Exhibition at Priory Visitor Centre from 11-4 with guided and self-guided tours. Coventry’s Civic Day project in support of Historic England’s Campaign for the protection of post-war architecture
City of Culture looms yet here we are proposing to radically change parts of our historic post-war centre. Keith Draper asks: “Isn’t it time to champion the importance of our post-war developments? Even mount a 2021 exhibition linking the 1951 Festival of Britain to our city’s ‘Golden Age’. On Victory Day 1946 a large crowd gathered on the site of the city’s new precinct to witness the unveiling of the Phoenix levelling stone, a slab of Cumberland granite carved to a design by Coventry’s first architect Donald Gibson and his artist friend Trevor Tennant. It would signal the beginning of a groundbreaking project that would bring about the construction of the first major traffic-free precinct in Europe. Coincidentally as the country recovered from war, in London His Majesty’s Government had decided to stage a nation-wide festival to mark the Centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was planned and constructed under the direction of eminent architect, interior designer, artist, and writer and broadcaster on 20th-century design, Hugh Casson. The exhibition was an antidote to post-war austerity, would improve morale, and significantly, champion the country’s hugely important industries. Festival architects would use the design and layout of the South Bank Festival as examples of what could be achieved by applying modern town planning ideas. The Festival Style combined modernism with whimsy and Englishness, championing national achievements, inventions, and would attract all-important custom from abroad. The opportunity was taken to show off modern architecture, design, and planning principles. The influence of the Festival Style would be felt in the new towns, coffee bars and office blocks all over Britain. Harlow new town and the rebuilding of Coventry city centre showed the influence of the Festival Style in their light structures, picturesque layout and commissioning of public art. Those fortunate to go down to London will surely have vivid memories of the trip. As a youngster of nine I recall the train
journey and the stay in a B&B just off Kensington High Street. The special bus tickets to the South Bank are somewhere in my box of mementoes and the Festival of Britain Guide priced at 2/6d still has a place on my bookshelf. Memories of the South bank site are hazy but the guide itself acts as a perfect aide memoir. The flying saucer-like Dome of Discovery contained a whole myriad of displays covering the New World, the Polar regions, the Sea, the Sky and Outer Space. A staggering story of discovery and adventure for any youngster. Perimeter pavilions featured all that was good in Britain. Its minerals, power and production, sea and ships, homes and gardens, new schools, health, sport and telecinema. What an impression. The Telecinema was the first cinema in the world to be designed and built to show films and television. Multiple sound tracks enabled stereophonic speech and music. Sound in front, from above and behind. Amazing stuff in 1951. Arts festivals took place around the country. Stratford-uponAvon was the venue for our local show with events from March to October. Travelling exhibitions toured the country with the Festival ship ‘Campania’ stopping off at towns and cities as far apart as Plymouth and Dundee. The story continues over page with a few memories of Coventry’s Festive Style.
Dr Nick Mallinson will take us on a tour of its workshop and energy innovation facilities. Approach along road from gatehouse on Gibbet Hill Road, turning into University Road. The car park to use is immediately left. Follow route around the building to reception. Strictly limited numbers and members only. Book with Les Fawcett on 024 7627 5460. First come, first served.
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Donald Gibson’s vision deliberately avoided the more frivolous elements of the Festival of Britain, but surely the whimsical Godiva Clock has something of the Rowland Emett principles in its design. The mechanism and tracks for Godiva's horse and Peeping Tom were designed and made by City Apprentices from the local college with the aid of Donald Gibson, who had seen a neighbour's son playing with a mechanical toy which when pulled along the horse looked like it was galloping. The Lady Godiva, her horse, and Peeping Tom were carved from wood by Trevor Tennant a sculptor who was working on other projects in the city. Broadgate House opened in 1953—the first major new building in the city centre. The initial stages of two comprehensive secondary schools—The Woodlands and Caludon Castle opened the following year. Note the interior design of Caludon pictured right. In 1955 the first stage of the Collage of Arts and Technology opened and two further comprehensives took in their first students— Whitley Abbey and Lyng Hall. The Hotel Leofric opened the same year and was described as the finest at the time. Note the period décor of the ballroom pictured left. In the same year Coventry's pedestrianised Precinct shopping area came into its own and was considered one of the best retail experiences outside London. Then in 1956 Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh laid the foundation stone of the new Cathedral. Nearby, the Herbert Art Gallery opened to the public. 1958 saw another visit by royalty when HRH the Duchess of Kent declared open the Belgrade Theatre. It was the first civic
theatre to be built in Britain after the Second World War and was described by the critic Kenneth Tynan as ’one of the greatest decisions in local government’. Festival features abound here, the theatre itself having been influenced by the design of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. Coventry's motor industry boomed during the 1950s and 1960s. Disposable income of Coventrians was among the highest in the country and both sports Whimsical Peeping Tom and Lady Godi- and the arts benefited. A new sports va and the Rowland centre, with one of the few Olympic Emett steam locomo- standard swimming pools in the UK, was constructed and Coventry City Football tive Nellie Club reached the First Division of English football. In 1961 the Lanchester College of Technology opened on a site in Cope Street opposite the new Cathedral. Thirty years later it would aspire to become Coventry University. In the same year the government gave the go-ahead for a new university to be built on farmland at Gibbet Hill. The first Caludon Castle School by City students took up their places Architect Arthur Ling. in October 1965 and the establishment rapidly became one of the country's leading higher -education institutions. It’s open to question as to how much influence the Festival of Britain in 1951 had on the design of post-war Coventry. In my opinion there’s plenty of design and art here that chimes well with the ground breaking show on the South Bank.
Festival titling was designed by Phillip Boydell and cut by Monotype in 1950 as the official display face for the Festival of Britain, a national exhibition held throughout the United Kingdom in the summer of 1951. The typeface was used for all official Festival announcements and was made available for general use in 1952. The Festival itself was an attempt to give Britons a feeling of recovery and progress and to promote better-quality design in the rebuilding of British towns and cities. It ran for five months before closing in September 1951. It had been a success and turned over a profit as well as being extremely popular. In the month that followed the closure however, a new Conservative government was elected to power. Interestingly, it is generally believed that the incoming Prime Minister Churchill considered the Festival a piece of socialist propaganda, a celebration of the achievements of the Labour Party and their vision for a new Socialist Britain. In the event the order was quickly made to level the South Bank site removing almost all trace of the show. The only feature to remain was the Royal Festival Hall which is now a Grade I listed building, the first post-war building to become so protected and is still hosting concerts to this day.
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The June 2018 edition of the Coventry Society (UK), the civic society for the city of Coventry UK