Inside was far more interesting, with 1950s stylings poking out from their millennial coat.

I wandered around an exhibition on Lady Godiva, the city's most famous daughter (who probably didn't exist, but there you go, you can't fight a legend).  Sadly I managed to mistime my passage through Broadgate and never got to see the famous clock chime and a naked Lady pop out of her hole. 

I strolled around the city a little more.  Each corner seemed to throw up a little delight; a bit of artwork, an old building wedged between new ones, an unexpected stretch of greenery.  It was very walkable, and the presence of students headed for the University campus gave it a liveliness.

It just worked for me.  I can tell you're raising an eyebrow.  But I really liked Coventry.  There was something in the air, a charm, a spark, that made me enjoy it. 

Of course, nothing is perfect.  Queen Victoria Road brought a shocking sight.

An Ikea, right smack in the centre of the city; a massive wall of blue and yellow overwhelming everything around it.  That's not right.  Go to the outskirts where you belong, Ikea, where that bulk is among a load of other retail sheds.  It's a pleasing diversion then.  Here it was brutal - not the good kind of brutal you saw elsewhere, the concrete kind of brutal, but instead a violent, ugly intervention.

I found a pub, a two storey spot by the Bull Yard, and looked out over the bustle of the street.  I wanted to take Coventry to one side and tell it to calm down.  Breathe.  Take a moment.  It was a city that was constantly chasing new money, new investment, new looks, and in the process ignoring what it had.  I wanted to say to them, look around your city.  Take out some of the interventions.  Strip back the alterations.  Go back to Gibson's plan and remember how good it was and make it work again.  When I mentioned I was in Coventry on Twitter, people said "hope you like concrete!".  They meant it as an insult.

Ok, I do like concrete.  But so do a lot of people.  Look at the Barbican.  Look at the National Theatre.  Use them as your touchstones.  Basically, don't let Ikea build a fucking store in the middle of your city.

I drank up and headed to the station.  It is, I'm sure you know, magnificent.  Grade II listed, it's a mix of concrete and glass and rich deeply coloured wood that spans the tracks.  It's elegant and captivating.

The station has been designed for smooth passage.  A wide, open concourse.  A travel centre for your ticketing needs, with understated Sixties fonts.

The ticket hall is double height with custom wooden benches for you to wait on.  Head up the stairs to the footbridge and you get a great view down into the space. 

I was absolutely charmed by it.  It was modern and aspirational.  Trains as the transport of the future.

Of course, the problem with all that is it's designed to get you in and out, and there's not much money in that.  So there are plans for a new station building, underneath a multi-storey car park and with access to a new bus exchange.  This is what they intend it to look like.

That is an orange box.  That is Ikea again, but in orange.  I am letting out a deep, dissatisfied sigh right now.

I headed for my platform for my train home.  Coventry had surprised and delighted me.  I was glad I'd made it a proper day out, rather than passing through.  If all you think of when you hear the name "Coventry" is concrete, why not give it a visit for yourself?  It's bound to surprise you.



Ben B said...

You'll likely know this but the Coventry font at the station is "Transport". I think they flirted briefly with adopting the same typeface for roads and rail and this was used a Coventry after the face was created for the new road signs but before the DRU created "Rail Alphabet" for the new British Rail. A very specific mark of the times.

David said...

If you like Coventry station, you will love Leamington...

The absence of trains in the Coventry Transport Museum may be explained by the fact that it had its own Electric Railway Museum...until it closed down 18 months a go. Boo!

Scott Willison said...

I didn't recognise Transport. I should have done. I feel foolish.

I'd forgotten about the Electric Railway Museum. If it's closed down, WHY DIDN'T COVENTRY TRANSPORT MUSEUM BUY UP ITS STOCK, EH?!?!?!?