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Coventry Phoenix

 

This article on the Coventry Phoenix Initiative first appeared in Issue 8 of the RIBA West Midlands Journal AREA, Spring 2004.

[spring2004]

 

 

 

 

 

Just over over forty years ago the opening of Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral marked the rebirth of a bombed-out city and stood as a symbol of hope and reconciliation across Europe. Earlier this year Coventry celebrated the completion of another landmark - the Coventry Phoenix Project. lthough this scheme is unlikely to attract the same attention as Spence’s Cathedral, for Coventry itself it is of may be even greater significance. The horrific Blitz of November 1940 not only left over a thousand dead, it also obliterated a priceless mediaeval urban centre. The new cathedral was an attempt to repair some of that damage and restore the city’s self belief and faith in the future. It remains to this day, one of the most popular modern buildings in the UK. Unfortunately, what was built elsewhere did not meet the same high standards and Coventry was blighted by much of the same soulless and anti-urban architecture and planning that afflicted most of post-war Britain. To begin to redress these mistakes in any meaningful way demanded a radical and ambitious approach and hence the quality and scale of the Phoenix Project. While other cities were busy marking the Millennium with a series of redundant and unwanted ‘grandprojects’, Coventry’s leaders had the vision to see that what their city needed most urgently was an overhaul of the public realm and streetscape. Rather than seeing a city as a series of glitzy shopping destinations, the Phoenix Project begins with the spaces between the buildings and works outwards. The result is a series of squares, streets and gardens that draw people back into the heart of Coventry and provide a relatively retail and commerce-free environment in which people can walk,
live and play.

With a masterplan and urban design by Rummey Design, new buildings by McCormac Jamieson Prichard (MJP) and a series of specially commissioned artworks, the Phoenix Project is a truly collaborative piece of new urbanism. All those involved in the project have worked closely from the start, to achieve an environment in which the public spaces flow seamlessly from one to another, the architecture reinforces the sense of place and each artwork is designed specifically for its own site. Nearest the cathedral, at Priory Gardens, the intention was to work with the surviving and rediscovered mediaeval grain of the city. Side streets and alleyways lead into squares and gardens and the overall feeling is of tight-knit enclosure. The heart of this part of the scheme is Priory Place. The triangular square is bounded on two sides by MJP-designed apartment blocks for Crosby Homes and on its third by Susanna Heron’s new copper and water installation, creating something of the feel of an Italian piazza. A colonnaded ground floor, several cafes and a new local BBC outpost ensure a lively street scene, while above, MJP’s simple and elegant facades convey a sense of urbane and comfortable city living.

At the northern corner of the square, the two apartment blocks almost meet, to form a narrow chasm-like street that runs downhill to the far more expansive and attention-grabbing Millennium Place.mThe transition from one major urban space to another is appropriately dramatic and brings a new and enjoyable rhythm to a walk through Coventry. Accentuating the sense of arrival are two huge new sculptural arches by MJP, inspired by Coventry’s historic links with the aeronautical industry. Also by MJP is the new entrance to the Museum of British Road Transport, which provides a much needed grand public entrance to this major national collection.

Millennium Place, unlike the other new spaces, is designed as a location for big public events. It is bigger and feels less contained than Priory Place and suffers slightly from the proximity of some pre-existing and poor-quality buildings (most notably the post-modern bus station). However, the square is really designed to be appreciated at night and as the sun goes down, the space really begins to come alive. Alexander Beleschenko has bedecked the new bridge and spiral ramp with a jewel-like encrustation of glass fins and beautiful illuminations. The effect is stunning and helps define the visual boundary to the space, while also drawing people on into the adjacent Gardens of International Friendship. On the ground, Francoise Schein’s Millennium Clock is a giant illuminated map of the world’s time zones, programmed to flash on and off every quarter of an hour. The resulting light show is breathtaking to behold - especially when seen from the Beleschenko ramp. Millennium Place has already played host to an opening pop concert and promises to prove a popular venue for such events in future.

The role played by Rummey Design in masterplanning and co-ordination has been central to the success of the whole scheme. While the artists themselves were chosen by Modus Operandi art consultants, it was RDA’s job to help incorporate their ideas into the spaces and buildings around them. Although the idea of placing art in public spaces is an ancient one, it is rare to see artists and urban designers working together to the extent that they have at Coventry, from inception through to realisation. The Phoenix Project stands as an interesting counterpoint to the way that art was incorporated into Spence’s Cathedral and at their best the artworks form a conceptual and visual whole with what’s around them. RDA is now at the forefront of those practices seeking to develop new and collaborative ways of incorporating artworks into new urban spaces.

The Coventry Phoenix Project is a first big step towards reinventing Coventry as a people-friendly city, made up of distinctive places and artworks. The evidence so-far suggests it has been a success and plans are already afoot to expand the same approach further into the surrounding areas. Elsewhere, another altogether different project is emerging that will also help change the self-image and wider perception of Coventry. RHWL’s new £60m Coventry City stadium at the former Foleshill Gas Works will not only be a symbol of sporting pride, it will also form the centre of a new conference, exhibition and concert site. Together, these two schemes are helping Coventry rise once more. By bringing pride back to a much abused city, hope is being created that Coventry can again become the affluent and attractive city at the heart of England that it once was.

 

 



Ben Flatman

benflatman@hotmail.com


   
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