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Sir Basil Spence & Building Milestones

Sir Basil Spence

Sir Basil Spence (left) was the clear winner of that 1950 competition, and his design has been the subject of much controversy over the years due to its unorthodox style. His cathedral was a radical new approach and a complete break away from traditional style cathedrals. In choosing Mr. Spence, the panel had found a man of great vision who was now able to fulfil his dream. As early as 1944 when serving as a Captain on the Normandy beaches, his answer to a friend who enquired as to his ambitions, was that he wished "To build a cathedral".
In 1960, Mr. Basil Spence became Sir Basil Spence - a knighthood being a standard accolade for virtually all designers of cathedrals.

It's fairly clear from the mandate set out by the commission that they did not have a specific style in mind. Neither had they decided whether the new building should directly replace the old or stand adjacent.

The only structural detail stipulated was that the tower and spire should be preserved, as should the undercrofts. With a phenominal response to the competition, the judging was a gigantic task.... over 600 architects answered the call, 219 of whom actually submitted designs.

1951 - the first sketched plan of the New Cathedral by Basil Spence

This excellent sketch above was actually drawn by Basil Spence in 1951, years before a single stone had been laid. It's instantly obvious that, apart from immense drawing talent, Spence had, right from the start, a clear vision of how Coventry's finished cathedral would look. It's also apparent that only a slight deviation from this initial 'vision' was made, and that was a re-scaling of the west entrance porch; the half-height porch being brought almost up to roof level, allowing for a much larger West Window.

Building Milestones

View of the ruins 1956 Something big was about to happen.... a view of the ruins across the foundations of the soon to be built New Cathedral in 1956.

After the war years, one of Coventry's first priorities was to build new housing. It's therefore unsurprising that there was strong opposition from many quarters concerned about essential building resources being used for a cathedral. With the exception of concrete for the foundations, however, the use of stone and the specialist labour required for much of the construction was not going to divert such resources away from house building.

Helicopter about to lift the flèche It's April 1962 and the helicopter is about to lift the flèche onto the cathedral roof. A ten-year-old Patrick Casey took this wonderfully historic photograph from Pool Meadow, showing the one and a half ton bronze spire being supported by a scaffold structure, waiting to be tied onto the dangling chain and hoisted up by the helicopter.
The operation had been carefully planned and practised for weeks, and by the time the big day came the whole thing was complete in eight minutes! At dawn the next morning, Geoffrey Clarke's 'Flying Cross' was carefully lowered by the same helicopter onto its locating pole at the top of the flèche.

Floor Plan of the Old & New Cathedral of St. Michael

The Floor Plan of Coventry Cathedral
The Side windows of Coventry Cathedral

My own view on the choice of Sir Basil Spence's modern cathedral is that it was absolutely correct. Medieval churches, for all their beauty and grace, were a product of their time, and themselves contemporary designs which reflected the fashions, techniques and craftmanship of the period in which they were built. However, if our cathedrals still stand in another 500 years time, it will be heartening to know that the new St. Michael's will be judged on the technology that was available to us in the twentieth century and not as a reproduction of an earlier design showing that we were completely shackled by tradition.
Besides, I think the contrast of the new and the old, side by side makes for a far more interesting Coventry.

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