A spot of Fifties spick and span

THE GOOD CITY GUIDE No 3: COVENTRY - Peter Dormer on the pleasures of a city centre rebuilt in the flush of post-war optimism
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The Independent Culture
Coventry is a cathedral city, but if the tourist board tried to push that description too hard most people would cry foul. Coventry is no Winchester, Durham or York, because in reality it is Britain's oldest new town. And, should you want to write the place off as irretrievably carbuncular, then you will find all the ammunition you'll need: ring roads, stumpy office blocks, dull Modern architecture.

Yet the largely rebuilt city centre is a spirited and surprisingly (to the visitor) attractive place, which gets much of its pleasant and kindly urban atmosphere from the uniquely English mixture of Fifties idealism and whimsy in which it is rooted. Apart from the new cathedral, the railway station and the circular market, none of the modern buildings is very interesting, but experienced as a whole, the centre of this small city works comfortably. There is a lesson here: modern planners ain't all the fools we like to take them for.

The Coventry we see today has been shaped by three principal events: the bombing raids of the Forties, the spirit of the Festival of Britain (1951) and the city's recovery in the late Eighties from the near-disastrous decline in manufacturing industry between the late Seventies and mid- Eighties.

The Blitz of 1940 razed large parts of the centre, but, with the exception of London, no other city has kept the memory of German air raids alive as doggedly as Coventry. The focus of this is Coventry cathedral, designed by Sir Basil Spence and, until Lloyd's built its daring new concrete, steel and glass headquarters in the City of London, this was Britain's most famous Modern building.

The "Phoenix at Coventry" has been marketed rigorously as a kind of spiritual theme park. It attracts convoys of coaches from around the world, and to each visitor the story of that terrible night in November 1940 is told afresh.

Spence's building is idiosyncratic, yet the transition as one walks from the ruins of the old cathedral beneath a high and windy arch to enter the new is one of the few great and moving experiences in post-war English architecture. For religious and non-religious alike, these few steps can capture the post-war excitement of rebuilding in hope and without cynicism. Inside the building, the contemporary decorative art is clumsy and neurotic. Much of it is as embarrassing as a clap-happy, guitar-playing curate trying to get in tune with local youth. Even so, many people adore the huge, brightly coloured stained-glass window that John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens designed for the baptistry.

To the annoyance of Coventry's shopkeepers, who want more trade from the pilgrims, the coach parties, having "done" the cathedral, zoom away with purses and wallets to "do" Shakespeare at nearby Stratford-upon-Avon. If they stayed in Coventry a while longer, they could discover many small pleasures - a city centre where narrow lanes still lead to small courtyards and on, inevitably, to malls of all sizes, to suit most tastes.

Walkers come off well in a city that was at the hub of the motor industry for many years and home to famous marques such as Jaguar (now in American ownership). In fact, Coventry pioneered the pedestrianisation of modern city streets in England; together with the domestic scale of the first phase of the city's rebuilding that took place in the Forties and Fifties, this lends it a cosy and remarkably car-free atmosphere.

Cosiness and tidiness are the bedrock ideals of post-war Coventry, a consequence perhaps of its being rebuilt under the inspiration of the values of a skilled working class in which there is a place for everything and everything in its place. For example, it became apparent that although Coventry had several old and valuable buildings, including two-storey, timber-framed houses of the 17th century, they were looking increasingly silly and vulnerable dotted as islands of decaying antiquity among the new brick and concrete. So, building by building, each house was taken down, restored and then placed next to one another on both sides of what is now "historic" Spon Street. This street has been saved from tweeness because it has not been themed: the ground floors are occupied by shops that sell everyday things you need, rather than useless gifts.

Coventry was also the first English city to introduce video cameras; the first to ban the drinking of alcohol in the street; and, most recently, the first where court orders have been used to ban known trouble-makers from certain housing estates.

That all things should be spick-and-span and polite was the goal of the urban renewal of the Fifties, but one part of the original post-war shopping development, the Lower Precinct, failed because it was too gloomy, and its double-deck design failed to attract shoppers. Yet, just as city planners were about to implement improvements, including glazing over the precinct and turning it into a sort of gazebo, along came English Heritage. Seeing through the tattiness to the still-intact carnival spirit of the Festival of Britain, it said things had to be left as they were.

The style of the Fifties is more prevalent in Coventry than in any other British city. This is not just because of the Blitz, but because by 1960 Coventry had all but finished with the redressing of its centre and had then proceeded to ignore it for the next 25 years, leaving intact a generation of architectural and design thinking that smacks of the governments of Attlee, Churchill, Eden and Macmillan.

In the Nineties, in order to attract shoppers back to the city, Coventry built a big indoor mall with all the trimmings, from fairy-lit glass lifts to eateries and American-style security guards. Which is why when you walk along Smithford Way, one of the main streets of the Fifties rebuilding, you find yourself straddling an architectural fault line. By crossing the road you can travel to and fro, 40 years in time: on one side, you are in the Nineties, walking beneath the muscular tubular- steel canopy that fronts the battleship-grey bulk of the West Orchard mall; on the other, you are back in the domestic innocence of the early Fifties, popping in and out of small shops housed in two-storey brick boxes.

The immediate future, rather than the past, is what concerns the city council, some of whose older members cut their socialist teeth on property deals and rebuilding and who find such notions as the proposed listing of Coventry station risible. Two large areas, one in the centre and one abutting it, are about to be redeveloped. The larger of the two includes offices, houses and a science park. Coventry will do this well. The smaller development in the centre will tax the councillors' imagination more heavily: it is concerned with those guiding spirits of the Nineties, lottery and leisure. When Coventry station was built, leisure would have spelt "ballroom"; today, the word is "casino". After years of sitting comfortably in its tidy nest, the phoenix of Coventry feels it's time for a bit of a flutter.