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As Coventry Cathedral joins the greats of English architecture, discover the life of its designer Sir Basil Spence; Spence also designed churches in Tile Hill, Willenhall and Wood End.

Byline: John Carlon

Coventry's Cathedral is a true landmark for the city, but this week saw it lauded as a architectural highlight of the nation, after BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz chose it in his top ten buildings for Historic England.

The modern cathedral, which is open every day, is the mother church of the Anglican Diocese ofCoventry.

The design of the building is stinkingly different to the historic buildings in its surrounds, particularly the ruins of Coventry's original cathedral standing beside it.

The rebuilding of Coventry after the second world war was a tremendous task, but the vision of architects at the time created a complete break from the previous century's building styles.

Some of the mid-century buildings are undeniably 'brutalist', and have earned the ire of Coventrians as useless eye-sores.

Why Coventry Cathedral is one of England's heritage gems

But many of the modern buildings, includingSt Michael's Cathedral, have rightfully earned the city's affection for their innovative use of light, space and modern materials.

As Coventry proudly takes its place in the top architectural offerings of England, CoventryLive looks at the life and work of Sir Basil Spence, the man who's vision created the cathedral...

Sir Basil Spence, the architect of Coventry's new St Michael's Cathedral, won the commission for its rebuild after entering plans in a competition in 1951. After the blitz bombings of 1940, much of the centre of Coventry was utterly razed -- including the 14th century cathedral, the ruins of which stand today.

Spence's design is recognisable, unique and an icon of 20th century British architecture, but as well as the cathedral he is responsible for an array of different buildings -- from flats to nuclear power stations.

Outdoor cinema returning to Coventry Cathedral ruins in July

Spence was born on August 13, 1907, in Bombay, to Scottish parents.

His first steps in architecture were working in the office of Sir Edwin Lutyens at the time of planning the new Indian capital of New Delhi.

Lutyens had also drawn plans for the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral -- at the time set to become the world's largest church, but the second world war halted the realisation of what would have been his masterpiece.

From 1912 well into the next decade, Lutyens and his team designed the Viceroy's House in New Delhi -- still one of the world's largest palaces, Rashtrapati Bhavan, still the home of India's presidents.

Meanwhile, Spence consolidated his practice at schools of architecture in London and Edinburgh, and before the war worked on commissions for country estates, such as the Baronial style Broughton House in the Scottish Borders' Tweeddale.

He joined the war effort and took part in the 1940 D-Day landings in Normandy.

Coventry's buildings

He returned to his architectural practice and took on work for the expanding universities through the 1950's -- including the Erasmus Building for the Friar's Court of Queens College Cambridge, and the campus for the University of Sussex, north of Brighton.

These first major developments showed Spence's commitment to relating a building to the landscape, using the same bricks as village buildings in the West Downlands, keeping buildings at a low profile to merge with the rolling hills.

As his designs became more prominent he went on to draw plans for Coventry parish churches with St Oswald's in Tile Hill, St Chad's in Wood End and St John the Divine in Willenhall.

Housing developments by Spence include Laverockbank Crescent in Newhaven, Edinburgh and the Hutchesontown C apartment buildings, in the Gorbals of Glasgow, now demolished.

The towering 33-storey block of the Hyde Park Barracks, home of the officers and families of the Army's Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, is also a Spence design.

It was built in 1970, and though the Ministry of Defence is reported to have been considering its sale for new apartments, the increased terror threat in 2017 means the barracks will continue to be the residence for the Queen's cavalry.

Spence was knighted in 1960, and from 1961 to 1968 he was Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy.

He was architect for the British Embassy at Rome (completed in 1971) and for the British pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada.

For students of his work he retold the process of building the cathedral in 'Phoenix at Coventry' (1962). His 'New Buildings in Old Cities' was also published in 1973.

Spence was the Leeds University Professor of Architecture from 1955 -- 1956, and President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, from 1958 to 1960.

One of Spence's most unusual briefs must have been the Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station, in Gwynedd, Wales. The power station was the only nuclear powered plant sited away from the sea -- its reactors were cooled by the Llyn Trawsfynedd reservoir.

Construction started in 1959, and throughout the period from 1965 to 1991 the power station supplied the national grid.

The station is now more than 20 years into its decommissioning, having ceased generating electricity in 1991.

Decommissioning started in 1993 with the removal of spent fuel and its transfer to Sellafield in Cumbria, where high level radioactive waste is stored.

In total, the demolition of Spence's huge concrete buildings in Snowdonia is expected to take 100 years.

Over the past two decades skilled technicians using robots have been carefully removing intermediate level waste from parts of the site that were exposed to nuclear fuel, such as surface layers of concrete in cooling pools. This waste will be stored in a new building on the site.

The next phase of the decommissioning, between 2020 and 2026, will see the height of the two reactor buildings reduced to lessen their visual impact on the landscape. Parts of the structure, such as the steel pressure vessels which contained the reactors, will remain in place because it is too costly and dangerous to work on them until the radioactivity has decayed further.

Seeing the contrast between Trawsfynedd power station, and Coventry Cathedral, shows the versatility of Spence -- from the imposing blocks and utitlitarian design in Snowdonia, to the reverent and echoing peace of the cathedral.

Planning and housing

Coventry's Cathedral shows that the diocese and the city would not be defeated by the remnants of the war -- its cool solidity gives those inside it a feeling of safety, and the many different smaller chapels give worshippers a chance to experience all parts of the cathedral's life, in a sun room, cosy nooks and informal circular chapels.

Some visitors find it forbidding, some find the building uplifting, but as well as providing a home for Coventry's religious worship it has master works from other 20 century artists -- the tapestry of Graham Sutherland, and John Piper's stained glass windows.

Pat Stansbie, who has worshipped at the cathedral for nearly 30 years, who runs the cathedral's needlework group, told the Coventry Telegraph why she appreciates Spence's design: "I think it is the most wonderful place.

"I first started coming to the cathedral when my sons, Nicholas and Nigel, sang in the choir.

"I like to visit old, more traditional, cathedrals around the country, but I love Coventry Cathedral. I always thoroughly enjoy coming here."

Spence himself described the cathedral as 'an act of passion', and the phoenix motif he focused on can now be seen across Coventry -- from the herald of the university to the badge of the Sky Blues. He died in 1976, and though some of his buildings particularly the public housing commissions failed to stand the test of time, his vision for Coventry has placed the city amongst the great places in England's architectural history, and the cathedral could be a treasure for centuries to come.

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CAPTION(S):

Coventry Cathedral

Basil Spence, Coventry Cathedral architect with a trial piece for the Coventry tapestry, 1962.

Coventry Cathedral

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 15: A horse is groomed in the stables at Hyde Park Barracks on April 15, 2011 in London, England. Members of the Household Cavalry gave a behind the scenes tour of many of the duties performed as part of their daily routine, including special preparation ahead of the forthcoming Royal Wedding. The Household Cavalry will perform several ceremonial duties during the summer, including the Royal Wedding on April 29, and the Queen's Birthday Parade (Trooping the Colour) in June. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Staff pictures from TARK Archive showing Trawsfynydd Power Station in Gwynedd, North Wales. From 2007 and 2011

Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret attend the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. 25th May 1962.

Near Coventry Cathedral before its opening, probably c. April 1962
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Title Annotation:Lifestyle
Publication:Coventry Telegraph (Coventry, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 17, 2018
Words:1461
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