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1945 Giles Gilbert Scott's Coventry Cathedral Design

The opening of the 1945 Summer Exhibition roughly corresponded with VE Day, and the objects on display reflected the winding down of war. The Exhibition was dominated by portraits of military figures, and there were some factory views and battle scenes. But the item that most captured the public’s attention was Giles Gilbert Scott’s drawings for the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral (Figs. 1 and 2).

St Michael’s, the Cathedral Church of Coventry, had been destroyed in heavy bombing on the night of 14 November 1940. Coventry was the first British city outside London to suffer such an attack, and images of the cathedral ruins with a makeshift cross of charred wood standing in the chancel quickly galvanised the British war effort and bolstered international sympathy. As a sign of faith in the future, the Church of England immediately announced that the cathedral would be rebuilt and, in 1942, Provost Richard Howard gave the commission to Britain’s leading ecclesiastical architect, Giles Gilbert Scott.

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Scott’s vision for Coventry Cathedral, as revealed to the public for the first time at the Summer Exhibition, was highly innovative. He retained the medieval spire, which had survived the bombing, as a free-standing bell tower and placed the new cathedral with a north–south orientation across the body of the old cathedral. The surviving aisle walls would thus become part of a new cloister, and the surviving chancel apse—so familiar from newspaper photographs—would become a transept of the new cathedral. This new building was to have a central altar (the first in a British cathedral), around which congregants would gather as “participants rather than observers”.1 Four pulpits, one at each corner of the central space, would allow speakers to proclaim the gospel in different directions or to participate in special liturgies. The altar itself was designed to rotate so that it could turn to face the congregation in smaller services that used only one side of the building, or could present a side view to congregations gathered on both sides.2 The rectilinear, rather than radial, shape would still allow for processions. It was the most liturgically radical cathedral Britain had yet seen.

Responding to Bishop Neville Gorton’s request that the new cathedral capture the simple and spacious nature of Coventry’s factories, the exterior of Scott’s design was austere and boxy, with spiky crenellations and sloping buttresses, whose jagged shadows would have broken up the smooth, cubic forms. On the interior, a high concrete arch with a shape akin to a pointed parabola was extruded along the naves to make a barrel vault. However, both the bishop and the provost were ambivalent about Scott’s designs. The bishop particularly wanted an International Modernist building with walls of glass that he hoped would appeal to a younger generation and signal that Britain was in line with international trends. He had been arguing with Scott about the Coventry design for years, but Scott only retrenched, insisting that an atmosphere of mystery and sanctity was only possible when small openings allowed beams of light to break through a shadowy and mammoth space. Whether they liked the design or not, the bishop and provost especially felt that the renderings that Scott had commissioned from Alonzo C. Webb lacked the artistic appeal necessary to win over the public: they were dark, and drawn from a perspective that failed to convey the cathedral’s soaring scale. They begged Scott not to show Webb’s renderings at the Royal Academy but to have etchings done by Muirhead Bone instead.3 Scott refused.

The unveiling of the design at the Academy unleashed a barrage of criticism. Scott received hate mail from as far away as New Zealand.4 Critics were united in their dislike to the designs, but divided in their reasoning. Reviewing the Exhibition for The Builder, Guy Maxwell Aylwin, an architect and traditionalist who practised in a “Surrey vernacular” style, wrote that he was “seriously disturbed by Sir Giles Scott’s design … I actually felt chilled at this deliberate abandonment of English tradition”.5 On the other side, however, were the mostly London-based critics, who felt Scott’s work was insufficiently modern. They could hardly attack the plan, which was ironically much more radical than the cathedral Basil Spence would eventually build at Coventry, so instead they attacked it on the grounds that it did not reflect the International Modern style. Scott, however, insisted that by fusing traditional ornament and modern form, he was simply trying to develop a modern architecture in sympathy with its surroundings.

The uproar at the Academy laid the groundwork for Scott’s ousting from the Coventry project in the following year. The Royal Fine Arts Commission ruled that Scott’s Coventry design was inconsistent in trying to combine a traditional exterior and modernist interior. They declared that the cathedral would have to be redesigned, and Scott resigned from the project.

Although the designs for the rebuilding of the House of Commons, which Scott also presented in 1945, provoked less comment at the Academy, the unveiling of the completed Commons in 1950 would result in a similar critical uproar. Robert Lutyens would decry the “fake new House of Commons”.6 Architectural students would write to The Times to protest its historicism. Laurence Whistler would declare that: “Living architecture is not produced in this way”.7 Architectural manners, the idea that buildings should respect their surroundings by responding to local materials and forms, had been one of the great touchstones of inter-war design, but it was now subject to derision. The display of designs for the House of Commons and Coventry Cathedral marked a turning point in British architecture, and the International Modernists were suddenly ascendant.

  1. “Draft of the Main Appeal Booklet”, Coventry Cathedral, Typescript, 13 September 1945, RIBA, Scott Papers, ScGG [87], 1.↩︎

  2. Giles Scott, “Coventry Cathedral: Sir Giles Scott on his Plan”, The Times, 5 May 1945, 2.↩︎

  3. Letter, Provost Howard to Scott, 6 March 1945, RIBA, Scott Papers, ScGG [87], 2.↩︎

  4. Letters, 1945, RIBA, Scott Papers, ScGG [87], 1–2.↩︎

  5. G. Maxwell Aylwin, “Architecture at the Royal Academy”, The Builder, 11 May 1945, 372.↩︎

  6. Robert Lutyens, “Coventry Cathedral”, The Times, 3 October 1950, 2.↩︎

  7. Laurence Whistler, “Architectural Style”, The Times, 13 October 1950, 5.↩︎

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Explore the 1945 catalogue