THIRTY years have passed since the architecture critic Ian Nairn described Coventry's shopping precinct as 'probably the best thing of its kind in Europe'. Here was a shopping environment planned on a human scale, coherent without being monolithic. But if he could visit Coventry in 1992, Nairn, who died in 1983, might not be so impressed.
It was not so much the individual buildings that caught his eye, nor the shops within them. But he felt that 'the spaces are all right, and the basic feel of the place is all right'. Today he would find those spaces cramped and cluttered.
Not content with grafting two intrusive modern indoor shopping centres on to Sir Donald Gibson's Fifties design, the city council intends to allow another private developer to extend the shop frontages along Market Way at the heart of the precinct. The space available to passers-by will be reduced by half, from 28m (92ft) to 14m (46ft). Twelve horse-chestnut trees will be chopped down and replaced by maples, considered more suitable for a city centre.
The proposal, by Oppidan Estates, a London developer, has been approved in principle by the city's planning committee and is expected to be completed by Christmas 1994. It is hoped the economy will have improved enough by then for the five extra shopping units to be snapped up.
The council argues that Market Way looks tired and tatty and needs to be dragged into the Nineties. 'There are a lot of elements that are out of fashion now,' says Chris Pancheri, an architect-planner in the civic design section. 'It doesn't fit in with what contemporary retailing needs.'
A model of the scheme shows glass canopies extending from the shop fronts, topped with banners on poles, which Mr Pancheri hopes will distract attention from the 12- storey Seventies office block, Coventry Point, that breaks up the broad sweep of Market Way.
Round the corner from Market Way, Land Securities, another London developer, is planning to 'upgrade' the two-level Upper Precinct and replace the Fifties footbridge providing access to shops on its upper balcony level. The new bridge, Mr Pancheri promises, will be 'a neat, light and elegant structure that doesn't interrupt the view any more than the existing one does'.
It is a little late to worry about the view. Gibson designed the Upper Precinct so that the surviving spire of the old, bombed cathedral would be the focal point. That striking vista has now been obscured by the Cathedral Lanes shopping centre, built with Kuwaiti money on a previously grassy recreation area in Broadgate, the city's main square.
When the old bridge goes, so will two expressionist reliefs by Walter Ritchie that currently provide a roost for the city's pigeons. The sculptor, however, will not mourn the bridge or his portrayal of 'Man's Struggle' beneath it. 'Sculpture should be open to the sky,' he says. 'It was fatal to stick it under there. When the council rang me and asked me where I thought they should relocate it, I suggested the nearest tip. I could do much better now.'
The canopy in front of the Cathedral Lanes centre has not gone down well, either. Loosely modelled on the Mound Stand at Lord's Cricket Ground, it covers William Reid Dick's elegant bronze of Lady Godiva, which has been rotated 90 degrees and now looks more like a developer's adornment than a civic statue.
Most intrusive of all is the escalator, covered in green glass, that juts into the middle of the Upper Precinct like a derailed train. It is there to convey shoppers into the side of the West Orchards development, completed last year by the Burton Group.
The frontage of West Orchards, on Smithford Way, has a light grey covering that makes it look like a giant convector heater. It is totally out of scale with its surroundings. The developers insisted on demolishing the glass tower of the old Locarno ballroom (converted in the Eighties into a central library), which they considered detracted from the approach to the new shopping centre.
All these unhappy changes provide evidence that private developers now call the tune in Coventry - in marked contrast to Gibson's day, when the local authority had power and financial clout.
It also had the Government's blessing. In 1941 a civic deputation was taken to lunch at Claridge's by the Minister of Works, Sir John (later Lord) Reith. The city was encouraged to plan a bold and comprehensive resurrection from the blitz and not to worry too much about money or local boundaries. Reith said: 'Coventry would be a test case, not for me and my authority, but for the Government and for England.'
The country's first pedestrianised shopping precinct was built in a mellow red brick that has stood the test of time. The undersides of the canopies are finished in wood and the pillars are of Westmorland green slate. There is still much to admire. The Twentieth Century Society is keen that what remains of Gibson's legacy should be preserved. 'Coventry is one of the gems of post-war development,' says the society's case officer, Julian Holder. 'If this was the centre of a medieval market town, it would be restored with care.'
The chairman of the city's planning committee, Phil Robinson, is not impressed by that argument. 'Because it was the first of its kind, it doesn't have to become a museum piece. It has to be brought up to date.' And that process will include the as yet untouched Lower Precinct, built in Festival of Britain style, which manages to convey a sense of intimacy and space.
On present form, it seems unlikely that whatever 'upgrade' scheme is chosen will ever be described as 'probably the best thing of its kind in Europe'.
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