Coventry is UK City of Culture 2021, a title that focuses attention on its contribution to the cultural life of the nation: 1980s two-tone music, the legend of Lady Godiva, and its role in the development of the bicycle and car industries. And, high on this list, the fact that it was the pre-eminent example of reconstruction after wartime bombing.
Among the most devastated cities, Coventry was also one of the most determined and thoughtful in its reconstruction. This was partly expressed by its new cathedral, which brought together leading art and architecture, and connected movingly with the ruins of its predecessor. It was also expressed by the city centre, rebuilt as a series of human-scaled, pedestrian-friendly precincts. Here, too, the idea was for art and architecture to work together.
The proposed redevelopment of much of the centre, by the London-based Shearer Property Group and Chapman Taylor architects, in a joint venture with Coventry city council, would obliterate much of this legacy. The designs show little sympathy for what would remain. Although it promises an “authentic sense of place”, and a purported but extremely vague resemblance to the pre-war historic fabric of the city, it is generic, could-be-anywhere stuff, not fundamentally different from developments “global architects and masterplanners” Chapman Taylor might design anywhere in the world.
Coventry’s “culture” and sense of place, the things that make it different from other cities, must surely include the brave ideals of its postwar renewal. As heritage campaigners rightly point out, it can take a long time for the value of architectural styles to be appreciated, by which time it is too late for the buildings that have been demolished. It happened with Victorian architecture, derided for decades, and it is happening now with mid-century modernism.
This is not to say everything about postwar Coventry should be sacrosanct. No one, looking at it now, could deny that it would benefit from some regeneration. It has to respond, like city centres everywhere, to the recession of retail and whatever challenges the post-pandemic world might bring. Some ideas behind the original plans, such as a determination to put car parks on as many roof-tops as possible, may have outlived whatever usefulness they once had.
But the starting point for any regeneration should be an appreciation of the work of the postwar rebuilders. This would mean a serious attempt to learn from their intentions and draw inspiration from the best of their work. It would mean celebrating William Mitchell’s remarkable relief sculpture, rather than consigning it to a so-far unspecified “appropriate place”. It might mean bringing the best out of the existing buildings of the Bull Yard, rather than replacing them, as is currently proposed, with a weak imitation of London’s Covent Garden market.
Chapman Taylor’s view, expressed in a video on its website, is that the postwar work is largely worthless and should be replaced with variegated buildings and street patterns that existed before the second world war. But it is delusional to think that this lost Coventry could come back, and there is little in the designs to suggest that it would. With their hostility to what is actually there, they create an unnecessary conflict between heritage and regeneration.
So the Twentieth Century Society is insisting that certain features be retained, while the council and developers chafe at what they see as pernickety obstructions to the march of progress. An avoidable zero-sum game is set up.
For Coventry can be renewed, at the same time as the past 80 years of its history – ever since its bombing in 1940 – can be respected. All it takes is a bit of intelligent and sensitive design.