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Coventry's post-war architecture has been misunderstood

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Historic England’s new book on post-war Coventry is comprehensive and timely, but is let down by its uninspiring brochure-like format

Coventry: I wonder what your first thoughts are on hearing those three syllables? The man in the street might picture 1960s ex-polytechnic buildings in a grey agglomeration. History buffs might know more of historic Coventry: once the nation’s capital, uniquely home to three cathedrals and a naked Lady Godiva riding through the streets. For the architecturally minded it will be of interest as notable victim of Second World War bombing and the site of subsequent vanguard post-war rebuilding and resurrection. And the latter is the focus of a new book from Historic England in their Informed Conservation series, focusing on ’the making of a modern city’ from 1939 to 1973.

The city’s post-war architecture is due a reassessment and the authors, Jeremy and Caroline Gould, make a strong argument that it has been misunderstood; that actually the planning and architecture of post-war Coventry ‘represent a distinct historic period now lived-through and with known outcomes’. It was significant as a leader in post-war renewal and was hugely influential in Britain and abroad – and the lessons learnt from its post-war period of redevelopment could helpfully serve the continued development and conservation of the city today.

The authors sensibly tackle the story of rebuilding Coventry in five chronological chapters and then assess the suburbs, status and influence of Coventry and the legacy of Donald Gibson’s post-war plan (finally finished in 1973). Throughout, the reader’s understanding of the city and the works is devolved building by building, exploring the shopping centres, ring road, tower blocks and municipal buildings that rose out of the ashes to form a modern city with significant social and political context. The wealth of detail and research is superlative and is mercifully prevented from information-overload by generous and regular colour illustrations (138 in total). As a reader, you reach the summary pages – titled Conservation and Opportunity – with a comprehensive understanding and inspired appreciation of Coventry, full of stimulating thoughts about the how, where and why of the future of this city.

Coventry’s navigation of a modern architectural vernacular in an ancient city is transferable to other cities

A 143-page study of a single city is, perhaps, a niche choice with a potentially limited audience. But the themes of post-war rebuilding, council planning and implementation, and the navigation of a modern architectural vernacular in an ancient city are not only fascinating but transferable. Southampton, Plymouth, Hull, Canterbury, Bristol and Exeter all followed in the footsteps of Coventry as they looked to rebuild after the ravages of the blitz.

From this perspective the Goulds’ book is a relevant case study in 20th-century city planning but also a worthwhile discourse on the evolution of the built environment. The book itself is a little disappointing: square, matt, softback: it handles like a textbook or brochure and, with its uninspiring cover might easily be passed over – a shame, given the riches between its covers.

There are more than 25 titles in the Historic England Informed Conservation series, some looking at whole towns, such as Coventry, while others focus on particular building types, such as English school buildings. 

Previous case studies have covered a diverse array, ranging from Blackpool’s seaside heritage, Boston in Lincolnshire, the hat industry of Luton and its buildings and – prior to Coventry, most recently – the Hoo Peninsula landscape. They are in-depth explorations of esoteric times, spaces and places. Their value to the canon of our built environment, however, would be multiplied many times if only they were better presented. 

Coventry: The Making of a Modern City 1939-73, by Jeremy and Caroline Gould, costs £14.99 and can be purchased from local bookshops and from the Historic England online shop

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