What on earth were they thinking?
When the war ended in 1945, more than 2 million homes in the UK had been destroyed or badly damaged, leaving millions of people homeless. Transport, infrastructure and industry had all sustained massive damage. Food was in short supply, and rationing continued into the mid-1950s. Britain made its final payment to the US Treasury on its debt of $4.34 billion in December 2006. It was a long, hard slog back. Britons might be forgiven for wondering who had actually won the war.
I can understand the bleak outlook—the “never to forget”.
But something went sadly awry when Coventry’s cathedral came to be rebuilt.
A commission struck in 1947, chaired by Lord Harlech, concluded that the cathedral should be in the Gothic tradition. In addition, the Cathedral Council stipulated that it should harmonise with the surviving tower and spire.
But in 1951, when invitations were extended for designs for rebuilding the Cathedral, these recommendations were ignored.
Three architects from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) made the selection. Scottish architect Basil Spence, then best known for designing the Sea & Ships pavilion on London’s South Bank, was appointed.
RIBA wanted modern, and that’s what Coventry got. To hell with the piffling bourgeoisie.
The result is bleak, to say the least. Concrete walls enclose the nave, unrelieved by any adornment as one gazes towards the altar, whose backdrop is a massive tapestry.
My parish priest used to refer to artwork featuring the risen Christ as “Our Lord of the Trampoline”. I can only imagine his remarks on this rendition. “Our Lord of the Egg”??
There is quite a lot of stained glass in the cathedral, but it’s only apparent when facing towards the rear of the building.
The zig-zag walls of the nave conceal the presence of the vertical inserts to those facing forward towards the altar. While colourful, it’s aggressively abstract.
Even more puzzling is that in 1939 the medieval glass from the cathedral was stored in thirty wooden crates in the cellars of a rectory near Stratford-on-Avon, where it remained until 1957. Basil Spence wanted to incorporate some of it in his new design. He and other designers pawed through the cases of glass, selecting pieces to be installed in the new cathedral.
It could easily have been placed back into its original location. Instead, they’ve destroyed any possibility of that by removing vital elements of the original designs. But maybe that was the intention. Criminal.
Astonishingly, the walls of the old Cathedral are still largely intact.
The shell survived the bombing that laid waste to the interior.
It needed reinforcement and a new roof, but that would have been too simple, apparently. Rather than restore the beautiful building that now sits empty and exposed to the elements; a modern industrial space was tacked onto its side. Why, exactly?
No opportunity is lost to dwell upon the horrors of the past, all under the auspices of “reconciliation”.
I found the new cathedral to be incredibly depressing. It evidences none of the “just get on with it” spirit of post-war Britain.
Medieval cathedrals have survived and surmounted the evils of humanity for centuries: the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the ensuing religious persecutions of both Catholics and Protestants, and the destruction wrought by Parliamentary iconoclasts followed by decades of decay. The Victorian era ushered in a flurry of restoration and repair; they would have brought St. Michael’s back to life with little fuss or bother. Instead, we got this.
The final straw was the baptismal font. Seriously, it looks like a garden planter awaiting soil.
I ask you, would you want your infant baptised in that?
There are many examples of successful blends of modern and historic architecture. Guildford Cathedral is entirely modern. The exterior is nothing to write home about.
But the interior is light and uplifting.
And they have a gorgeous baptismal font. It can be done.
All in, is a visit to Coventry’s New Cathedral worth the effort? The design is still described as “controversial”. But yes, I think it is. If only to see for yourself and make up your own mind. It’s not my cup of tea (clearly), but some people like mid-century modern. You may be one of them. 🙂