Coventry’s Modernist Jewel

29 May

Having admired Basil Spence’s architecture for years and only last Thursday had the chance to see in the flesh Coventry Cathedral, his masterpiece. It was a truly stunning experience. Nothing could have prepared me for the volumetric variations, the quality of the finishes and the brilliant clarity of the design.

Coventry Cathedral was a most controversial project that kept Spence redesigning the overall look but also numerous of the details in the decades it took to realise the building. The finished article does not read at all tortured or unresolved. The very feel of the nave is a perfect blend of old fashioned monumentality but in detailed high quality modernist finish. In many ways it reminds me (most obviously the columns supporting the roof) of Arne Jacobsen’s St Catherine’s College, Oxford dining hall with it’s uninterrupted volume and meticulous finishes.

Coventry’s Cathedral is an enthralling, exhilarating space, the feeling of discovering the chapels and their very creative interplay with natural light is an intriguing blend of a Sci-Fi film set fused with constructivist utopias and  an architect’s grand vision. The inherent processional movement of the visitors through the body of the building is acknowledged with intriguing contrasts and revealing unexpected vistas. The way the side bays contain the colourful stained glass windows reveal themselves as one walks from the altar down the naive is both elegant and ultimately thoughtful, as when one sits on the chairs for a service or a concert the eye focuses on the altar as the angle of the windows makes them nearly invisible. Thus allowing the audience to be concentrated.

The much reviled Graham Sutherland tapestry taking over the end wall is truly spectacular in scope and a great piece of decoration in the most grand tradition. Spence’s beautiful dual aspect windows lighting it up, animate the surface and also provide with gorgeous pure white light to make the green background shine. They are allowing for a dramatic contrast with the diffused light in the rest of the nave. Photographs do not do justice to the subtle textural differences between materials and the quality of light, comfortable feel and the overall scale of the building.

All the lucky people present for the 50th anniversary performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem are in for a great treat, the acoustic will surely envelop them and pay tribute to the idealism and sense of purpose that made it happen.

PS Due to posting this from my mobile connection and without 3G the photographs I took there will not be online till the end of the week. They will hopefully communicate some of the complexity and cohesion of the design and how it all fits together.


You can now view the slideshow of the photos I took during the visit to the Cathedral

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