What Coventry teaches us about respecting a city’s heritage

Architect John Prevc

This article is by Architect and Coventrian John Prevc, who has given several talks to the Coventry Society. It is reprinted from the Estates Gazette with kind the permission of the publishers.

COMMENT It seems a little strange that at a time when we are filling our homes with furniture inspired by the post-war era, we are unable to love the architecture which housed it.

As a Coventrian I have listened with interest to the current debate over the future of the city, which has laid bare the issues that now befall so many of our post-war city redevelopments: the destruction of significant areas of our 1950s and 1960s modernist heritage.

Coventry’s architecture isn’t the uncompromising rough concrete brutalism so much admired by architects and historians. Its modernism is friendly, approachable and humane, built from brick and stone, embellished with sculptures and reliefs signalling a time of great positivity and expectation. Perhaps it is because it’s not at all showy that it has failed to attract attention.

Adapting sustainably

This is also a story about local civic pride and the way that local authorities value good design. The city architect, Donald Gibson, with his assistant Frank Moate, were responsible for both the masterplan and design of many of the precinct’s significant 1950s buildings. Lady Godiva Clock and Bridge Restaurant, Broadgate House and the upper precinct were all designed by them.

Gibson was succeeded as city architect by Arthur Ling, who designed the lower precinct, city market, Belgrade Theatre and swimming baths. Architects wanted to work for local authorities as they were able to design some of the country’s most iconic buildings.

As local authorities have lost their autonomy and funding, city architects’ departments have now all closed. Design, it seems, can no longer be left in the hands of locally employed professionals. Perhaps this is why much of the regeneration of our post-war cities has become so generic. There is no longer the sense of ownership of our local heritage, nor is there an understanding of its distinctiveness and shared history. We have started to lose our sense of “Coventryness”.

The debate has highlighted that we are missing an opportunity not only to save our post-war heritage but also to reclaim it in a push to reuse and adapt our built environment sustainably.

I thought it would be worth focusing on some of the successes that those with their hearts firmly embedded in the city have realised in recent years.

None can be more so considered than developers Ian and Brian Harrabin who, with their company Complex Development Projects, have provoked the city into recalibrating its thinking with regards to its historic buildings, seeing them more as assets rather than a burden to change.

The Harrabin brothers started with the regeneration of dilapidated canal-side warehouses into affordable homes for local people. They then regenerated one of the city’s most significant arteries, Gosford Street, and built a new creative quarter alongside called Fargo Village.

However, it’s their most recent project that best illustrates the way in which creativity can reimagine Coventry’s 1950s heritage. The former Coventry Evening Telegraph newspaper building housed the offices and printworks for this iconic local newspaper.

Although the paper is still published, it was unable to sustain its occupation of its grand headquarters building in the heart of the city. Having remained closed for more than 10 years, the building was bought by CDP and now stands proudly as the new Telegraph Hotel.

The large print machine room is now a conference and events space, the offices have been transformed into hotel rooms and the main entrance foyer remains almost unchanged, evoking the spirit of the 1950s newspaper. Creativity and the willingness to adapt has gone beyond the physical.

Wrecking ball

The financial challenges to allow such a scheme to be built were not insubstantial. The city council agreed that a part of the site could be redeveloped as student housing in order to make the scheme viable. It’s this type of holistic thinking, bringing together commercial, heritage and social value to the city, that should be promoted.

Stopping the “wrecking ball” mentality will require stakeholders to work much harder. It’s so much easier to allow our heritage to fall into disrepair, resulting in its inevitable demolition.

What Harrabin and his team have demonstrated is that as a result of taking that difficult journey they have not only resurrected an iconic Coventry landmark but have also challenged the real estate sector to look again at our heritage from the 1950s and 1960s and see it as viable assets for the future.

John Prevc is regional leader of planning at HOK

One thought on “What Coventry teaches us about respecting a city’s heritage

  1. One reason for developers’ love of knocking down worthy buildings is VAT. VAT is charged at 20% on extensions repairs and refurbishment, while it’s zero for new buildings and listed buildings. I hope the Chancellor levels the playing field to remove this long-standing anomaly. It would tip the balance towards reusing fine old buildings instead of bulldozing them and replacing them with works of questionable merit.


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