Coventry Cathedral’s City of Culture Legacy: The first major building project since its consecration, 1962









A&RMÉ architects creates a copper-clad extension for UK City of Culture, 2021

The Cathedral Precinct is an exceptionally significant place comprising the foundations of the medieval St Mary’s Priory Church destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the early 16th century, the standing ruins of St Michael’s Cathedral which burned on the night of 14th November 1940, and the New Cathedral designed by Sir Basil Spence, completed and consecrated in 1962. The Ruins and New Cathedral are separately listed Grade I, and the Cathedral Precinct is located along the north boundary of the Hill Top Conservation Area.

Coventry Cathedral is an international symbol of peace and reconciliation: described as the Phoenix which rose from the ashes of Coventry’s wartime devastation. It is one of Britain’s most important examples of post-war architecture. However, the extraordinary number of visitors who initially flocked to Coventry to visit the post-war reconstruction of the modern city centre and its glorious New Cathedral, has diminished over the years.

Coventry’s celebrations as the UK City of Culture for 2021-22, presented the opportunity to reignite interest in this special place as the Cathedral’s Ruins and the Nave are the largest events spaces within the city centre. The Cathedral embraced the chance to extend its regular arts and events programme and reach new audiences. Pre-pandemic estimates projected that visitor numbers would reach 2.4 million during the City of Culture year.

As thoughts turned to necessary capital improvements at key locations across the city, Coventry Cathedral was invited to suggest essential capital projects, and funding was sourced from a range of public sector partners, including the Local Enterprise Partnership, the DCMS and the City Council as well as major grant making trusts, and local donors.

The major project delivered for 2021 was an extension to the New Cathedral, which created new facilities to support large scale special events held within the Cathedral Precinct.

Architects A&RMÉ ltd, led by Cathedral Architect Kelley Christ, worked closely with the Cathedral’s Making Space for Hope Project Board and statutory consultees  to deliver the programme of work within very tight timescales. The priority was to ensure the CoC2021 investment also helped secure a significant and sustainable longer-term benefit to the Cathedral.

Firstly A&RMÉ prepared a masterplan to contextualise the 2021 capital project as Phase 1 of a multi-phase development to liberate the potential of the north-west corner of the Cathedral Precinct. This area is the site of the Christian Service Centre designed by Sir Basil Spence, which was never built. It is currently a carpark surrounded by other low-quality post-war buildings without special interest.

The new extension was designed to provide a direct connection from the interior of the Cathedral to the future development site. The building is considered a bridge link and the primary structure and positions of the vertical circulation elements (via new passenger lift and external stair) are designed with future building phases in mind.

Direct physical impact upon day-to-day operations within the Cathedral had to be minimised, and so the new extension spans over, and into, the original Spence-designed, stone-clad buildings.  

To unlock the longer-term potential of the masterplan, some demolitions were required:

1) the low-quality 1980’s extension which housed  the Song School was demolished to reinstate the original South Terrace and its connection with the former restaurant space (now Education Room). The Song School was relocated into the Undercroft of the New Cathedral;

2) the roof and interior of the Verger’s Lodge was removed to create a new Multipurpose Room; and

3) a new opening in the external wall of the New Cathedral was formed to connect the interior and the new facilities within the extension. The Swedish Windows were relocated.

The first two changes were not contentious, but the third required extensive consultation with the C20 Society and Cathedral Fabric Commission for England, to unequivocally demonstrate the impact could be counter-balanced by long-term strategic benefits and an enhanced re-presentation of the windows.

The Swedish Windows are an original ‘founding artwork’ comprising five panels of stained glass designed by Einar Forseth. The Barbara Whatmore Charitable Trust funded a specialist condition assessment by Büro Rauch who then specified the necessary repairs. York Glaziers Trust’s workshop conserved the windows in their workshop. They were then returned to a similar position, slightly westward of their present location, as a feature wall within the extension. Significant views from within the Cathedral interior are not compromised.

The Cathedral’s Brief for the CoC2021 Project was simple: to create a flexible multipurpose room to be used as an Education Room or events space for up to 90 people, with associated facilities to serve both this space and the Cathedral itself. These include kitchen, green room, much-needed storage, cloakroom and craft kitchenette for use during schools visits, and 11 new toilets including fully accessible, ambulant and parent room facilities. Back-of-house facilities include more highly serviced areas to allow pop-up catering provision in support of gala dinners held in the Nave.

Accessibility was a key focus for improvements. These include an accessible entrance from the North Terrace, a permanent stone ramp within the New Cathedral interior (stone by Artorius Faber), and a new evacuation lift to connect Cathedral floor and Undercroft (supplied and installed by Morris Vermaport Lifts). Prior to the CoC2021 Project, visitors who could not manage the 4 flights of stairs to the Undercroft had to travel in the 1960s goods lift to access the toilet facilities or to visit the exhibition space.
Designated independent access to the new extension ensures visiting school groups are separated from the public visitor route, and also enables the multipurpose room to be used independently after hours.

Referencing Spence’s original design and materials
Historic England mandated that all new construction should be deferential to the 1962 building fabric, and this design principle dictated the form of the extension: between new and existing building fabric on 5 of 6 sides of the new extension. All abutments were resolved to achieve modern building standards, which demanded tremendous precision in design, detailing and setting out.  

The original Spence-designed composition of the north and south facades is extended into the new building via a three-sided Cantifix rooflight which provides natural light to the multipurpose room and frames views of the Chapel of Unity, St Michael’s spire and also the monumental nave rising above.

Basil Spence used a palette of high-quality natural materials for the post-war reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral which directly inspired A&RMÉ’s selections. Rose-coloured Hollington sandstone to the external walls of the New Cathedral reference St Michael’s Ruins. Accordingly, the cladding of the new extension had to resonate with the Hollington sandstone but appear more ephemeral and lightweight. A&RMÉ specified sheet copper and perforated copper alloy panels, and collaborated with Darrell Warren of Warren & Neale R&C ltd on the bespoke detailing to the facades.

Referencing the original Westmorland slate cladding to the satellite Chapels of Unity and Christ the Servant, textured precast concrete panels clad the new lift shaft (by Lazenby Ltd). Elegant bronze-framed double-glazed windows and external doors were handmade and installed by Architectural Bronze Casements.

Within the interior, the reconstructed reveals to the re-presented Swedish Windows were finished with a fine polished plaster by Viero UK to relate materially, but contrast texturally to the original heavily textured plaster finish to the interior walls to the New Cathedral. The almost black polished concrete floor (Lazenby) was selected to relate visually but contrast materially with the original Kellymount limestone to the Cathedral floor.

To deliver this small but exceptionally complex project, A&RMÉ were fortunate to work with a design team of proven experience including Price & Myers - structural and civil engineers, Laurence Owen Associates - Building Services Engineers and Stace LLP - Quantity Surveyors. The Main Contractor was local firm Harrabin Construction Ltd with the Cathedral’s specialist term contractors including Warren & Neale and Steane Building Services as subcontractors.
The pandemic may have impacted upon visitor numbers to the deferred City of Culture celebrations, but the Cathedral’s legacy has lasting benefit. Isabel Merrifield, Chief Operating Officer observes

We are really enjoying these new spaces and finding new ways to engage with a whole range of users.  The increased floor area may not be huge, but this is transforming how we do events and support schools.  When one of our funders visited a few weeks ago, the rooms were full of school children doing crafts and painting on the subject of difference.  It was great!  The funder was really impressed with what we had made in a relatively small fixed footprint.  We were able to speak so positively about all the good things - level access and toilets.  Not very glamorous, but seriously necessary!’

Several other important projects were also completed in 2019-2021 to mark the most significant phase of evolution in the Cathedral Precinct since the consecration in 1962:

• installation of a new fire alarm system in the New Cathedral;

• restoration of the slate cladding to the Chapel of Christ the Servant;

• essential high-level external masonry repairs to the New Cathedral and its monumental porch, and the spire and tower of the Ruins of St Michael’s;

• replacement of non-original retail units at the west entrance to the New Cathedral with purpose-designed furniture (by RSK Architects) with a materials palette and details inspired by the original features;

• the magnificent Queen’s Steps which link the Ruins and New Cathedral had previously required an intrusive scaffold structure to be built when the Cathedral hosted large scale events in the Ruins, to ensure people could navigate the steps safely in the event of an evacuation. New bronze handrails, matching the Spence originals were installed to improve safe egress at all times. The central handrail is removeable, allowing liturgical procession to continue down the centre of the steps when required.

Photography by George Sharman Photography Ltd and Nick Smith Photography. Special thanks to Kelley Christ at A&RME Architects.



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