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Coventry Cathedral
Priory Street, Coventry, West Midlands, UK
Coventry Cathedral
associated engineer
Ove Arup & Partners
Povl Ahm
date  1956 - 1962
UK era  Modern  |  category  Cathedral  |  reference  SP335791
photo  Arup
The present Coventry Cathedral dates from 1962. Its predecessor, known as St Michael's, had been all but destroyed by German bombing in World War II. A design competition was organised after the war, attracting some 200 entries and won by architect Basil Spence. Ove Arup & Partners was appointed structural engineer.
Edinburgh-based Spence (1907-1976) became the architect for the replacement cathedral in 1950 — he would be later knighted for his work here. The site was still consecrated ground and his plan called for the retention of the ruins of St Michael's, which are now a dedicated memorial to all civilians killed, injured or traumatised by war or violent conflict. Keeping the remains entailed designing the new cathedral on a non-traditional north-south alignment.
The principal of Ove Arup & Partners, Ove Arup (1895-1998), had supported a rival competition entry, one submitted by architects Alison and Peter Smithson. He later said that he had been disappointed that this proposal had been ignored in the judge’s report. However, their design had failed to meet certain requirements in the brief.
Arup wrote to Spence, congratulating him on the win, eventually securing the commission for the structural work. Povl Ahm (1926-2005), who joined Ove Arup & Partners in 1952, became partner in charge and worked closely with Spence on the design. Arup maintained an active part by holding direct discussions with Spence up to 1954. The first foundation drawings were produced as early as 1952.
Arup is well known for his conviction that engineering input at early stages of the design of a project is critical to the achievement of successful buildings and structures. Interesting, then, that the structure of Spence's building is fairly conventional. Masonry and stained glass are used in much the same way they have been used in cathedral building for centuries.
The main part of the building is 76.2m long by 24m wide. Lining the nave are two rows of slender precast concrete columns that taper towards the floor. At roof level they fan out across the ceiling in a reinterpretation of traditional rib vaulting, hiding the true nature of the roof, which is a folded plane construction. The design is subtle, and not dissimilar in concept to contemporaneous work by engineer Felix Samuely (1902-1959).
The side walls of the cathedral consist of unadorned stone panels, angled in plan, with the spaces between infilled with full-height stained glass windows. These windows are aligned so that light is thrown towards the high altar and the huge tapestry, Christ the Redeemer, designed by artist Graham Sutherland (1903-1980).
At the entrance to the cathedral, a porch and steps link the new and old structures. The porch is roofed using three slender concrete channel sections, supported on slender circular-section concrete columns clad in hewn sandstone. Adjacent to the steps, the bronze sculpture St Michael’s Victory over the Devil by Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) is mounted on a sandstone section of the cathedral wall. This work was completed shortly before the artist's death.
Indeed, the project brought builders into contact with a number of artisans. British artist John Piper (1903-1992) designed the Baptistry stained glass. Piper had visited the site immediately after the wartime bombing and created a series of pictures depicting the ruins.
The new cathedral was a symbolically important building at the time — Britain was now emerging from the austerity and bomb damage of WWII. Steel and cement had been scarce, and available supplies had been directed towards the rebuilding of essential works only.
HM Queen Elizabeth II laid the cathedral foundation stone on March 23rd 1956, and cathedral was reconsecrated on May 25th 1962, accompanied by the première of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.
Architect: Sir Basil Spence
Research: ND
"A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method" by Banister Fletcher
Athlone Press, London, 17th edition, 1963
"Coventry Cathedral (The New Bell's Cathedral Guides)" by John Thomas
HarperCollins / Unwin Hyman, 1987
reference sources   OA

Coventry Cathedral