Architecture: How art revives inner cities

The Urban Task Force will unveil its plans tomorrow for national urban renewal. But Coventry has already started its own. By Nonie Niesewand
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The Independent Culture
Being sent to Coventry has been lucky for the architect Richard MacCormac, of MacCormac Jamieson Prichard. The city is a perfect candidate for a makeover: strangled by a Seventies ring road, shadowed by Sixties cement tower blocks, the centre is a no-go area after dark when shops close. Most people stay at home.

Four years ago Coventry Council pitched for lottery money from the Millennium Commission, with a plan to make Coventry a landmark city. They failed in their bid but they did collect pounds 10m, and scaled down their ambitions accordingly. MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, which had beaten Norman Foster in the competition to design the landmark buildings, found itself commissioned to produce a masterplan for the city centre instead.

What MacCormac has come up with is a project to instal sculptures in public spaces, light them and remove some of the Sixties and Seventies eyesores, which will kick-start an urban regeneration with the support of a strong council. They call the project Phoenix.

In the Fifties, Coventry was a great city with a bustling future. Sir Basil Spence's cathedral, which symbolised its regeneration after the Second World War, still draws a quarter of a million tourists every year. The Cross of Nails made from the wreckage still tours the world as a symbol of peace in our time and Coventry is twinned with 22 other cities across the world that suffered severe bombing and rebuilt themselves. That internationalism is celebrated with MacCormac's plan for the 30-acre site, which creates broad avenues moving from the city's medieval past, a 13th-century priory and nave, past its industrial heritage, Coventry's second most popular tourist attraction, the National Museum of Road Transport, and ending in the Garden of International Friendship, where Kate Whiteford has planted a maze in gravel and raised stone which features inscribed poetry set among lavender bushes.

The National Museum of Road Transport stands as a rather forlorn a monument to the failure of the car industry. Visitors (and there have been 100,000 of them since the council dropped entry charges) currently make their way from the cathedral to the museum on foot, through tangled alleys, car parks and loading bays, and around tower blocks. "Not a pleasurable route," admits the project director, Chris Beck.

This urban jungle will be cleared by Richard MacCormac with compulsory purchase orders, which were issued four weeks ago. The controversial old- Labour planning tool, which the Urban Task Force revives, means that an NCP car park will go, as will two pubs and some smaller retail units. Controversially, Coventry's former Hippodrome, now a bingo hall, will also be bulldozed, even though the Hippodrome Appreciation Society want it restored as a theatre. Coventry Council would rather see 500 units of student accommodation, mixed with private housing for singles or partners without children, which changing demographics in Britain recognise as the new market force. Tenders are now out to property developers.

MacCormac (who worked in the great Sir Basil Spence's practice) intends using the artworks not as bolt-on decoration to his plan, but neatly tailored into it to tell the story of Coventry. Sensors on the pleached limes of the old priory walk, alerted by the approach of visitors, will trigger recordings of Coventry residents reminiscing about their city.

At the medieval priory Chris Brown, a local artist who makes maps of cities, has joined the archaeologists on the dig there to collage an artwork around her findings.

In a poll, the residents declared that what they most wanted in their city was "water". Water will be pooled in slate carved with beautiful patterns by Susanna Heron, and the sound of splashing water will accompany walkers along the route. In the central square there will be a homage to Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine, two triumphal arches of steel over the ring road. There will also be a Millennium Time Zone clock by Francoise Schein, and, sheltering it, a great curved bench by the German sculptor Jochen Gertz, who wants visitors to have their names printed on metal strips which can then be stuck on to the bench. (His monument to the Holocaust in Hamburg is a great black chimneystack made of lead, on which the public can scratch their names, slogans and memories.)

High above the square, a spiralling glass bridge by Alex Beleschenko will make walking overhead a thrilling experience. "The emotional impact stepping on to it will be immediate. It vibrates as well." Richard MacCormac says that he prefers the "architecture of menace" to that of the everyday, which is bland and boring. This bridge, which leads to a garden of remembrance planted by Kate Whitehead, is designed to distract the viewer from one blot on the landscape - the local branch of Sainsbury's. MacCormac wanted the supermarket to move underground on to an adjacent site; the refusal of the company to accommodate this is something that the council just has to live with.

Chris Beck, the project director, admits. "They have a business and we have to accommodate it."

It takes about 15 minutes to complete a stroll along the new route but Chris Beck hopes that people will linger in the spaces provided, eat in the restaurants that will shortly open and keep the core of the city of Coventry alive at night. Revenue generated from this is intended to kick- start the second phase, when the hula hoop of the ring road that chokes the city will be halved.

"Urban acupuncture" is what Barcelona's town planners call this approach, which won them the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1999. Pasqual Marregal, the mayor responsible for weaving together the fragmented city with 140 small projects, less fashionably calls it "darning". He is honest about the difficulties. " At first, low-price housing in Barcelona was seen as a blessing. We thought dwellers would stay if we maintained low prices and new services. Still people left in droves. Ghettos grew." So they lit the city better, provided more street furniture, cleaned it up, and mixed commerce with housing to keep the city busy at night.

Crime rates dropped significantly over a decade. Their message for urban town planners who want to model themselves on this beautiful city is simple. Make the centre more functional, and shape the outskirts. Take a less specialised approach to planning that involves engineers, landscape gardeners and architects, and involve artists early on to make sure that projects transcend the purely functional. Get consensus between public bodies, involve the private sector and have autonomy in design planning and management. Then architecture-driven design will triumph over conventional municipal works.

Now Barcelona is evolving into the centre of a great metropolitan area, the sixth-biggest in Europe. Will this happen to Coventry?


David Ward's light and sound installation in Priory Walk


Susanna Heron's waterfall, copper wall and pool


Glass spiral bridge by Alex Beleschenko


Jochen Gertz's public bench


Jochen Gertz's `The Future Monument'


Millennium Time Zone by Francoise Schein for the Millennium Place