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Doing God's work

technical & practice - Five years into its restoration, Acanthus Clews Architects still expresses an almost religious fervour for Coventry Cathedral

Some people view being sent to Coventry as a punishment, and I have to say that as I walk across the Phoenix Initiative urban grand plan I do feel a certain twinge of penance. Maybe this is because I am here to see Coventry Cathedral, or maybe it is because of all the bad things I've said about public art over the years. The Phoenix Initiative is public art hell.

Even the concept grates. While other cities masquerade as cities of (non-existent) culture, Coventry is marketing itself as the 'City of Reconciliation'. Maybe, instead of tourists, it is looking forward to a lucrative trade in war criminal trials. Who knows? But marketing the fact that Coventry was bombed in the Blitz doesn't sound like the most dynamic business plan I've ever encountered. It reminds me of the unintentionally ironic album featuring Vera Lynne et al, entitled, The Greatest Hits of the Second World War.

There is now a predetermined flÔneur experience of a walk through the city. Although I don't start the pedestrian route at the Garden of International Friendship (very magnanimous, I thought), I do walk under the monstrous steel structure (or should that be sculpture? ) The Whittle Arch - some 65m in length and 15m high, which cries out for me to understand its symbolism - past Priory Place's obligatory water feature, across Priory Cloisters (where the tranquillity is disturbed by barely audible broadcasts of 'historic' monastic incantations), and across interminable lengths of boardwalk that oversail the real city (with bits of historic memorabilia restrained under glass cases). After this sterile but pretty walk, I finally escape the official route and enter the marvellous anarchy of Coventry's historic street patterns and reach its true architectural heart. I am finally at the cathedral.

I am here with Michael and Heather Clews, husband and wife team of Acanthus Clews Architects, to be shown around Coventry Cathedral - a building I haven't visited for 20 years - to see how the new restoration work is going and to understand something of the intricacies of a very particular ecclesiastical architecture.

The problem about going to see a conservation project is that, almost by design, the area worked on by the architect is meant to blend in with the untouched areas of the building.

Conservation is a rewarding but, in some ways, thankless task. However, the Clews seem as happy as Larry and express quiet enthusiasm - some might say a dignified religious fervour - for their work.

Psalm boys have all the fun Michael was appointed in 1998 and is coming to the end of his first full quinquennial of the combined ruins, main cathedral and precinct buildings. Work to the ruins has included the conservation of the stone walls, which have degraded through 50 years of exposure, lichen growth, mildew and the aftermath of the intense wartime fire. Old stone has been cut out and renewed.

The stained-glass windows, which now comprise tiny fragments of glass between the crumbling tracery, have been cleaned and either wired or glued back into place, with the deformed and unstable leadwork replaced.

This year, the installation of new floodlighting throughout this Grade I-listed complex of buildings, which involved burying cables under the surface of the original nave floor, disturbed the natural flow of water, exacerbated by the fact that the original drainage had decayed and water had not been flowing along the anticipated drainage path. The end result was severe flooding in the underground chapels and extra costs incurred by what we have come to call a 'cash-strapped' client.

English Heritage funds around 70 per cent of the major works, and the cathedral has to find the rest. Furthermore, when the next quinquennial report is drafted this October, Clews will raise the need to fulfil the statutory obligation of the Disability Discrimination Act, and such expense will fall outside the remit of EH funding, as this only covers fabric and repair. Things like the Home Front Memorial, - one of the things 'Blair is keen to promote' - have attracted city funding.

Within Basil Spence's cathedral, repairs have included costly, unanticipated cleaning works as a result of a fire in the undercroft. Because of a lack of vents, it took four days to clear the smoke using an array of fans, and the consequent soot damage took months to repair. As a result of the fire, new work was put in hand (outside the orbit of the quinquennial report) for smoke detectors, alarms and extraction (which were grant-funded) and new means of escape (which were not). To insert the hatches and vents, holes had to be cut through the slender pre-stressed concrete structural roof vaulting, revealing that 'Arup's structural drawings of the completed building did not correlate with the building as built'.

Also, the underfloor heating, which Michael describes as so 'wonderfully engineered as to make a modern M&E engineer envious' is reaching the end of its 40-year life. In the 1970s (possibly as a result of government 'Save It' campaigns), the cathedral turned off several circuits, which has hastened their corrosion. However, repair and replacement will be a major task, and will need skilful phasing to leave the cathedral functioning satisfactorily.

Upgrading the cafeteria - which at the moment looks like a 1950s scout hut - is also a longer-term goal, tied up as it is in a reappraisal of the shop (still using the truly awful entrance built in the '60s as a temporary stop-gap), the visitor centre and funding priorities.

Coming away from this project, I give praise to the hidden, thankless work of the Clews for uplifting the spirits of a life-long atheist like me, even as I prepare to re-enter the sterile secularism of the Phoenix Initiative.

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