Post War Plans, Changes and Redevelopments

After the war Coventry worked hard to build a city of peace and reconciliation. Coventry first twinned with Stalingrad (Volgograd) a city that had experienced a similar fate and later with Dresden in Germany.

The medieval cathedral was heavily ruined, which traced its roots to the 12th century, a terrible loss. The new cathedral could have been built over this same site instead of adjacent to it, but the architect resolved to retain these walls as a memorial. The rebuilt Coventry Cathedral has become recognised as a world centre for reconciliation.  However, rebuilding the city and plans on how to revive the Cathedral was a laborious task.

The city centre had been destroyed but had made way to completely re-vision the landscape of Coventry. Even before the Second World War broke out, the architectural department at Coventry Council were drawing up ways of rebuilding the outdated medieval city. Such a department would previously have been an extravagance, but there were major plans in the pipeline for the city mostly coming from the brainchild of Donald Gibson, who headed the young team in 1938.

In the winter of 1945-6 the centre of Coventry was still a grey, unpainted wasteland with cellars and temporary corrugated-iron buildings where once prosperous shops stood; but something more than shops, cinemas and public houses had gone. The life of a whole community had been dislocated and those who could remember the cheerful, friendly pre-war shopping crowds were painfully aware of the change. Whilst grieving along with the rest of Coventry’s population, once the rubble was cleared the City Architect and the council were not slow to publicise the positive aspect of the blitz and grasp the fact that the bombing had presented them with a clean canvas on which to build a new city. It seemed to many that the Gibson plan, prepared by a young and daring architect without regard to cost, was calling them to do something far more important than to merely rebuild the city centre; the best of them felt that they would be remaking the city’s soul.

The council emphasised the idea of reconstructing the city to be “modern” and several of their plans involved ruthlessly sweeping away much of our heritage. However, many of the plans did not come to full fruition and so Coventry still has many of its traditional medieval traits. Some modern plans had to be compromised also due to lack of funding, thus some of the buildings did not meet up to what was initially intended. There was emphasise on improvement of the road system and of shopping facilities in the centre of the city and the provision of adequate housing and other services all loomed large in the city’s rebuilding plans.

In relation to the rebuilding of the Cathedral, initially, in 1942, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was asked to design the new cathedral. However, his plan and design were rejected by the Royal Arts Commission and so in 1950 a competition was held open to any architect from the British Commonwealth, to find the most suitable design for the replacement cathedral. Sir Basil Spence won the competition in 1950 with his riveting and fresh design despite its controversy due to its unorthodox style. Spence’s original plan does not deviate too far from what the Cathedral looks like today, making it apparent he knew exactly what he wanted the building to look like.

Work officially began in 1954 and the structure was completed in 1962. The structure of St. Michael and the Devil created by Sir Jacob Epstein was also added. Unfortunately due to his death in 1959, he never got to see his creation on the Cathedral. The Consecration of our New Cathedral was carried out on Friday 25th May 1962 in the presence of the Queen. It was a delightful moment for the people of the Coventry the Cathedral had been revived to modern grandeur and got world-wide recognition, something for the people to celebrate and be proud of. A city that rose out of the ashes like the legend of the Phoenix. However, there was still the rest of the city to revive.

Throughout these years there was an atmosphere of excitement in Coventry. People who were in the city described it as rather like being in a gold rush town. There were the same high rewards to be won in the factories of this modern boom town and everywhere there were temporary homes and shops of wood and tin. The excitement and pride within the people of the Coventry transformed the redevelopment of Coventry into a place to be argued and fought for. Exhibitions of plans and sketches of the new city centre were held and models made and shown to the public. There was a feeling that Coventry was attracting the attention of the entire world and all this helped in maintaining interest at a time when the city was still in rubble more or less. It made the people of Coventry proud, hopeful and confident, a nice community to be a part of at the time.  The new city, it was hoped, would be a showpiece of modern architecture and an example of daring and radical planning in the country. However, there were feelings of nostalgia for those who held a deep attachment to the Old Coventry and wanted to re-create the medieval traits the town was once famous for.

In January 1947 the Public Enquiry into the city’s application for a Declaratory Order under the 1944 Act began. This made it possible for the Corporation to purchase compulsorily 452 acres of land in the city centre. In July 1948 the Ministry of Town and Country Planning declared 274 acres of this area to be an Area of Extensive War Damage and a way was opened for the beginning of actual rebuilding in the city. Sometime later the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 came into force giving local planning authorities even wider powers to regulate the use of plan. This meant Coventry had to produce a development plan which would give guidelines for as far ahead as to twenty years while leaving the detailed planning flexible as these may change with time. Coventry City Council presented their Development Plan to the Ministry in 1951 after public enquiries, discussions and meetings. It was officially approved in 1957.

The redevelopments included one of Europe’s first traffic-free shopping precincts whilst the use of art was hailed at the time as being a breakthrough in existing concepts of urban design. It saw a new Broadgate which was officially opened by Princess Elizabeth in May 1948, which featured the statue of Lady Godiva by Sir William Reid-Dick in the centre of the Broadgate Garden. It also saw the creation of the Upper Precinct. Donald Gibson resigned from his post in Coventry in 1954 and Arthur Ling took his place with new ideas on how to develop and change Coventry’s landscape.

Ling was in tune with the ideas of earlier planners in the city. He saw the importance of pedestrian areas, the development of small, intimate squares where people could sit quietly. The Lower Precinct was the first to be created along these lines, making for a pleasurable area with easy access. The Belgrade was redesigned so the main entrance was set in a wall of glass facing not a traffic street, but a small grassed space with bushes and a fountain. As well as these small, intimacies, Ling reversed the homely style of Gibson by adding tower blocks to the Coventry landscape. He thought they would add a variety to the skyline and meant people could once more live in the city centre. Two of these blocks were built, one by the Lower Precinct and one on the other end of Smithford Way. Lights and glass were used in many of the constructions bringing the impression of liveliness. Ling also constructed the new swimming baths which is probably the most impressive building in the city and was completed in 1965. The Coventry landscape now features tall buildings, glass and sweeping angles and shapes. Coventry has truly transformed after the war. The city has still been going through developments over recent years with the development of shops and so on but I shall go into more detail of this later.

The reconstruction of the city for its people, who were once in deep turmoil, revived them and the city’s landscape. People were united and excited to re-build Coventry to greatness. Jobs were still flowing as well as hope. This changed during the 70’s due to the decline in industries which hit Coventry hard, but at least the city was running as normal again.

Images were taken from www.historiccoventry.co.uk and modern photos of the city were taken by myself.

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