Coventry Cathedral: Art and Architecture in Post-War Britain

By Louise Campbell | Go to book overview

Introduction

THE project to build a new cathedral at Coventry--a project conceived in 1940 in the aftermath of an air-raid which devastated the centre of the medieval city--was to spawn a long and impassioned controversy. The site, the style, the size, and the cost of the new cathedral were fiercely debated from 1942, when the Provost set about appointing an architect, until the result of the architectural competition of 1951 was announced. Eleven years later, the completed cathedral building triggered fresh debates, generated enormous public interest and attracted huge numbers of visitors. They were enthralled by the spectacular integration of works of art, the elegant display of technology, and the poignant use of the ruins of the old cathedral. In 1962 Coventry Cathedral--like the Royal Festival Hall in 1951--was probably the most spectacular modern building which many of its visitors had ever seen. But to the eyes of the next generation, accustomed to the great public and commercial buildings of the 1970s, Coventry Cathedral looked different. In Penelope Lively novel The Road to Lichfield of 1977, the heroine contrasts her response to the cathedral with her enthusiastic reactions soon after the consecration: 'The cathedral is as it was in nineteen sixty-three but I am not . . . somewhere along the way I appear to have lost my taste for it'.1

During the same period, modern architecture was subjected to a close reappraisal and a savage critique. In its aftermath, the project to build a new cathedral at Coventry lost its excitement. For tourists, a twentieth-century cathedral perhaps seemed less remarkable than a medieval one. By the 1990s, Coventry Cathedral received fewer visitors than the older cathedrals.2

Critical opinion, largely admiring in 1962, also changed. Among the bouquets in 1962, a few critics, raising their eyebrows at the traditional plan and the materials of which Coventry Cathedral was built, and questioning the wisdom of building a cathedral in the twentieth

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1
'I can't think how I ever approved of the tapestry, it seems hideous now, and the furnishings have dated so. Very Festival of Britain.' The Road to Lichfield ( London, 1977), 158.
2
The most visited British cathedrals in 1992 were York Minster and Canterbury (2,250,000 visitors), St Paul's, Salisbury, Winchester, St Albans, Wells, Lincoln, and Durham (365,000 visitors). Coventry Cathedral received 350,000. Figures taken from Report by Archbishops' Commission of Cathedrals, 1994.

-1-

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Coventry Cathedral: Art and Architecture in Post-War Britain
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS v
  • Contents vii
  • List of Color Plates ix
  • LIST OF BLACK AND WHITE PLATES xi
  • Abbreviations xix
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I. Architecture and Politics 5
  • 1 The Cathedral and the City: The Blitz, Civic Ideology And Reconstruction 7
  • 2 The Cathedral Project 1940-1947 22
  • 3 'towards a New Cathedral'? 37
  • Part II. The Creative Process 69
  • 4 Modernism and Tradition: The Genesis of Spence's Competition Design 71
  • 5 The Competition Design Refined, 1951-1954 81
  • 6 The Architect and the Artist 102
  • Part III. Design into Building 131
  • 7 The Licence to Build, 1954 133
  • 8 The Turning-Point, 1954-1956 141
  • 9 The Design Recast, 1956-1958 148
  • Pa IV. For and Function 193
  • 10 The Modern Church 195
  • 11 Provost and Architect 206
  • 12 The Cathedral Completed, 1960-1962 216
  • 13 The Cathedral and the Post-War World: Austerity and Triumphalism 243
  • Conclusion 254
  • APPENDIX: DONATIONS 276
  • Bibliography 278
  • Index 283
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