I’ve never been sure about Coventry railway station. Bold perpendicular lines of grey concrete, shifting mezzanine levels, fierce observance to geometric spatial qualities. I could always see it had a certain style, a composition of silent harmonies, an understated poise within its parts.
Yet I have to admit, any virtues I describe now are retrospective appreciations. Today, I can look upon the modernist punch – the concrete muscle, the Helvetica signage, white letters on black ground – and see high principles, but all through my youth I don’t think a single other building lowered my spirits as much as Coventry train station. I saw only a murky cave, certainly not a modernist masterpiece.
Most of all, it looked shabby to me. Not a single shred of green, no light, nothing organic or chance-given, no glinting surface where the sun might rest, nothing warm whatsoever. All of this indicated to me, whenever I passed through the station, the miserable state of post-war architecture.
To me it was an awkward creature, crouched like an ugly squatting animal. To the imagination, think of a block of grey sky fixed above the sea on a cold day in January: this is the effect it had on me.
A railway station has existed in Coventry since 1838, as part of the London and Birmingham Railway line. Various modifications, enlargements and extensions were finally overturned in favour of a brand new station, begun in 1960 and formally opened two years later.
It was built to plans by WR Headley, the Regional Architect of the London Midland Region of British Railways, working alongside the project architect, Derrick Shorten.
Headley played a huge role in the modernisation of British Railway architecture during the period of the 60s, working on Manchester Piccadilly (1958-60), Crewe (1960) and Euston (1962-68) stations to name a few.
Derrick Shorten was a modernist architect. He built his own family home in Stevenage, and classic modernist vision of large windows and reinforced concrete, allowing for components to float, decorated with wooden panels.
I see now that the station at Coventry has some of the same elegant beauty as Shorten’s house. A beauty I didn’t recognise when I used to visit the station as a child. Part of this is in the stark functionality of the design, and part of is lies in the precise detailing of the parts.
Nowhere is the austere elegance better witnessed than in the staircases at Coventry: large wooden handrails and thick glass panels, supported by a floating concrete stairs. The glazed white tiles behind set off the elegant combination of wood, glass and concrete. Above, a varnished hardwood strip boarding ceiling stretches across the broad and not-to-steep staircase – an effortless staircase to climb or descend.
The station achieved Grade II listed status in 1995. When Coventry becomes the UK’s City of Culture in 2021, I hope a few of the arriving tourists will pause on these steps and appreciate them more than I used to.