Rotterdam Shows How to Celebrate its 1950’s Architecture

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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“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

Campaign to Save the Coventry Cross

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After careful consideration the Coventry Society has decided to formally oppose the demolition of the Coventry Cross and has launched a petition in support of this campaign.

The Society is not opposed in principle to the relocation of the Coventry Cross, providing that what replaces it is appropriate to the historic environment around County Hall, Holy Trinity and the Old Cathedral and that a suitable location is found for the reconstruction of the Cross with a timetable and full budget to fund it.

However this is not what is on the table. Despite what you may have read elsewhere, there is no plan to rebuild the Cross, no budget for doing so and no plan of what will replace the Cross in Coventry’s foremost Conservation Area. The plan is for the monument to go into storage and if the budget for rebuilding it is not found it will stay there, like so many other works of Public Art in the city.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that the replica cross is located within the City’s Hill Top Conservation Area, which has its own Management Plan, which was recently reviewed and updated. When demolition is proposed within a Conservation Area there is a requirement for the developer to demonstrate that the demolition will add to and not reduce the environmental quality of the Conservation Area. The process for doing this is to prepare a Heritage Statement to support the application. The Heritage Statement should provide the evidence that the demolition will enhance the Conservation Area. The application to demolish the Coventry Cross does not have a Heritage Statement. It does not even have a proper planning application that members of the public can see and there is no written justification for the demolition. If this all sounds unlikely you can check out the plans on the Council’s Planning Portal.

Furthermore it is not normal to support a demolition plan without seeing what will replace the demolished structure. Again there are no plans for what is to replace the Coventry Cross, just a description of making good the pavement surfaces around it. We have been told that the demolition is to make way for a restaurant, a Caribbean fusion restaurant called Turtle Bay. But we have seen no plans about what is proposed, so it is not possible to form a fair assessment as to whether the new facilities will be more attractive than the Coventry Cross. Again this is contrary to the Conservation Area Management Plan.

The proposed relocation site for the monument, for which there is no funding yet available, is on Ironmonger Row, in front of Gregg’s and a multi-coloured student block. Having taken advice from the sculptor involved in the creation of the cross, we do not believe that this is the best location for it. If the Council does go ahead with the relocation, we would like other options to be considered and the public consulted on them.

The person at the heart of these proposals is Councillor Jim O’Boyle, Cabinet Member for Regeneration. Of course Cllr. O’Boyle would have been advised of all these planning requirements if Coventry had a Conservation Officer. Unfortunately, for reasons not known to us, Coventry City Council no longer has a Conservation Officer.

Cllr. O’Boyle has stated that that the allocated budget for relocating the cross is £150,000 and that the Council has obtained that amount from a grant from the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership.

However on closer examination we find out that the budget is to dismantle the monument, clean up parts of it and put it into storage. We have asked the council for the full cost of replacing the Cross in a different location and they are not able to tell us. It all depends on the state of the structure. However we have been told by a reliable source that the total cost is likely to be in the region of £500,000 and there is no budget for the shortfall of £350,000. Some people might ask whether it is worth spending even £150,000 of public money on a scheme that is purely designed to benefit a single restaurant. Why isn’t the developer paying? If the total cost does come out at the estimated half a million pounds, would Coventry people still see it as value for money?

The Coventry Society supports the City Council’s efforts to regenerate the city centre, but it is not reasonable to expect support for plans that run counter to the Council’s own rules and policies. Approval of the demolition of the cross without meeting the requirements of the Conservation Area Management Plan would set a precedent for other unsuitable developments in the city’s Conservation Areas.

The decision on the future of the monument lies with the Council’s Planning Committee, which is obliged to operate fairly within the adopted rules and policies of the Council and National guidance, so we are hopeful that the matter will be properly and fairly considered.

If you support the campaign to save the Coventry Cross, please sign the petition

https://myaccount.coventry.gov.uk/Petitions?title=Save%20the%20Coventry%20Cross

You can see the “detailed” plans on the Council’s Planning portal, and make comments until 27th September.

Coventry Society Honours Architect / Planner Ralph Butcher

At its meeting on Monday 10th September 2018 the Coventry Society honoured one of its longest serving members, Ralph Butcher.

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Ralph moved to Coventry in 1960 after a spell in the RAF, an Architecture course in Hull and a couple of years at Hull City Council Housing Department. He worked in several sections of the Council’s Departure of Architecture and Planning. Ralph’s initial work in Coventry was advising the planning officers on the design aspects of planning applications (something that doesn’t happen these days). He also worked in the Policy and Landscape sections before taking over the role that he became famous for, leading the Council’s General Improvement Area Team.

In 1968 there had been a national survey of housing conditions, which reported on the very poor state of the country’s older housing. The grants for housing improvement at that time (as now) were spread very thinly and were not having any collective impact. The answer was to create the concept of the General Improvement Area where money and action would be concentrated in improving whole neighbourhoods and the improvement would not only be to the houses but also to the environment in which they stood.

Ralph was given the opportunity of taking this work on in Coventry. He tells us that he offered to do the job for a year but ended up doing it for 20 years which he enjoyed immensely.

Ralph initially worked on his own, liaising with people in other departments to get the grants and land sorted out, but these officers were later brought together under Ralph in the Council’s first inter-departmental team, the GIA Team. The team saw the establishment and completion of the country’s first General Improvement Area (GIA) at Colchester Street / Winchester Street and many more followed. The achievements of this team were very important for Coventry with 14,000 houses improved and 14,000 families given better lives in their own homes and communities instead of being re-housed in modern concrete blocks.

Ralph retired from the Council in 1992.

Ralph joined the Coventry Civic Amenity Society, as we were called in those days, in the 1970s. He took on many roles in the Society, including being a member of the Executive Committee, Treasurer and Membership Secretary. He has stayed a member right up to the present.

As well as the Coventry Society, Ralph was a leading member of a number of city organisations, including the Whitley History Group and the Coventry Building Preservation Trust.

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At its September meeting the Coventry Society acknowledged the contribution to the city and the Society made by Ralph and presented him with Life Membership of the Society.

Moving the Cross!

People who read the local press will be aware of the plans of the City Council to move the reconstructed Coventry Cross from its current location next to Holy Trinity Church in order to facilitate a private development.

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There is a current planning application to demolish the Coventry Cross. We have previously written about the Coventry Cross here.

Coventry Cross is located on Cuckoo Lane, outside the garden area of the Slug and Lettuce Public House (formerly the County Hall). It is within the Hill Top Conservation Area.

This modern replica of the historic Coventry Cross was funded by The Coventry Boy Foundation. The idea of a replica had been suggested many years ago in the 1930’s, but it was not until 1971 that discussions and plans were shown to the Coventry Civic Amenities Society (now the Coventry Society) and the Church authorities. It now stands next to Holy Trinity Church, 100 metres way from the original site of the old cross. The completed replica was unveiled in 1976. The figures for the new cross were made by Philip Bentham (of the Coventry Boy statue fame), Wilfred Dudeney and George Ford. George Wagstaffe made the crown and pendants. This modern version is different to the original by being mainly made from cast ferro-concrete, with only some of the statues being carved out of stone. At 17.4 metres (57ft) high the replica Coventry Cross has 20 niches with many figures.

In 2007 it was suggested that replica cross should be moved to Cross Cheaping. But because of local opposition this was not implemented. The idea of relocating it arose again in 2015, but nothing happened because of the cost and difficulty of doing this.It is now reported in the press that there is a proposal to relocate the Cross to nearby Ironmonger Row. However the planning application has been amended so that it now only includes the demolition of the existing cross and not its rebuilding.

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It has been quoted in the press that the City Council is prepared to spend £150,000 to move the cross. However the Coventry Society has researched this figure and established that the cost of £150,000 is the budget for dismantling and cleaning the sculpture and putting it into storage. The Council is currently putting this work out to tender. The City Council has been asked about the total cost of restoring the sculpture and re-erecting it and is not able to answer the question. They say that until the existing cross is dismantled and they have been able to assess the fixing arrangements, existing steel frame and other key elements no final cost can be provided from contractors.However we have heard from a  reliable source that the total cost is likely to be in the region of £500,000, leaving a shortfall of around £350,000. 

“The Council’s view is that the removal and relocation of Coventry Cross is an important project for the city. Our ambition is to relocate the cross nearer to the location of the original Coventry Cross and the relocation will also improve the context and setting of the medieval core of the City for residents, visitors and local businesses.”

We have asked sculptor George Wagstaffe, who was involved in the original design of the replica, for his opinion about relocating the cross. Whilst not totally against such a move, he pointed out the appearance and materials of the cross were more appropriate to its current location than the proposed one. He said that the surroundings of the proposed location on Ironmonger Row was more like a Mondrian painting than a suitable environment for a medieval stone cross.

The Coventry Society is not opposed to the City Council’s plans to improve Cuckoo Lane. However we do not want to see another of Coventry’s Public Art works put into storage, probably never to to be seen again. We also question why the Public Sector is being asked to pay for a relocation which only appears to benefit one business. How much is that business putting into the pot? Where is the budget for the reconstruction of the sculpture to come from? If the sculpture is to be relocated, where is the best location to put it? We feel that the demolition should not go ahead until these important questions are answered.

We also point out that there is a Conservation Area Management Plan which covers the demolition of structures in a Conservation Area and we would like to hear the Council’s justification for the demolition, which we have yet to see. We feel that the absence of a City Council Conservation Officer is leaving the Council without good advice on conservation matters.

We are pleased to note that the planning application has been referred to the Secretary of State and we hope that a sensible decision will be made.

What do you think? Should the Cross remain? Should it be moved? If so, where to? Would the available budget be better spent on improving the sculpture in its current location, e.g with gold leaf etc. to make it more like the original?

 

Heritage Open Days – Old Grammar School

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Come along and meet the Coventry Society at the Old Grammar School for Heritage Open Days 2018. We are open from 12 noon – 4 p.m. on both Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th September 2018.

We will be sharing this beautifully restored medieval building with Coventry Family History Society and the Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.

We will have displays about the Society and what is going on in the city. We look forward to seeing you there.

Free. See event on Eventbrite