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East Elevation

Coventry Cathedral – East Elevation

I made an architectural pilgrimage to Coventry a couple of weeks ago to experience the cathedral that gave the prefix ‘Sir’ to its architect Basil Spence.


63 years on from its inception as a winning competition entry it is still fresh in its audacity to juxtapose essentially a piece of modern art with the Grade I listed ruins of bombed-out medieval St. Michael’s.

Model of new and old

Model of the new cathedral adjacent the raised ruins

Of all the entrants only Spence’s retained the ruins intact. In doing so he created a tangible atmosphere of memory, progress, contemplation and hope as a dialogue between the two buildings.

New canopy 'link' oversails ruins

New canopy ‘link’ oversails ruins

Seamless connection of old with new

Seamless connection of old with new

The junction between the ruins and the new cathedral are seamlessly executed here – the Hollington sandstone material is matched, with only the differential in weathering creating the distinction. The direct touching of the old and new buildings in a very bold manner surprised me. It may reflect a different approach to the handling of old and new structures compared to today. For me it would have been as effective to leave the statement of tension and relationship between the two simply to the over-sailing canopy. Any thoughts on the range of approaches adopted here at the connection point?
Other questions abound at this link: does the new support the old? what was the state of the original ‘broken edge’* of the ruins before its link with the modern?

* see the entry on Astley Castle



The West Screen designed and etched by John Hutton

The view through the West Screen towards the ruins is a transparent link connecting the new and old cathedrals, mediated by angels – a symbol of resurrection.

Sutherland's altar tapestry - the World's largest

Graham Sutherland’s ‘Christ in Glory’ altar tapestry – the World’s largest

A year ago I visited Basildon Park, Berkshire, where one of the rooms is given over entirely to studies by Sutherland of the tapestry. Hands are hung adjacent feet making even the Georgian room feel compressed – here the complete work displays its full power.

Baptistry window and font

The Baptistry Window by John Piper

I won’t spoil the fun and include any more of the stunning interiors – they really have to be experienced to appreciate their impact so I hope this taster has inspired a visit. What is incredible is to consider the drama, even now, almost seven decades on, of the whole architectural development. The collaboration with artists is integral to the architecture – highlighted by the 20th Century Society and its success is still evident.

If you have visited the cathedral please post your thoughts on the meeting of old and new. If you’ve been inspired to stop by let us know. Particularly interesting would be to hear of contemporary thoughts on the design approach from when it was commissioned.