C20 Society is delighted that Coventry will be UK City of Culture in 2021. Coventry is predominantly a C20 city with fabulous post-war architectural heritage. It’s not just the famous Basil Spence Cathedral which makes it so special; there are lots of everyday buildings which contribute to its unique character. That’s why we are deeply concerned by how many of its post-war buildings and art works are either directly under threat or face an uncertain future – and how little protection is afforded to Coventry’s distinctive architecture. Having survived for over fifty years it would be tragic if this legacy were to be destroyed in the run up to 2021.
Historic England has designated Coventry a Heritage Action Zone, which should ensure protection. However the city has not yet designated a new central conservation area, even though this was promised as part of the HAZ package. Many of the buildings in the area identified are now facing imminent destruction – this recently approved major shopping redevelopment will undermine the refined Scandinavian character of the upper precinct (the earliest and most complete part of Donald Gibson’s post-war plan which set the standard for town planning practice in the post-war era). Brick panels, canopies and windows are to be stripped out and replaced with extensive glazing to maximise shop logos and advertising. Colonnades will be in-filled, eroding public space and eliminating sheltered walkways just to gain a few square feet of extra retail space. The one heritage benefit of the scheme – the removal of a clumsy 1980s elevator – will be funded by the tax payer. C20 Society and local groups have supported several buildings for listing, and Historic England have passed their recommendations on to DCMS – but unless the decision is taken to list several key buildings soon, then it may be too late.
It’s not just unprotected buildings and spaces that are at risk. Elsewhere in Coventry, a developer has been secured for ‘City Centre South’ that looks set to demolish the striated bronze Bull Yard and City Arcade with its distinctive projecting windows. The future of the listed William Mitchell concrete mural is unclear, (moving it would be a mammoth job) and many more unlisted pieces of public art may also be swept away in the process.
Additionally, the University wants to demolish almost all of the Civic Precinct, which it has recently acquired from the city council, and turn it into car parking – something that would have a major impact on the newly listed Civic Centre 2, the old architect department’s building with its quiet courtyard and glazed exhibition space.
This masterplan for a new station entrance and bus terminal adjacent to the existing Grade II station terminal sparked outrage on social media last week.
The Grade II listed Swimming Baths have been under threat of closure for several years. The neighbouring Elephant building – the pool’s quirky extension – was turned down for listing 2016 (although this is currently being reassessed).
All in all, the Coventry of the Future is looking bleak – but there is still time for a turnaround before 2021. There is so much to be celebrated in the city – its claim to outstanding post-war planning, design and architecture extends far beyond Coventry Cathedral. Let’s hope the council start to sit up and capitalise on what makes Coventry so special now, rather than destroying what makes it unique.