The first time

“A city is a place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life.” Louis Kahn.

1980. Coventry

I can recall with some clarity the moment that I first became aware of a building being the result of a considered process.

We were visiting Coventry Cathedral as a family, taking along the enviably surly French exchange student who was staying with us. My parents were doing the guided tour thing, while I lagged behind, feigning a newly acquired Gallic indifference and slouching with my cheek pressed against a cold, glass smooth, concrete column. Craning my head back, I traced the line of the cruciform support up its length to the fanning timbers of the roof structure overhead. I put my arms around the girth of the column and felt the entire weight of the building supported on the slender post which hovered over the ground on a square bronze pin.

I looked back along the nave towards the ruins of the old cathedral and stepped into intense luminous pools of colour on the polished granite floor. The pink sandstone saw-toothed walls, which had appeared massive and unbroken, were now replaced by slivers of coloured glass, making the feat of the matchstick-thin columns seem even more remarkable. At the end of the building was a sheer glazed face, flooding the space with even more light.

The transparent end wall seemed to echo the empty sandstone ruins that it framed. Silhouetted gothic openings filled with the heavy grey gloaming sky of middle England appeared as if entirely composed on a painters canvas, rather than the forlorn monument to man’s destruction.

Of course, this memory is very likely to have become embellished over time. My thoughts on that day were undoubtedly slightly more prosaic. The realisation, or more fittingly, epiphany, that day was however that this was something that had been thought about, arranged, composed. Designed. It had a tactile quality and a lightness of material that belied its scale and purpose. There was a sense of occasion, of humanity and serenity. The materials had individual characteristics, smooth, rough, warm, cold, reflective. They even had particular smells that I can clearly recall.

Prior to that day, I had been vaguely aware of a book in our house, called ‘Phoenix At Coventry’, which was signed by the author and architect of the Cathedral, Basil Spence. My dad was very proud of it, but I’d never so much as thought about taking it off the shelf. After that visit however, I took it down and poured over its pages. It has stayed with me ever since.

As an example both of a contemporary solution in a historical setting, and of enhancing place and character through materials, the cathedral continues to be a significant influence and source of inspiration. It is undoubtedly one of the reasons that I became both aware of and interested in architecture.


Photographs kindly provided by Mike Tyler.