The Making of a Modern City, 1939-73
Jeremy Gould & Caroline Gould
Swindon: Historic England, 2017
Paperback. viii+156 p. ISBN 978-1848022454. £14.99
Reviewed by Hugh Clout
University College London
During the first four decades of the twentieth century, Coventry was the fastest growing city in Britain, with a population that rose from 70,000 in 1901 to 230,000 in 1938. It flourished on the basis of ribbon making, engineering, and the manufacture of electrical components and munitions, with that final component attracting an additional workforce in 1939. At that time, the medieval street plan of Coventry was still clearly in evidence. Despite examples of rebuilding and creation of some new roads after 1750, much of the city remained in a poor condition on the eve of World War II, due to overcrowded housing, cramped workshops and factories, inadequate water supplies and sewerage facilities, and severe traffic congestion. By virtue of their strategic importance, the munitions factories were prime targets for enemy attack. Small air raids began in June 1940 and continued throughout that summer, ‘but the raid of 14 November was of a different order. More than five hundred aircraft, dropping a mixture of high explosive and incendiary bombs, devastated the city: only the external walls and spire of the Cathedral were left standing’ . The last air raid came on 3 August 1942, by which time over a thousand residents had been killed and many thousands injured. By the end of the war, about 800 shops, over a hundred factories and 150 commercial buildings were flattened, 23,000 dwellings were destroyed or badly damaged, and an area covering 21 ha of the city centre was devastated.
The challenge of reconstruction confronted Donald Gibson, Coventry’s young city architect who had only been appointed in January 1939. The master plan, that he and his colleagues devised and implemented, made Coventry
a leader in the process of post-war renewal and was hugely influential in Britain and abroad. The successive master plans for the new centre and the suburbs informed numerous plans for other cities and for Britain’s post-war new towns. Coventry also sought to influence the world by embracing the causes of peace and reconciliation [vii].
Gibson’s initial plan zoned the city for purposes of shopping, administration, business, housing and recreation. A few properties were designated for retention in the city centre, which was to be encircled by a ring road, but ‘virtually all the existing buildings were removed [from the devastated core] and the inner road system was reconfigured to serve a rectilinear grid of new buildings, grouped according to function’ .
In their beautifully illustrated book, architects Jeremy and Caroline Gould tell the story of the rebuilding of Coventry, organising their account around the activities of successive city architects and planning officers. Donald Gibson’s first tasks involved the provision of temporary buildings to accommodate homes and a multitude of other activities. He and his colleagues refined their early ideas for the city centre, unveiling an urban model in 1944 that conveyed ‘a sophisticated and ambitious resolution of the architecture of the whole city’ . As he sought to replace the 8,500 homes totally destroyed in the war, Gibson experimented with designs for pre-fabricated houses, comprising metal frames that were produced by local engineering factories, and an infill of concrete and asbestos. New schools, libraries, clinics, churches and community centres were needed by the city’s rapidly growing population, many of whom would be accommodated in neighbourhood units of low-rise housing on housing estates located up to 5 km from the city centre. Brick was very much in evidence in the first wave of shops, civic and commercial buildings erected in the central precincts of the city. Work on rebuilding the cathedral was delayed since the design proposed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral, received widespread opposition. Indeed, many ideas for reconstructing Coventry were greeted with hostility. Gibson quit in 1955, having ‘constantly battled to get his ideas accepted. He resigned … after sixteen years and one argument too many with his councillors’ .
Arthur Ling was appointed as his successor and was confronted by very different conditions from those facing Gibson at the conclusion of the war. By the mid-1950s, the austerity of the post-war years had been transmuted into unprecedented affluence. A boom in the local industries contributed to the growth of Coventry’s population from 258,000 in 1951 to 305,000 in 1961, by which time 70 per cent of the city’s workforce was employed in the motor industry and other branches of the engineering sector. Car ownership more than tripled during the 1950s, rising from 13,400 to 42,400. Gibson’s early plans were revised to cope with this trend and to accommodate the housing, schools, hospitals, clinics and other community facilities that characterised the welfare state. Concrete replaced brick as the most common building material, notably in the first tower blocks that were constructed at this time. Some inner city areas were pedestrianised and more space was allocated for car parking, for example on the roof of City Market. A partly elevated reworking of the inner ring road became, ‘in effect, Britain’s first urban motorway’ . Major efforts were directed to building new schools for a primary school population that rose from 20,000 in 1946 to 28,000 in 1960, and a secondary school population that grew from 6,000 to 21,000 over the same period. Coventry’s new school buildings, characterised by ‘utilitarian rendered concrete block walls, flat roofs, steel-framed windows, and brick water towers’, served their purpose well but would not enjoy longevity . After nine years in office, Ling left Coventry in 1964.
His successor, Terence Gregory, came into post at a time of continuing growth in population and well-paid factory employment. ‘The pioneering days of reconstruction faded in local memory, outer housing estates became more established, unemployment remained low, and luxury goods were easily attainable’ . The civic precinct of central Coventry was completed, with vertical and horizontal concrete blocks being built for Lanchester Polytechnic (later known as Coventry University). Additional housing was installed in the suburbs, with concrete blocks of varying elevations overtaking terraces of family homes. By 1970, the city of Coventry had built eleven new secondary schools and over fifty primary schools. It accommodated 27,000 families in city-owned housing, mainly in the suburbs, with roughly the same number living in post-war properties constructed by private developers. At this time, a proportion of Coventry’s council houses had been sold to their occupants; the era of ‘the socialist city’ was coming its end .
Noting the title of the book, readers might expect Coventry : The Making of a Modern City, 1939-73 to reach a conclusion when Gregory was replaced in 1973 by Harry Noble as chief architect and city planning officer. Jeremy and Caroline Gould evoke ‘the visionary political leadership’ of members of the city’s planning department and stress the influence of post-war Coventry on the development of British new towns and on schemes for reconstructing other war-torn provincial cities. Then, almost as an afterthought, they turn to the reconstruction of Coventry cathedral that would be recognised as ‘Britain’s favourite twentieth-century building’ according to a poll conducted in 1999 . They recount how Giles Gilbert Scott’s ‘Gothic design pleased nobody’, only to be replaced in 1951 by Basil Spence’s design for a completely modern cathedral that would be consecrated eleven years later . The adjacent ruins of the old building were conserved as an open-air memorial. The new cathedral received over two million visitors in its first year, with over 400,000 coming each year in the mid-1980s. By contrast, other elements of the city centre and the suburbs fared less well.
In the space of a few years [in the 1970s and 1980s], the motor and engineering industries, on which Coventry’s wealth depended, collapsed. The continued financial and physical growth that had been assumed since the war faltered and stopped: in the early 1980s, over 20 per cent of the workforce was unemployed .
With people having less money to spend and outer retail parks being built, Coventry’s city centre devoted to shopping became almost deserted. Future development of the core would depend in part on private-sector investment but also on State funds for enhancing the facilities of Coventry University. In the suburbs, some houses and flats, barely fifteen years old in the mid-1970s, ‘were suffering from chronic damp and condensation, making them uninhabitable’ . Vandalism and inadequate maintenance by city authorities that were strapped for cash added to the problems of these outer residential areas. In 2000, Coventry transferred its council housing to a housing association that demolished some high-rise blocks and low-level housing, replacing them with more appropriate and robust dwellings. In addition, many of Coventry’s post-war schools were also demolished, not because
the steel and aluminium building systems [failed] but because from 1997 central government made funding available for replacement rather than repair, and, of course, new schools were more efficient in terms of staffing, resources and energy use … Arguments for conservation fell on deaf ears … A great era of British [school] architecture was erased .
By the dawn of the twenty-first century, ‘the pioneering ideas that defined the ‘socialist city’ – the car-free pedestrianised precincts, the public ownership of spaces, the greens, the parks and woodlands, the pre-fabricated schools – seemed very different from modern Coventry’ .
According to Jeremy and Caroline Gould, the danger is that ‘small, ad hoc changes and local uncoordinated maintenance will degrade the overall quality of the environment. [Nonetheless], the consistent architecture, gardens, local shopping facilities, and generous parkland and woodland settings’  may be seen as a formula for sustainable living in the future. Of course, it is not easy to conceive how such a visionary approach may be implemented. The authors conclude that Coventry now needs ‘sensitive, informed and imaginative planning so that change can be managed in ways that combine the life, use and enjoyment of [its] remarkable post-war heritage’ . They have produced an elegant and well-balanced account of the revival of Coventry following war-time devastation. While praising the city’s very real achievements, they have not shirked from outlining its recent problems and challenges. A total of 128 photographs and maps – mostly in colour – complement their text, which is supported by a bibliography of seventy items. Their discussion of conditions after 1973 renders the title of the book rather incongruous, and their treatment of the rebuilding of Coventry cathedral, compressed into just four pages, seems unnecessarily brief, however.
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