The centre of Coventry is being transformed and a new landscape rich in archaeology, gardens and public open spaces is being created. The Phoenix Initiative is opening up Coventry's medieval history by giving the public views of the cathedral, the church, and the vaulted remains of St Mary's Priory demolished by King Henry VII.
On the site of the old cloisters, the new Visitor Interpretation Centre provides a focus for interpretation of architectural history and meeting facilities. As a whole, the building is neat, unassuming and simple, merely adapting the pre-existing contours to create a new enclosure.
Neither glamorous nor dull, the sleek profile effortlessly links two levels on this steeply sloping site.
The heavy enclosing walls grow out of the former priory church nave; the north wall of which has been uncovered, raised and reused.
The first floor is free-standing, and the glass wall overlooking the new cloister garden virtually transparent. The roof is the only prominent element, expressing itself as a double cantilever, hovering above the glazed wall and an open terrace at the point of entry. The tapered, wing-like shape of the roof emphasises the spine of exposed, white concrete supporting columns.Much thinner steel columns appear to support only the glass wall, yet these also steady the longer cantilever of the roof. Partially hung glazing encloses the rear of the building between the top of the nave wall and rear wing of the roof. At the east end, the roof flies over the upper terrace without any prop. This was achieved by extra stiffening of the primary steel cantilevers to control unwanted deflection.
A critical junction between roof beam and column was further complicated by rainwater valley gutter and service ducts. This moment-resisting joint was especially fabricated out of stiffened plates to achieve the bending continuity.
To preserve archaeology beneath, shallow pad foundations were constructed to support the spine columns, beams and a concrete ground floor. Shallow excavation to bedrock took place between the archaeological features, which are now preserved, entombed in sand.
Diagrammatically, the building is clearly articulated, with all the sensitivity that one would expect from MacCormac, yet qualitatively, the detailing and complex palette disappoint. At Southwark Jubilee Line tube station, Fitzwilliam Chapel or in the Wellcome Wing, the scholastic parti, sectional sophistication and masterly manipulation of daylight are matched by a fastidious approach to detail and sensual understanding of texture, all of which leaves one hungry for more and drooling with jealousy. By contrast, in this tiny building, columns and walls are splattered with switches and fire alarms, junctions between materials are poorly resolved, skirtings are of different heights to kickplates, joints are visible in the soffits and damp is creeping in under the old stone wall. Worse still, the building aims to blur the inside and outside, yet the gallery is paved in a mean, shiny granite tile laid in a grid pattern, while the outside is paved in a bush hammered, stagger-jointed paver. The palette of materials is equally bedazzling with floor surfaces alone finished in either granite, timber, precast glass lenses or carpet. Nonetheless, sectional sophistication does run roughshod through such petty misgivings to create a building which still achieves a degree of volumetric drama. Equally successfully, it is a building which manages a difficult change in level and the transition from archaeological remains towards contemporary city.
This is reinforced to the north by the Priory Cloister, a quiet contemplative space, surrounded by pleached lime trees and enclosed behind a smooth, red sandstone wall. It is far removed from the nearby bustle ofTrinity Street, yet resolute enough to create a clear link to the next phase of the masterplan. Set among the trees, David Ward has created an entrancing sound-and-light installation. Timber-clad columns capped with canned speakers give the impression of voices murmuring among the trees, each speaker occasionally relaying recordings from locals describing life in Coventry. Around the edge of the cloister, a rebate detail contains a blue light, providing a soft cushion on to which the space gently rests.
Looking back up hill to the centre from the bus station, the elegant low profile of the structure sits comfortably among the array of churches and ruins. It is accomplished in its own right, yet cannot wait for its new neighbours - a portent of a new city centre in the making.
Cost analysis based on tender sum
SUBSTRUCTURE FOUNDATIONS/SLABS £47.52/m 2Suspend ground floor slab on filling over archaeological foundations
Costs supplied by WT Partnership MacCormac Jamieson Prichard www. mjparchitects. co. uk WT Partnership www. wtpartnership. com Babtie Group Harris & Sutherland www. babtie. com Balfour Beatty www. balfourbeatty. com WEBLINKS CREDITS CONTRACT TYPE JCT Local Authorities With Quantities TENDER DATE July 1999 START DATE February 2000 COMPLETION DATE March 2001 TOTAL COST £590,569 GROSS EXTERNAL FLOOR AREA 483m 2CLIENT Coventry City Council ARCHITECT MacCormac Jamieson Prichard: Richard MacCormac, Toby Johnson, Ian Logan, Chris McCarthy, David Tweedie, Rebekka Boelskov, Gerald Fox, Nick Hoar, Sarah Honeyball, Miranda Webster QUANTITY SURVEYOR WT Partnership STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Babtie Group Harris & Sutherland SERVICES ENGINEER Michael Popper Associates LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Robert Rummey Associates LIGHTING CONSULTANT Speirs and Major CONTRACTOR Balfour Beatty CIVIL ENGINEER Babtie Group PROJECT MANAGER Ashgate Development EXHIBITION DESIGNER Past Forward ARTISTS David Ward, Chris Browne, Kate Whiteford, Susanna Heron, Jochen Gerz, Alexander Beleschenko SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS sandstone cladding J Oldham; electrical installation Hills Electrical & Mechanical; mechanical installation Pentos Forman; curtain walling installation Acorn Aluminium; roofing WL Harvy Roofing; steelwork and footbridge George Fabrications; hard and soft landscaping EMR; reinforced concrete MJ Construction; floor tiling Birmingham Tile & Mosaic; cavity insulation Celotex; tanking RLW Flexiseal; soffit board Masterclad; ceiling system British Gypsum; underfloor heating Wilmington Building Products; underfloor insulation Owens Corning; floor tiles (main space) Domus Floor Tiles; floor tiles (wet area) and wall tiles J&R Johnson; entrance matting Jaymart; curtain walling and doors Technical Architectural Aluminium Systems; kitchen items Ikea; sanitary appliances Twyfords; ironmongery Higrade; external works Robert Rummey Associates; main roof Butler Building Systems; roof cladding Rigidal