Look at this picture and it could be Coventry!
With the future plans for the recently listed Upper Precinct currently being considered, it was interesting to read a recent Guardian article about Rotterdam in the series “Walking the Streets”. This showed a remarkable similarity to our own city. You can read the full article here.
Seen by night, with a Coventry built Triumph Herald parked in front, you could easily think that you were looking at an old photo of Coventry.
But this is not Coventry but Lijnbaan in Rotterdam. The historic centre of Rotterdam was largely destroyed by bombing during the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940. The Lijnbaan was rebuilt as what was described as a ‘living room for the city’ – “a revolutionary concept inspiring imitations from Warsaw to Stevenage” – the first traffic free precinct in the world.
“The old centre had its faults: narrow streets, alleys and canals that hindered the passage of traffic. The post-war city council seized the opportunity to build a modern centre and straighten the street pattern. The idea was to give Rotterdammers “what they had, but improved and refined”, according to the architect Jo van den Broek, who embodied the optimistic spirit that ruled Rotterdam at the time.”
“The absence of traffic created an atmosphere of safety and relaxation.”
“The Lijnbaan was a luxurious oasis built upon an open wound. It was an optimistic gesture towards the future, it expressed the hope for a better life after the war. People used to put on their best clothes when they went there.”
It was built as a straight precinct running from the main road and in line with the clock tower at the other end, covered pathways all around with covered crossover point along the way with different turn offs.
Sadly it declined in the 80s and 90’s. The original shopkeepers retired or left the area, to be replaced by large chains solely intent on turnover. Where once there had been a variety of high-end shops, there was now a multitude of cheap clothing and shoe shops. It attracted a different crowd. The terraces and aviaries disappeared, and people threw rubbish in the empty flower boxes.
At night the roller shutters went down and the Lijnbaan became a no-go area, where people were robbed and football hooligans would gather after games. “Nobody was interested in the Lijnbaan anymore,” Aarsen explains. “Most people regarded it as a heap of old trash”.
“All kinds of solutions were suggested by urban planners, from demolishing part of the complex to putting a giant roof over the complete promenade. In the end not much happened. New canopies of plexiglass were installed in the 1990s, to little effect because not all shopkeepers participated.”
However the Doccomomo Foundation, which promotes architecture of the Modern Movement, saw the Lijnbaan as an innovative example of postwar architecture. Thanks to its efforts, the street acquired the national heritage status in 2010.
Nowadays the Lijnbaan has resurfaced as an area where a mainly young public comes to shop and meet. The roller shutters have gone and the place feels safe again. “The Lijnbaan is a fine example of a style we call mid-century modern,” says the architect Robert Winkel. “There’s a growing appreciation for this worldwide. We are bringing back the wooden canopies and the original shopfronts.”
“When you see the effect, it’s easy to understand why so many people came to marvel at the Lijnbaan in the past. The Lijnbaan always was the living room of Rotterdam and now we are giving it back to the city.”
It would be nice for this to happen to Coventry and show some pride in our Post War architecture. The Upper Precinct has been listed by Historic England, but the new developers want to cut out a lot of the original features and take away all the canopies and covered ways. The Coventry Society, Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society have all pointed out the weaknesses of the plans and the missed opportunities to regenerate our city in a way that respects our own 1950s heritage and the quality of the Gibson’s original vision of. Perhaps what has happened to Lijnbaan could show the council and developers the way forward.
There are more photos of the Linjbaan on our main website – here.
The main Coventry Society website is at www.coventrysociety.org.uk