Coventry is a city of split personalities. On the one hand it is famed for a declining motor industry, wartime destruction and precast concrete blight. On the other, nestling up to the post-war redevelopment, is the spiritual city of Godiva and Leofric.
Built over 1,000 years, this is characterised by quiet, cobbled streets, softly weathered buildings and intimate public spaces. Presiding over this ecclesiastical quarter are the three churches of Holy Trinity, the ghostly bombed-out hulk of St Michael's and Sir Basil Spence's restrained cathedral.
It is this schizophrenia that the city chose to address when it began the Phoenix Initiative in the mid 1990s, a venture between the city council, Advantage West Midlands and the Millennium Commission. The origins of this regeneration were threefold: numbers of visitors to the cathedral were beginning to fall; fewer people were visiting the city's other major attraction, the Museum of British Road Transport (MBRT); and, at the same time, the neighbouring university was beginning to attract its own investment and wanted to see the Cathedral Quarter upgraded to suit. In this context, the initiative conceived a landmark project around the three lynchpins of the cathedral, the MBRT and the uncovered archaeological remains of St Mary's Priory - the city's first cathedral founded in 1020.
The original brief for the masterplan competition envisaged a project on an enormous scale anchored around a National Centre for Human Achievement, and it was against this background that MacCormac Jamieson Prichard (MJP) emerged winner in 1997.
Soon after, discussions with the Millennium Commission led to a drastic scaling- down of the project. This reduction has undoubtedly been to Coventry's advantage. Combined with the failed attempt to lure Sainsbury's out of its faceless concrete bunker on Trinity Street, the restrictions imposed on MJP's masterplan have helped to form a subtle humanist design reminiscent of Oriel Bohigas' low-key stitching of Barcelona. The masterplan has been christened 'The Walk of a 1,000 Years', intent on seamlessly leading one from the medieval, cathedral city of the 11th century to the automotive city of the 21st.
Project director Chris Beck is full of praise for the city councillors, who embraced the project with enthusiasm. He is equally proud of MJP's work, and gleefully quotes the planning inspector's review of the masterplan as 'an astonishing stroke of civic design'.
The masterplan links four new urban zones: the contemplative spaces constructed around the remains of the original Priory; Priory Place, a sloping square bordered by 3,700m 2of restaurants and cafes set below three storeys of apartments; Millenium Place, a kinetic fan-shaped plaza, built over the former mill pool of the River Sherborne; and the Garden of International Friendship, which provides a tangible expression of the cathedral's programme of peace and reconciliation. Public art commissions are integral to the project.
To date, the elements at the south end and the garden to the north are the only parts completed. The Visitor Interpretation Centre is the first finished building. It sits at the threshold of the masterplan's axial route, straddling a wall between two gardens. On the south side, a sunken space reveals the remains of the nave of the 11th century priory. The site was more recently covered by the Holy Trinity Church Centre, a drab postwar concrete building. To make space, the church centre has been moved into the refurbished, adjacent Blue Coat school, a neo-Gothic construction founded on the remains of the west end of the priory.
The subsequent archaeological excavation of the site revealed 1,500 skeletons, along with the base of the piers and north wall of the nave. The contemporary landscape sits quietly within the enclosure of the thick red sandstone ruins, the apparent restraint marred only by a tendency to over-complicate the materials palette - timber deck, riven stone, York stone, concrete, steel and pebble edgings, all jostling for position around the rectangular lawn.
A simple steel-and-timber bridge elegantly spans the garden gingerly supported on two steel legs. This is a reverential piece which adds potency to the revealed remains and creates an ideal viewing place to appreciate Chris Browne's Cofa's Tree (aka Coventry), a mosaic embedded in a square of quartz chippings, and which represents the city's growth and development. At its north end, the bridge splits with a ramp down to the garden and a cut through a storey-height red sandstone wall, to reach the threshold of MJP's centre. The wall was first built in the 13th century, rebuilt in the 17th and has now been extended. The joint between old and new stone is delineated by a simple slate crease, although from a distance the colour, texture and patina of the new merges with the old.
Clerestory glazing separates the wall from a gentle gulls-wing roof, clad in terned stainless steel with a white painted soffit. A louvered brise-soleil cantilevers out from both south and (curiously) north sides and exaggerates the slimness of the roof 's edge profile. The roof protrudes beyond the glass enclosure at the west end, to create a canopy to both the upper level entrance and steps down to the principal ground level entrance. The lower level provides 250m 2of gallery space for interpretative media which, when installed in August, will explain the construction of the priory through the eyes of its craftsmen. The gallery is punctuated along its centre by concrete columns supporting a multi-faith room above. Described by MJP as a 'room within a room', this provides space for the city's multicultural religious groups to hold meetings and seminars. The room is reached at the upper level across a glass-lens concrete platform, or from the ground level via a timber, steel and glass stair. Shielded at its east and west ends by cupboards, this floating platform is open to the north and south to reveal both the full height of the building and views out through the clerestorey glazing.
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 of Trinity 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.