I always love visiting Coventry. There is something to see—a mural, a mosaic, a relief sculpture—around every corner, much of it donated by other cities that suffered destruction in the Second World War. Its town centre is a moving, surprising place, treated after 1945 as a three-dimensional monument to optimism and peace. Unlike many of the more interesting twentieth-century spaces in Britain, from the South Bank in London to Preston Bus Station, little in it is avant-garde or aggressive—with one spectacular exception—which should, in theory, make central Coventry easier for those unconvinced by the joys of concrete to enjoy.
But the businesses that run that centre and the city council that assist them do not make any of this easy to discover. Many of the best things about Coventry are downplayed, dilapidated, forgotten, or outright slated for demolition, and large swathes of the centre feel shabby and sad. Some people might have thought that the city’s year as UK Capital of Culture would see its qualities finally recognised and cared for, and the best twentieth-century city centre in the country celebrated by its city council, its best qualities built upon anew.
This hasn’t happened. Some of that is forgivable, as nowhere has had a good year in 2021, but much of it is the result of a combination of unforced urban self-harm. It also points to one of the problems in the idea of a City of Culture full stop.
These government-organised events shouldn’t be snobbishly opposed—they can make a real difference to the poor self-esteem of most British cities, which outside of London, Oxbridge, and Edinburgh are routinely and ignorantly dismissed as ‘Crap Towns’, including by many on the left. Simply giving a place some money and some events to host can perhaps make living there a little bit less grinding.
But, as can be seen in the way that the capital of culture is always decided by a contest, there is something deeply capitalist about it all—resilient little places set against each other to bid for cash from London to convince more hipsters to live in or visit their town. Some of the cognitive dissonance that this can cause among politicians used to thinking about the bottom line first and everything else second can be seen in the various statements of Coventry city council’s cabinet member of regeneration, who has actively opposed the efforts by Historic England to celebrate his own town, dismissing its buildings as ‘concrete monstrosities’ liked only by ‘non-Coventrians dressed in tweeds and Rupert trousers’.
It says something when the person in charge of a city’s regeneration seems to actively scorn and caricature the sort of people who might conventionally ‘regenerate’ it—architects, artists, and people who love architecture and art (he seems to believe, hilariously, that people who like post-war buildings also hunt ‘grouse’). You can today, in the city’s galleries and artier shops, buy colourful badges and mugs with the city’s modernist ‘icons’ on, like you can in the South Bank Centre or the Barbican. The difference is that here, the powers that own these buildings still consider them to be ‘monstrosities’ that they’d rather demolish and replace with a nice new mall. Some of the work in the Culture year’s Coventry Biennial, taking place until the end of January, laments this, appropriately in the halls of the wonderful post-war Herbert Gallery. There’s a clear conflict between the city artists want to emphasise, and the one the council want to build.
But do you rebuild a place through attracting artists and fashionable young folk? The planners of post-war Coventry certainly didn’t think so. Their city was built for the people that already lived there, in a working class, industrial town, and it was overwhelmingly publicly owned and publicly driven, by socially committed architects like Donald Gibson and the Communist Arthur Ling. Alongside the new centre went innovative new council housing, some of it in the centre, or in the suburbs, like Ling’s new Tile Hill estate. At the time, these designers’ work was popular, and populist—though not in the patronising, retrograde way dominant since the ’80s.
That’s a lot of why it is so much fun to visit—at least if you can tolerate the pigeon spikes, grime, and tacky 1980s and 1990s crap affixed to everything. In and around the city centre’s flowing pedestrian spaces, you can find—just to name my own favourites—John Skelton’s reliefs of goods for sale on the columns of the (unusually, recently renovated) Co-Op, James C. Brown’s mural of the then-Yugoslav-capital on the Belgrade Theatre, Arthur Ling’s neon panels above the shops on the Lower Precinct and Fred Millett’s colourful abstract mosaics on the Library nearby; there’s the Dresden artist Jurgen Siedel’s wonderfully colourful, simple murals of Coventry people at work in the rotunda of Coventry Market; at Bull Yard, there’s the sculptor William Mitchell’s abstract panels, leading to his outrageous Aztec-Brutalist explosions around the former Three Tuns pub; there’s fun nods to the city’s medieval past, like the Lady Godiva clock and Alma Ramsey’s Sir Guy and the Dun Cow; and capping it all there’s Gordon Cullen’s glorious mural of the historic and reconstructed city.
Needless to say, this culminates in Coventry Cathedral, by far the most important Second World War memorial in Britain, with the hard-won optimism of its new building linked to the ruins next door. The Cathedral is rightly famous for the way it required modernist artists like Graham Sutherland to make deliberately emotional, humane work, designed to connect with as many of the building’s visitors as possible. What is less known is that most of the city centre was built in the same way.
Most of the artworks mentioned above and the buildings they form an integral part of are in a poor state, neglected and ignored—even those, like the Market, that are listed. It would have taken so little effort for the council to publish a little booklet or a map, but an opportunity to showcase them to the rest of the country was missed. Worse still, some of the best spaces of this era, particularly Bull Yard, are slated for demolition.
Even the Cathedral is treated less like a war memorial and more like a conference centre. During 2021, a lone protestor has stood outside the Cathedral holding a placard reading: ‘Coventry Cathedral is a “house of prayer for all nations” (Bible: Mark, 11:17) not an entertainment venue. Say NO to: Raves, rock concerts, tea dances. Gin tasting, food festivals and corporate entertaining. Clothes sales, fashions shows, films and drama—in the Cathedral Nave and Ruins.’ It’s hard to entirely disagree with her.
Some measure of where the council are at can be seen in the ‘Wave Building’, an architecturally illiterate new leisure centre to replace Arthur Ling’s perfectly decent listed swimming pool and the astonishing ‘Elephant’, which is increasingly famous outside the city. And though there are some good new temporary artworks as part of the City of Culture—Morag Myerscough’s colourful mural covering the inside of the post-war arcade on Hertford Street, whch adds something new and interesting to a good post-war space slated for demolition, and Carrie Reichardt’s great mosaic tribute to Two Tone in the bus station, dedicated to the musical movement whose multiculturalism points to one of the most enjoyable things about Coventry—more typical is the decision to clad the flyovers of the inner ring road with the sort of grey cladding you usually get on developers’ student flats, of which there are several miserable examples nearby.
It’s easy to lament all of this as a sign of inexorable cultural and architectural decline, but it has happened for a reason. As Sam Wetherell points out in his recent book Foundations, what made the reconstruction of Coventry possible was the city council effectively nationalising the entire centre. What has made its gradual decline possible is its sell-off in the 1980s, which means that most of it is owned by mall developers—the reason why a lot of it looks like a naff 1980s or 1990s mall is because legally, it is. In marked contrast with Preston—where the acceptance that big business was no longer interested in the city created a fresher, more egalitarian, and more interesting approach to ‘regeneration’—Coventry city council still stands squarely behind developers in their repeated planning applications to demolish wide swathes of the centre and turn it into a newer, duller mall.
The obvious fact that fewer and fewer people are interested in cities of chain stores and chain restaurants, most of which are now on government life support, seems lost on Coventry’s directors of regeneration, but it should be clear enough to us. Post-war Coventry came into being because of new ideas about how to organise space for people rather than capital, because of new ideas of ownership which placed the public good before profit, and new ideas about how to make a city a delight to walk around without having to buy anything. That’s what we should reclaim today.