Twentieth Century Society Comments on the Plans for the Upper Precinct

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You cannot read the comments made on the Council’s Planning Portal in relation to the Listed Building application to re-shape the Upper Precinct. As a service to Coventry Citizens we reproduce below, with their permission, the comments made about the application by the Twentieth Century Society.

18 September 2018

Dear Liam D’Onofrio,

LB/2018/2494 Upper Precinct Smithford Way Coventry CV1 1QS

The Twentieth Century Society has been notified of the above application. The application seeks listed building consent for alterations to the Grade II listed Upper Precinct. The Society wishes to object to the above application and our comments are set out below.

We were previously consulted on these proposals prior to the listing of the affected buildings, and our comments here closely reflect those submitted on 30 November 2017. We are disappointed to see that the scheme has undergone minimal revision in light of the newly listed status of the buildings occupying the site. Our support remains for the removal of the 1993 escalator and glass housing attached to the North Link block, and we are pleased to see that these unsympathetic additions have been identified as such by the applicants. We do, however, have significant concerns about the harm other proposed alterations will have on the historic interest of several Grade II listed buildings.

The Upper Precinct was the centrepiece of public amenity space laid out in Donald Gibson’s plans for the immediate post-war rebuilding scheme in Coventry City Centre. The shopping precinct connects Broadgate to Smithford Way and Market Way, and is arranged in an axial plan of low-rise blocks sharing a Scandinavian inspired architectural vocabulary. Views of the Cathedral to the west have been partially blocked by the Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre, however the East-West orientation running through the post-war city centre planning is still clearly legible. The Gibson plan for the rebuilding of Coventry city centre is an early example of mid-century town planning, and the Upper Precinct is the earliest scheme built following his vision for the city. The Upper Precinct is a complete, well-executed and high quality scheme that shares a common architectural vocabulary across a group of privately-designed buildings, with the provision of good public space as a leading priority. The success and importance of the Upper Precinct is reflected in its listing at Grade II. The Society considers the shared scale and detail of the contingent buildings of the Upper Precinct to be highly important. As stated in its listing description, the Upper Precinct provides a clear assertion of “the spirit of the vibrant and re-born city of Coventry”, and the group serves as a strong reminder of the extent of damage suffered during the Second World War.

Public access and circulation

The reconfiguration of access around Coventry city centre, focusing on the separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, was a key aspect of Gibson’s plan. The Upper Precinct is fully pedestrianised and incorporates many features that provide clear wayfinding and a pleasant shopping environment. The Upper Precinct was always intended to have shops on two storeys, with a square walkway at first floor to connect the upper floor of shops. The original stairs to access the upper tier walkway have been removed and were replaced by a brick ramp from Broadgate in 1979, and an additional escalator added to the North Link block, providing access into the later West Orchards Shopping Centre. The Society recognises that the removal of the 1983 escalator will be a positive change, and will enhance the significance of the listed building. The removal of the ramp has the potential to open up views through the Upper Precinct to the Cathedral, however we are concerned that this access has not been provided elsewhere and will have an adverse effect on the circulation around the upper tier. The removal of the bridges between the North and South link blocks will also remove a key feature of the original layout of the Upper Precinct. Whilst the fabric of the original walkways is not original, the circulation pattern remains true to the original design, and so the truncating of the walkways as proposed will result in harm to the architectural significance of the listed building. The Society cannot see that any justification has been given for the loss of the walkway bridges, as this will reduce access and footfall to the first floor shops, and will remove the possibility of raised views towards the Cathedral and the Upper Precinct axis. We recommend that more prominent access stairs and linking walkway bridges be incorporated to facilitate easy public access, maintaining the original design intent.

The Society supports the replacement of the 1993 railings to the walkways with a more sympathetic design. We consider the proposed entrance archway to the West Orchards Shopping Centre to be unsympathetic to the minimal decorative detailing of the original buildings, and this should be reduced in scale and prominence to not overwhelm the listed buildings. We also consider the later landscaping and paving alterations to be unsympathetic to the original design, and we hope the opportunity to rectify this is taken in a revision of these proposals.

Glazing in of North link block colonnade

The covered areas of the public realm are a key feature of the Upper Precinct as a public amenity, and the Society is opposed to their removal. The infill of the colonnade areas is an infringement on the public space that was at the centre of Gibson’s design, and will damage the intended quality and practicality of the space. Symmetry is a clear principle of the original design, and the proposed infilling of the North link block colonnade will dramatically harm the sense of symmetry across the whole scheme, especially with the clear views through the Precinct following removal of the 1979 access ramp. Our previous comments stated that this aspect of the proposals was unacceptable in heritage terms, and we are extremely disappointed that this has not been revised to reflect the level of protection afforded by listed status.

The newly opened space at the Broadgate end of the Upper Precinct will increase the level of daylight reaching the shopfronts, and so this issue will be less prevalent. A projecting first floor is a shared design feature across many of the 1950s buildings in Coventry, including the former Co-Operative store in Corporation Street (G S HAY, 1954-6), and is a clear example of the influence of Corbusian principles in Gibson’s vision for the city centre. The underlying quality of the original design is still clear despite later unsympathetic additions, and we are optimistic that these proposals can be revised in a respectful manner.

M&S and BHS canopy removal

The Society is also opposed to the removal of the canopies to M&S and BHS, as these are important period features that create a strong visual link across the axis of the Upper Precinct, Lower Precinct, Market Way and Smithford Way, and will harm the quality of the public space that was integral to Gibson’s plan. The argument for maximising visibility of retail space is considered to be insufficient justification to justify the harm proposed to the listed building. The M&S canopy is pierced with glass lights to allow daylight to reach the pavement and mark the building’s main entrance, and this could be reinstated in the BHS canopy to enhance the building’s architectural significance.

Façade alterations

Our previous comments stated that the proposed alterations to shopfronts and new glazing throughout the scheme would entirely change the nature of the buildings, and these proposals have not been reconsidered since the buildings were listed. The proposed alterations to the Upper Precinct and Market Way facades of the former BHS store are in no way sympathetic to the original features of the listed building. The building’s list description states that “the building has clear interest for the sophisticated design of its facades, with elegant detailing and good quality materials” and the Society considers the current proposals will cause substantial harm to these elements. Subtle features including spandrel panels, glazing pattern with projecting surrounds, and muted palette of materials are shared across the Upper Precinct, and this applications proposes the first major alteration to the external facades of the group of listed buildings. We do not consider the potential benefits resulting from the proposals to meet the criteria justifying harm to a listed building as set out in the NPPF (paragraph 194):

Any harm to, or loss of, the significance of a designated heritage asset (from its alteration or destruction, or from development within its setting), should require clear and convincing justification.

Substantial harm to or loss of:

a) grade II listed buildings, or grade II registered parks or gardens, should be exceptional;

Our previous comments expressed opposition to the proposed insertion of a framed corner window to the former Leofric Hotel, now Mercia House. Again, this harmful proposal has not reconsidered in the revision of the scheme. There is no precedent for this style of window in any of the original buildings, and it is entirely inconsistent with the symmetrical layout of glazing and decorative features currently carried across the Upper Precinct. We are greatly disappointed that these proposals show general disregard for the dictating symmetry shared across the whole of the Upper Precinct. This shows a clear lack of attention paid to the fundamental design elements that link the individual buildings together, and ignores the elements that reveal the influence of Gibson’s plan on the composition of this small group of buildings.

Comments

The Society is pleased to see that investment in Coventry’s post-war buildings and spaces is being prioritised, however we fundamentally disagree with the approach of this application. It is unacceptable that these harmful proposals have not been drastically revised following the listing of all of the buildings on the site. As an organisation with expertise in twentieth century architecture, we are disappointed that our previous advice has been ignored by the applicant. We hope that these proposals are reconsidered in favour of a conservation-led approach, dictated by a respect for the buildings’ architectural significance and the importance of the civic character of the original composition. The Society considers this to be an opportunity to revive the vitality and refinement of the Upper Precinct, however we have no choice but to object to the proposals in their current form.

I trust that these comments are of use to you. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any further queries.

Yours sincerely,

 

Grace Etherington

Caseworker

Twentieth Century Society

Follow this link to see the full Listed Building Application on the Council’s Planning Portal

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