11 July 2023
Coventry mural honours
Gordon Cullen’s ‘Townscape’
and architectural vision
What comes to mind first when you think of Coventry?
Basil Spence’s Cathedral?
Being sent to Coventry?
Bikes and cars?
Philip Larkin, perhaps?
When most people think of Coventry and its ‘townscape,’ I imagine, they think too of brash, modern architecture, and forget that much of mediaeval Coventry was not wiped out in the Blitz, as I was reminded in recent weeks when I visited Spon End, Holy Trinity Church, Ford’s Hospital, the ruins of Whitefriars, Saint Mary’s Hall and Cheylesmore Manor.
Yet, contrary to popular notions, much of Coventry’s post-war architecture was a brave and innovative effort to build a proud new city after the devastation of the Blitz.
The Precinct has been renovated in recent decades, with new water features and shared public space, along with finding a new location for a ceramic mural designed in 1958 by the architect, artist and writer, Thomas Gordon Cullen (1914-1994), for the people of Coventry as an important feature of the post-war reconstruction of the city centre.
The mural was commissioned by the City Planning and Redevelopment Committee, on the recommendation of Arthur Ling, Chief Architect to the Corporation.
Cullen became a cult figure in architectural circles in the post-war period when his ideas for the improvement of towns and the control of traffic were frequently published. He is credited as originator of the term ‘Townscape’ which became the title of his book on the subject published in 1961.
Cullen is well-known for the opening sentence that introduced one of his articles: ‘There is only one way to enjoy what a town has to offer the eye, and that is the pedestrian’s way.’
The mural was originally sited at the entrance to the Lower Precinct on the ramp leading down to the lower level and on adjacent walls. It originally included maps of the mediaeval city and the new Coventry, drawn in the style of maps of the periods.
The main mural had images of the early Coventry, from pre-historic to the late mediaeval and including the Georgian and the modern era, with references to the city’s then industries. Sadly, the mediaeval maps were destroyed through careless workmanship in the 1970s.
The redevelopment of the Lower Precinct by Arrowcroft Group Plc, funded by Scottish Life was completed in 2002. This, involved widening the ramp entrance of the Lower Precinct to improve the principal access. This involved relocating the mural to a new location.
In their original position, the tiles were securely bonded onto a 450 mm thick concrete retaining wall, from which they could not have been removed without causing damage to the mural.
Arrowcroft, with the support of their building contractor, Costain-Skanska, agreed a method statement with English Heritage so that the wall was cut from the rear into slices, each weighing between 2.5 and 3.5 tons. These were lifted by crane to the new, current location in the Precinct, where the wall sections were re-assembled to recreate the mural.
The tiles were then treated by specialist ceramic restorers, Jackfield Conservation Studio, to remove accumulated deposits and to repair the mural to a condition in which it can be appreciated as an important element in the city’s modern history.
The present panels depict: Pre-Historic Times, Post-War Regeneration, the Motor Car, Watch Making; the Bicycle Industry, 18th century Ribbon Making, and the Post-War Masterplan.
The mural is also a tribute to the life and creativity of Gordon Cullen who was a key motivator in the Townscape movement. Cullen presented a new theory and methodology for urban visual analysis and design based on the psychology of perception, such as on the human need for visual stimulation and the notions of time and space.
Cullen was born in Calverley, Pudsey, near Leeds, in 1914 and studied architecture at the Royal Polytechnic Institution, now the University of Westminster. He later worked as a draughtsman in various offices including Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton, although he never actually qualified or practised as an architect.
Because of his poor eyesight Cullen was not conscripted during World War II, and instead he worked in the planning office of the Development and Welfare Department in Barbados in 1944-1946.
When he returned to London, he joined the Architectural Review as a draughtsman and then as a writer on planning policies. He produced a large number of influential editorials and case studies on the theory of planning and the design of towns, influencing many improvements in the urban and rural environment in the 1950s and 1960s.
His mural in the foyer of Greenside Primary School in west London, designed by Erno Goldfinger, was completed in 1953. His ceramic mural in Coventry, depicting the history of the city and its post-war regeneration, is on a much grander scale, and was completed in 1958.
As a freelance writer and consultant, Cullen advised Liverpool and Peterborough on their city reconstruction and redevelopment plans. In the 1960s he advised the planning aspects of the Ford Foundation’s work in New Delhi and Calcutta. His later work included advising the city of Glasgow and the London Docklands Development Corporation.
He formed the architectural practice of Price & Cullen, with a former student, David Price, and they designed the Swedish Quays housing development in the London Docklands.
Cullen lived in the small village of Wraysbury in Berkshire from 1958 until he died at the age of 80, on 11 August 1994.
He book Townscape (1961) remains an important work on architecture and town planning, and has been republished in later editions as The Concise Townscape.