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Modernisation rules in 1962

Hugh Pearman

As post-war rebuilding gets under way architects gathering in Coventry looked to the future, not the past

The annual RIBA Conference, now replaced with smaller, more focused events such as Guerilla Tactics, used to be a really big number, held in various key locations around the UK and even (in its last iteration in the first decade of the 21st century) in places such as Paris and Venice. But in July 1962 the profession came together in Coventry. The theme was ‘Building and Planning in the Motor Age’. The September Journal devoted eight pages to it though a perhaps related topic was seen as even more important – nine pages in the same issue were given to a discussion on prefabrication.

This is early in the Sixties – before the release of the Beatles’ first LP – memories of the Blitz were still strong, bomb sites were everywhere, and Coventry had notoriously suffered more than most. Reconstruction was well under way. On 30 May that year, its new cathedral designed by Sir Basil Spence – the ‘Phoenix at Coventry’ as he called it in his own published account – had been inaugurated with Benjamin Britten’s specially-commissioned War Requiem.

Not that RIBA President Sir Robert ­Matthew, himself a veteran of post-war ­reconstruction with his Royal Festival Hall, mentioned the cathedral, and nor did anyone else in the RIBAJ report. Instead, he drew attention to another aspect of the city’s rebuilding, and in a particularly revealing manner.

They were meant to be discussing traffic in towns but they all wanted to see the canal restoration.
They were meant to be discussing traffic in towns but they all wanted to see the canal restoration.

‘Here in this city, in the aftermath of the Blitz, your City Architect and his team prepared the first design actually to be executed in this country for a pedestrian town centre. Indeed, Sir Donald Gibson’s team had the foresight to begin to redesign the centre before the blitz. The blitz partially cleared the site but the architects had realised that reconstruction of the centre to meet the needs of a greatly expanded city was going to be necessary in any event…the Coventry plan, because it was never muscle-bound by formal design, had been flexible enough to change with changing needs, and was today accommodating vastly greater numbers of cars than were ever thought of in the 1940s without infringing the basic principles of the original conception.’

Here (as also seen in the County of London Plan of 1943, RIBAJ 125 archive page June 2018) is evidence supporting the old jibe that architects and planners destroyed more than the Luftwaffe in their modernising zeal. Now of course the ‘new’ buildings are themselves historic, and listed (Coventry Cathedral, railway station and most recently key buildings in Gibson’s Upper Precinct, 1948-58, as praised by Matthew).

Guest of honour was minster of transport Ernest Marples, a controversial figure who brought us the M1 motorway, yellow lines and traffic wardens, frequently accused of conflict of interest because he owned a road-construction company and inaugurated the Beeching closure of railway lines. Even so, he warned against ‘the Los Angeles solution’. Motorways had ruined that city, he pointed out. 

Others referred to planner Colin Buchanan’s warning that ‘there were limits to the traffic capacity of any area if tolerable ­environmental standards were to be achieved.’ A photo of delegates on a conference tour shows a yearning for a different kind of environment: a narrow boat piled high with delegates is seen making its way through a lock on the Stratford-on-Avon ­canal, then being restored. A reminder that the post-war years were not just about massive rebuilding, but also about a spirited conservation movement