In the shadow of St Michael’s Cathedral, Pringle Richards Sharratt’s extension to the Herbert Museum re-imagines Coventry as complex and ambiguous, writes Rory Olcayto
The sense of dislocation in wartime Coventry was immense. One eyewitness recalls: ‘After the Blitz, the first time I went into Coventry you did not know where you were at all.’¹ Rebuilding was equally disorientating. ‘I remember watching the redevelopment of Smithford Street, because that was a street that just disappeared completely and I couldn’t understand it. You know, why was it disappearing?’²
City architect Donald Gibson, appointed in 1938, created a scenographic plan for post-war Coventry, one that emphasised ‘spaciousness, speed and cleanliness by effacing many of the complexities and ambiguities of street life’.³ When the automobile industry collapsed in the 1970s, one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities was transformed - with bombs and Gibson’s city plans - into the Ghost Town of the 1980s pop song.† That decade was no kinder to Coventry. The gargantuan Cathedral Lanes shopping centre, behind Basil Spence’s 1962 St Michael’s Cathedral and somehow its evil other, is hated perhaps even more than anything Gibson conjured. ‘Knock [it] down… and do it NOW!’ writes one Coventry resident on a local knowledge website.
Since the turn of the century, Coventry has begun to renew itself once more with cultural buildings and public realm projects. Stanton Williams’ 2007 extension to the Belgrade Theatre (AJ 13.12.07) and MJP Architects’ 2003 Phoenix Initiative masterplan, whose new public squares and sculptures link St Michael’s Cathedral with the transport museum, suggest a renewed civic pride.
Both of these projects, no matter how inventive they are, have unfortunate echoes. The Belgrade extension is sympathetic to the brutalist original, but more colourful, and MJP’s Whittle Arch sculpture in Millennium Place brings a 1960s flyover to mind. This is why the most recent addition to Coventry’s townscape, Pringle Richards Sharratt’s wilfully eccentric extension to the Herbert Museum and Art Gallery, is so refreshing.
Pringle Richards Sharratt won the competition to refurbish and extend the Herbert in 2002, beating the museum’s masterplanner, Haworth Tompkins. ‘We wanted to turn the whole building around,’ says practice director John Pringle. ‘We suggested demolishing Mandela House and creating a new entrance at the north end. We thought it should be facing the cathedral, one of the best modernist buildings in Britain, and take advantage of the emerging University Square.’
The Herbert has been remodelled and extended many times before. Two years before the 1940 Blitz, machine parts tycoon Alfred Herbert donated £100,000 to Coventry for a museum and art gallery. By 1954, new plans drawn up by Alfred’s relative, architect Albert Herbert, were approved by the council. Six years later, the venue opened its doors.
The building’s buff-brick elevations stretch east-west along Jordan Well to the corner of Bayley Lane, once the heart of medieval Coventry, south-east of the cathedral. A wing extension, originally built on piloti but filled in by Haworth Tompkins in 2002 to form a café and new reception, runs along Bayley Lane. In 1964, Mandela House library was constructed. It extended northwards but, according to Pringle, was ‘uncomfortably close to the cathedral’ and had to go.
While these mutations emerged over decades, Pringle Richards Sharratt’s extension is an architectural accretion built in one go. It is striking, ‘iconic’ even, in the words of Coventry’s Lord Mayor Andy Matchet. But more interestingly, it is a structural mash-up with a ready-made, instant history. Despite its mad appearance, it is highly contextual. Here is a building that can sidestep claims that ‘it doesn’t fit in’ with ease.
Its central statement, a lofty, glazed arcade with a gridshell roof, eyeballs the cathedral across a new square. It forms a processional route through the building, from the old entrance on Jordan Well to its new front door. Locals are drawn to it - perhaps they sense a link with the glass-domed West Orchards shopping complex. The timber elements from which the extension is constructed are clearly high-tech, but they also suggest a medieval handcraftedness. It’s old, it’s new - and, given its secular church status, very ‘now’ too.
Alongside the arcade, Pringle Richards Sharratt has created a sturdy two-storey concrete block of windowless galleries that are solely focused on content. It looks like the work of a different hand - and a different time. But this too has an introverted logic that draws on the Herbert’s organic, decades-long development. Many have played with its overall form.
The final element of the Pringle Richards Sharratt new-build - the intimate, low-rise History Centre and its raked timber columns - contrasts sharply with the arcade and galleries. Inside the library-like volume with its sloping roof, researchers look on to the Peace Garden. Designed with Edward Hutchison Landscape Architects, the garden reflects a hidden medieval townscape. Its edge is defined by 3m-high Cor-ten steel fins, which mark out the party walls of medieval homes on Bayley Lane.
Sitting in the garden is an unexpected pleasure. Extended eaves provide a degree of shelter to benches below, and the mix of materials - grass, rusting metal, stone and timber - has a solidity that I found quietly reassuring. While Gibson envisaged Coventry as a thrusting planar stage set, this dense and detailed portion of the Herbert posits a 21st-century medievalism. There is the sense that the elements have built up over time.
The Pringle Richards Sharratt plan even incorporates a 12th-century crypt uncovered during construction. Its underground presence is highlighted by a sandstone shadow embedded in the entrance forecourt. The Herbert lies at the centre of both Coventry’s spatial and temporal landscape. Exhilaration, not dislocation, is the prevailing mood here.
But not everything about the Herbert is convincing. The glazed entrance, which cuts diagonally across the square, looks exposed, amputated. The extravagant sweep of the roofline would have been more convincing if it genuinely curved - in reality, the faceted edge detail looks seriously uncomfortable. Originally the arcade extended further into the square and had a porch, reflecting Spence’s cathedral complex, but competing voices within Coventry City Council and from university masterplanners, who wanted their buildings closer to the cathedral quarter, led to it being pulled back.
The arcade, too, is not quite right. It lacks the simple elegance, in both form and function, of Pringle Richards Sharratt’s Sheffield Winter Garden (2003). And as one visitor complained to the Herbert’s city arts and heritage officer, Roger Vaughan, ‘why did you spend my money on empty space?’
CABE also had concerns. Its design review report of 6 May 2004 read: ‘It was unclear to us as to what the nature of the main “room” actually is… It might help decide where this space fits into the city as a whole.’ Pringle sees the arcade as a covered public space, an extension of the square. Vaughan is more pragmatic. He tells me that Coventry University regularly hires it - museums today have to be financially viable - and during my visit, leaflets advertised a tea dance.
A Jacquard loom loiters at the back of the arcade. It feels neglected - and so does John Collier’s gorgeous 1898 painting of Lady Godiva, which is tucked away in a dedicated gallery adequately refurbished by Pringle Richards Sharratt, but largely ruined by the cluttered, interactive approach of exhibition designer Event Communications. The crypt, too, could have been celebrated with spectacle. Rather, an officious-looking staircase on the arcade’s edge takes visitors down to the gloom. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Outside, the Cor-ten fin alignment is well-composed but the ‘medieval street’ metaphor seems like needless spin - or even fearful justification of a rusted metal abstract sculpture. As with the gable wall of the concrete gallery block, sandstone-clad to match the cathedral, this is CABE-inspired public realm design, with boxes clearly ticked.
Pringle Richards Sharratt has got it right, here in the heart of Coventry, however. The ruins of the medieval St Michael’s Cathedral, and Spence’s strange modernist container alongside it, mark a townscape rich with accretions and incident. Responding to this, the Herbert’s extension is a welcome reflection on the very ‘complexities and ambiguities of street life’ that Gibson’s post-war plan ignored.
¹Remembering Post-War Reconstruction: Modernism and City Planning in Coventry 1940-1962, Phil Hubbard, Keith Lilley and Lucy Faire, department of geography, Loughborough University, 2002.
† The song Ghost Town, by Coventry band The Specials, spent three weeks at number one in the summer of 1981. It is thought to be the band members’ honest impression of Coventry at that time. The city experienced 20 per cent unemployment during Margaret Thatcher’s first term as prime minister (source: Wikipedia).
Following the Blitz, which killed more than 500 people and damaged 60,000 buildings, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels coined a new verb, Koventrieren, meaning ‘to coventrate’. It means ‘to utterly destroy’ or ‘to destroy a city in a single bombing raid’. Nazi sympathiser Lord Haw-Haw translated the word in his radio broadcasts, so when Plymouth was bombed in 1941, locals said their town had been coventrated. The word fell quickly out of use and few today are familiar with it.