Saturday, April 19, 2008
Gibson plan was done on lounge carpet
Today top architects from London and Los Angeles are redesigning parts of Coventry City Centre and the City Council's urban design team are trying to stitch it all together. 70 years ago it was very different…
Long before the Blitz of 1940 highly influential architect Donald Gibson was already planning Coventry's new centre. His idea to separate motor traffic and pedestrians was radical and would finally sweep away centuries old medieval streets. This first glimmering of a civic design came about in unusual circumstances. He later explained: "We worked unofficially on a plan for the central area; our wives joined in and it was more or less done on the carpet at home in the evenings."
Donald Gibson was a young man of twenty-nine when he joined the City Council to head a newly established department of architecture. He had been deputy County Architect of the old county Isle of Ely.
In truth the newly formed Department of Architects had yet to prove its worth, but in February 1939 collaboration with the long established City Engineer's Department resulted in a first plan for the city centre. A model of the ideal centre for Coventry was the centre piece of an exhibition to stimulate public interest. A series of lectures on aspects of town planning were also made by well-known authorities like the renowned town planner Thomas Sharp and Clough Williams-Ellis of Port Meirion fame.
A competition was organised for the public to put forward its own ideas for a new central area. But just nine months after the architects had begun work war was declared with Germany. Hardly surprising the scheme went into cold storage.
After the devastating Blitz of November 1940 Coventry's Mayor and top officials went to see Lord Reith, Minister of Works and Buildings seeking help in the rebuilding of the city. He took them to lunch at Claridges and told them:
"...should be a test case, not for me and my authority, but for the Government and for England." In short, they were urged to plan a bold and comprehensive resurrection and not worry about the finance at this stage.
By now engineers and architects were showing very different ideas for Coventry's new city centre. Each department would present its plan to the Planning Committee for a ruling. The architects' ideas were chosen and primary responsibility for future town planning was vested in Donald Gibson. By March 1941 Coventry people were invited to look at his sketches and plans for a new city.
Central theme of the Gibson plan would be car-free shopping precincts radically different from anything that had gone before. Upper and lower level pavements would be created with buildings faced in traditional red brick relieved by green Westmorland slate. Shoppers were promised a clear view of the cathedral spire.
Instead of fireworks at Victory Celebrations in 1946 Gibson was authorised to commission a levelling stone at the head of the main precinct. It would serve as a benchmark for all central redevelopment. The stone was ready in time for Victory Day, June 9, 1946. That same year the Council applied for an order that would enable the compulsory purchase of land.
Coventry City Council presented its Development Plan to the Ministry in 1951 and by this time the Broadgate Garden Island had been constructed with gifts of bulbs and shrubs from the people of the Netherlands (see the early illustration above). The green square was opened by Princess Elizabeth in the May of 1948.
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