How My Other Half Learned to Love Modern Transport Architecture
How I Learned to Love Modern Architecture in General
My other half isn’t really all that bothered about transport architecture. They put up with our visits to various transport buildings from time to time but I know it’s mostly to make me happy. Imagine my surprise then, when they announced that having recently returned from a trip to Coventry they had decided they really liked Coventry station.
The station dates from the days of British Rail’s massive 1960s modernisation and electrification of the West Coast Main Line (WCML) and reflects the uncompromising architectural tastes of the time.
Seen from the forecourt, it is a splendidly dramatic building, embodying the clean – almost clinical – lines and lack of fuss that marked a key approach to post-war architecture. Glass walls run along three sides of the main ticket office building, full height on the front and side. Above, the roof of the main ticket hall and footbridge are one continuous deep slab, at a right angle to the station platforms. The slab extends beyond the front of the ticket hall, jutting out over the front of the station to act as a minimalist echo of a porte-cochère, the sheltered and often ornate open sided structures that adorned the entrance of many a Victorian station, and which allowed coaches to set down or pick up their passengers under cover. More practical shelter for passengers is provided by a long, slender canopy which runs across the front of the building.
On entering the ticket hall, there is plenty of uncluttered circulation space, well-lit by natural light thanks to the glass walls. Columns are slender and finished with white tiling, which further helps keep the ticket hall bright.
This is a building where form is derived from function. As a result, navigation through the station is easily understood. Passengers can see straight through onto the adjacent platform 1, and also see their way up onto the footbridge which connects the main concourse to the further platforms. The staircases of the footbridge are notably unenclosed, achieving a very good approximation of the stylish open staircases which can be found in many post-war buildings. From the footbridge, passengers can see down onto the platforms, or indeed up from the platforms onto the footbridge. Walking the footbridge is to experience a constantly shifting vista of lines and angles.
Varnished hardwood gleams on various surfaces around the station, in strips under the ceiling of the ticket hall and platform canopies, and as substantial and tactile handrails, under which frosted glass panels can be found. Under foot, classy dark terrazzo floor tiles are a reminder of the similar dark floor at Euston.
For passengers arriving at Coventry by train, there is a dramatic view down into the main concourse as passengers descend from the footbridge. On the right is a simple cuboid building which houses the ticket office at ground floor level. On the upper floor, reached from the main footbridge by a tiny drawbridge-like set of steps, is what used to be a flat where female catering staff lived. The window towards far end lets light into the flat’s living room.
What was once the station buffet, to one side of the ticket hall, is now a slightly less glamorous coffee concession. Surviving, however, is a tiny courtyard garden between it and the main ticket hall, although it has become more hidden since the station opened.
On the platforms, unfussy buildings have aluminium-framed windows (bespoke to the station) with original black glass panels above carrying the station name in silver lettering.
The architecture of the station seems a perfect fit with the simple (but far from simplistic) British Rail corporate identity of the 1960s by Design Research Unit (The Beauty of Transport 18 March 2015) which used Margaret Calvert’s Rail Alphabet typeface for signage (The Beauty of Transport 13 May 2015). Apart from the lettering on the black glass of the platform buildings, and some obvious recent signage, most of the major signs at Coventry seem still to be set in Rail Alphabet, and it looks as though it could have been designed specifically for this station, so much does it complement the architecture.
The station was actually completed a few years before Rail Alphabet made its debut. Initially, the station signs used a typeface derived from another of Calvert’s (with Jock Kinneir this time) peerless transport typefaces, Transport, originally designed for use on road signs (The Beauty of Transport 3 December 2014). But while Transport was designed to be read at speed, Rail Alphabet recognised that readers of station signs would be able to take more time over things. In a sense then, with the reconstruction of stations like Coventry demonstrating where British Rail (or rather, British Railways as it then was) was going design-wise, Rail Alphabet was designed with Coventry and other contemporary stations in mind. The metal frame of the timetable poster board in the ticket still has “Train Information” engraved on it, in Transport.
The whole effect of architecture, fittings and signage is quite mesmerising, although luckily most passengers don’t seem to spend too much time being mesmerised, and instead find their way quickly and efficiently through the station. It is fans of 1960s architecture who are most likely to become distracted and probably get in everyone else’s way. I suspect I did.
Despite its qualities it’s not obviously the sort of station to attract the notice of someone like my other half, who isn’t really all that interested in railway architecture. The station’s Mad Men aesthetic would have helped though.
One of the things that works in Coventry station’s favour is its setting. My other half remarked that the walk towards it was uncluttered, so there is a sense of occasion on the approach to the station. It is given space to breathe by the buildings around it, and there are good sightlines along the roads and footways leading up to it. Those sightlines partly derive from Coventry city centre’s post-war rebuild. Although it has helped the station fit into its local environment, the merits of the remainder of that uncompromising scheme are still debated.
The rebuild results from the desperate state in which Coventry emerged from the Second World War. Smashed by heavy aerial bombardment, the centre of Coventry was subsequently rebuilt according to the radical principles of post-war town and transport planning not out of desire then, but out of necessity. Other works included, famously, a new Coventry Cathedral. Rather than rebuild the bomb-damaged 14th Century cathedral, that building was instead stabilised and preserved as an act of remembrance, and a new cathedral built alongside. Designed by Basil Spence and opened in 1962 just like Coventry station, the post-war cathedral was high on my list of buildings to see when I started university in nearby Birmingham. And I was determined not to like it.
At the time, I thought I didn’t like post-war architecture and was ready to decide that Coventry Cathedral was ugly, unpleasant and unrefined. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It is a startlingly tranquil and beautiful building, and if you haven’t been, I commend it to you. It led me to completely rethink my opinion of post-war buildings and as such has been partly responsible for many of the articles on this website (I still find quite a lot of the Brutalist movement a bit difficult though…).
So perhaps Coventry, with its beautiful new Cathedral completed at the same time, made peace more easily with its new railway station. The contrast with London’s Euston station, also rebuilt during the 1960s modernisation of the WCML, is stark. People are still complaining about Euston, but that station has been squeezed into a more historic environment, and it also replaced a station for which there was a great deal more affection. The demolition of Euston became a cause célèbre, by erasing the station’s Great Hall and the Euston Arch, while there seem to have been many fewer complaints about the loss of Coventry’s awkward and cramped 1840 railway station.
Coventry station was the work of many hands. W R Headley was the then Regional Architect of the London Midland Region of British Rail, and Derrick Shorten was the project architect. Lawrence (2018) additionally credits John Collins, Mike Edwards and Keith Rawston.
Although that makes it difficult to say who contributed exactly what, the result was that Coventry got what was the best of the 1960s rebuilds of the WCML stations. Stafford doesn’t quite capture the lightness of Coventry, Euston has become notorious although not really through any fault of its own, and the less said about Wembley Central and Birmingham New Street the better (at least the latter is now better at concourse level (The Beauty of Transport 8 August 2018).
Although Grade II listed in 1995 as, “Outstanding architecturally, particularly for its spatial qualities and detailing,” Coventry station is slated for a redevelopment scheme. A new station building, much larger than the existing one, is planned to be built alongside the 1962 station, with new footbridges linking the platforms. It remains to be seen whether this redevelopment sits comfortably with the 1962 station, or overshadows it. As Coventry knows, things change and new additions to a city can be as good as the old. And as I have found, prejudging the success or failure of a building before experiencing it is generally a mistake.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Lawrence, David (2018): British Rail Architecture 1948-97. Crecy: Manchester
Parissien, Steven (2014): The English Railway Station. English Heritage: Swindon
Historic England listing citation for Coventry Station: click here
…And anything else linked to in the text above