|The Architect and Building News - 21st March 1941
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To put this following article in perspective it is worth noting its date. At the time it was written Coventry was still undergoing air raids, and indeed, two of the largest raids were still to come only a matter of weeks later, on the 8th and 10th of April 1941. It is, in fact, evident from some of the sketches that much of this work was done before the November 1940 Blitz.
"Who plans, with what and for whom?" asks the New Statesman and Nation, as well they may, for there seem to be many answers, most of which we venture to suggest will be wrong.
But we should like to answer the question in part at any rate. To do so we shall take Coventry as an example. Lord Reith has done the same; for Coventry is one of the test towns mentioned in his speech in the House of Lords. The answer in this case is Mr. D. E. E. Gibson, the City Architect, with his head well screwed on the right way for the benefit of the people of Coventry. But although Mr. Gibson's scheme solves many problems in Coventry, it will not solve all problems everywhere. Out of it will undoubtedly spring many problems of a general nature and the solution of them will act as an invaluable guide for replanning elsewhere.
What has happened? Coventry was "blitzed" but not destroyed. Damage was confined to a relatively small section of the Borough, the City Centre, an area which urgently needed replanning before. So, too, does much of the rest of the Town but Mr. Gibson has realized that he can only replan what has been destroyed. There is a lesson here for others. In the majority of cases reconstruction - while taking into account undestroyed property as a long term policy - must be confined in the short run to destroyed areas only, if unnecessary complications are to be avoided. Plans must be laid so that they can be adapted to cope with further destruction as and when it occurs.
With a square mile of City in which to rebuild the authorities were faced with two possible solutions. The old street plan could be used as a foundation. If this were done some of the worst streets could be widened and historical gems such as Fords Hospital could be retained. Considerable reconstruction of this interesting relic would be necessary but the building - utterly inadequate as a pensioners' home - would still be on its original site. Admittedly flanked on the one side by a modernish sorting office and on the other by a hideous red brick four storey building which spoils the scale of Fords - but still it would be on its original site and presumably patched to look like old. The advantages of this scheme are that property owners would be on their original plots, so that in the case of shops old customers would not have to change their shopping habits. There would too, be no delay in rebuilding due to claims for compensation where sites had been taken in whole or partly for other purposes.
The alternative is to replan disregarding property ownership, but bearing in mind that habit in a population is a factor which cannot be entirely ignored. If the accustomed centres of business, recreation and shopping are retained as nearly as possible in their previous positions it will probably be an advantage.
The plan which has been submitted to and endorsed by the Coventry City Council, and which Lord Reith has accepted as a basis for the investigation of certain reconstruction problems, is in the second category of the alternatives mentioned above.
Although we are privileged to reproduce sketches showing possible elevational treatments, it must be realized that these have been prepared only to crystalize certain factors arising out of the plan. Chief amongst these factors is the provision of open space. Whether the buildings are eventually in the Gothic revival or modern styles as far as elevational treatment is concerned has nothing to do with the primary consideration - that the plan is the thing at this stage. Here are the main points of the new plan as set out by the architect: -
The increase of aerial transport, particularly passenger transport, after the war, must be borne in mind. Any scheme for a central airport is considered impracticable for the following reasons. Planes, as we know them, still need long runs for landing and taking off; this would limit the planning and heights of buildings round the airport. The helicopter type of plane may be developed but planning should be done with reasonable foresight on the basis of what we know rather than what may be. Provision has been made for linking up the existing facilities with the centre of the town.
Road and rail transport are governing factors. The railway station on the new plan occupies the same position as the existing station and is coupled with a coach station.
In the central area motor transport and parking have been carefully thought out so that through traffic will be unhampered by local traffic. Parking and service to the shopping centre has received special consideration.
An embryo plan exists showing radial and ring roads in the area outside the City centre but this need only be taken into consideration at the present time in so far as it affects the feeding and clearance of the centre. Its final layout depends on the location of existing property which might stand for fifty years.
The City Centre covers the top of a low conical rise in the land. This is surmounted by the Cathedral Spire and the Church of St. Michael. A large area to the north of the Cathedral has been planned, as park. It will be remembered that this formed the nucleus of a redevelopment scheme which was in existence before the big raid. Apart from this the whole layout, as shown in the rough aerial perspective, has been designed to produce wide thoroughfares and good vistas.
The various units which contribute to the life of Coventry have been grouped together. This however, is not as drastic a step as it might appear. The principal shopping district, although previously unplanned, was nevertheless confined largely to the area west of Broadgate. The new plan shows a shopping centre in much the same position but planned so as to give a vista up the centre towards the Cathedral. This shopping centre is envisaged as two main blocks flanking a shopping avenue from which only pedestrians would have access to the recessed arcades. Service roads, approach roads and parking areas are planned at the backs of the shopping blocks, and off the main thoroughfares.
The recreation centre is treated in a similar way. The cinemas and theatres generally speaking are now situated to the north of the shopping district. In the new plan they are simply coordinated to take their place in and contribute to the design as a whole.
The Hotels are grouped in what would form two fine blocks facing on Broadgate.
Within the central area it is hoped that certain buildings may be demolished or removed. But provision has been made for the retention of buildings which do not interfere with the main layout. The Council House, for instance, has up to date proved to be so well constructed that two bombs have bounced off it without harming it. This, together with a substantial group of buildings facing Broadgate, is to be retained.
An unnecessary problem, it seems, is created by Fords Hospital. It has been bombed and for all practical purposes demolished. Part of the facade stands. It has been seriously suggested that this building should be reconstructed - but not, we gather, replanned - to serve its former purpose, a home for the aged poor. Here is a building whose sole value is historic. Is it to be allowed to stand in the way of the new plan? Mr. Gibson's suggestion is that it should be moved near Bonds Hospital where its historic value would be undiminished and where it would not interfere with the new plan and where it would be in harmony with the adjacent buildings.
This then, is a part of the foundation on which Lord Reith has to work. From it there will doubtless spring innumerable problems of ownership, of legislation, of the use of materials, of byelaws regulating construction and materials. But the important thing is this: both the Architect and the Authorities have realized that fhe paramount need is a basis of discussion. They have not concerned themselves with secondary problems. A need exists and they will fill it. It is to be hoped that this lead will be followed in reconstruction throughout the country in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol. Each is a separate problem and must be tackled as such.
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